When one Falkirk school agreed to hold an immersive event in which students are pursued through a post-apocalyptic wasteland by a pack of flesh-eating zombies, it marked the start of a school tradition that has boosted morale and become a rite of passage, finds Henry Hepburn
It all starts with a mysterious and unsettling tweet, directed at me alone. “Denny High Quarantine Facility congratulates you on your selection as Potential Survivor. We look forward to welcoming you. Please ensure that all docu/systemfailuresystemfailure/mentation is in order.
“You are safe. You are secure.”
That’s not how it feels as I drive up to Denny High on a bitter autumn night, a full moon glaring down at the school. This is the scenario that confronts me: the school has degenerated into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where hordes of zombies lurk at almost every turn. My mission is simply to survive.
I join a group of four S6 (sixth-form) students in the holding area. When it’s our turn, we are led through to a reception desk where two stony-faced “officials” take our particulars and tell us not to be alarmed.
We are taken through a darkened corridor to a situation room, and briefed by two fidgety men in lab coats displaying an ineptly bureaucratic response to impending catastrophe. And then it kicks off.
A deafening siren goes off. Suddenly, we are assailed. The undead pour into the room, all lurching malevolence and rasping screams. The scientists are done for, but there’s a gap at the door and we hurtle through it. I’m not ashamed to say I yelped like a puppy that’s had a door slammed shut on its tail.
Much of what follows is a blur, but shaky video clips on my phone jog my memory. There’s a lot of screaming, running and dire warnings from “staff”. Zombies sprint at us as we flee. Eventually, with little concept of how much time has passed, we stumble out of a door into the crisp night air, half relieved it’s all over, half hoping for more undead to round the corner and send the adrenaline shooting skyward again.
Night of the Living Denny
It all began in 2014: three teachers in the school had also worked as actors for a company that ran immersive zombie experiences in disused industrial land in Glasgow. They had an idea to channel that experience into a school event.
When they broached the idea for Night of the Living Denny with headteacher Stephen Miller, they were prepared for an instant “no”. The school would be transformed into a film set, S1-S5 (Years 7-11) students would play zombies, staff would play facilitator roles, and S6 students would be the survivors. Miller, a serious-minded head who prefers a quietly authoritative approach to leadership, admits that to this day he remains perplexed by the appeal of being pursued through school by flesh-eating zombies.
“It’s not my particular bag,” he says, and he has never taken part himself.
However, he was taken by their passion, thoroughness and the prospect of adding something new and inspiring to school life. To their surprise, he agreed immediately.
“It’s a very strong shared emotional experience,” says Miller, who sees a lot of “social learning” in such an ambitious project that involves so many people (there is no direct “learning goal” attached to the event in terms of results – it’s not a curriculum intervention). He also thinks there is something healthy about younger students being the zombies and chasing terrified S6s, overturning a school’s traditional pecking order.
The whole experience is “quite incredible”, says Miller, adding – with typical understatement – that for visitors to the school “it can be quite a shock if you don’t know the context”.
The night itself is the result of “six months of solid work”, says Alasdair MacKenzie, an English and psychology teacher and the only one of the original three teachers who proposed the idea still at the school (the other two return to help run the event). Then a few weeks before the big night, S6 students are called to a pre-event meeting where MacKenzie and colleagues are in character to set out this year’s plot.
“There’s important info that I have to get across at this initial meeting, like date and cost and how to actually sign up, but I like to do this in character as an angry, no-nonsense scientist who’d rather not be speaking to them,” says MacKenzie.
Building up anticipation is “always a tightrope” where care has to be taken not to create undue panic: “freaky notes” in class folders and quarantine evacuation posters have been effective, but tannoy announcements are avoided as some students may not realise they are fake.
“We can’t run the risk of genuinely freaking out kids that have got nothing to do with [the zombie run] but it’s nice just to get the kids a little bit psyched out in the weeks before,” says MacKenzie.
It all requires a “huge, big risk assessment”, he reveals. Staff also speak to more vulnerable students beforehand and will know where they are at any given time; only a small number decide not to take part. Aftercare is important, and there is a cool-down area at the end.
“Pupils build up what it’s going to be in their head, but they maybe don’t realise it’ll be quite as intense, up-close and frightening. You also get the people who go in very cocky, and then freak out,” says MacKenzie.
The “zombies” receive a lot of training about personal safety and where to position themselves physically in each situation, and participants are always within sight of a marshal. If they make a “safe gesture” – putting their right hand straight up in the air – they will be escorted out immediately. And those trying to evade the zombies are briefed beforehand that they must not lash out at the actors.
There are two parts of the planning that are the most difficult, says MacKenzie, one early in the process and one very late on. “Firstly, encouraging some of the quieter student actors to perform to the standard we require can be difficult. We want to push them out of their comfort zone, but not so far out that they don’t come back,” he says.
The second difficult part is that it is “almost impossible to rehearse the event properly before the ‘live’ night”, as the school hosts myriad community events and there are various access restrictions.
“The first time that the pupils are in their zones in full make-up with the lights out is about 10 minutes before the event starts for real,” MacKenzie explains.
Guts and glory
This year’s sixth-year students – who pay £4 to take part, with the money going to the running of the event and local charities – had just started first year when the first Night of the Living Denny took place. Ethan Cross recalls that it was largely confined to a single room, with far fewer zombies and only cursory dabs of make-up. Now, the scale is far more ambitious: latex is used to transform appearances and you might even see a zombie’s guts being convincingly spilled.
“Over the years it’s been really refined and perfected, to the point of terror,” says Ethan.
Indeed, Night of the Living Denny has expanded to encompass a second night, for Denny staff, teachers and students from other schools, family members and local community groups, businesses and charities. Guests, who make a donation, have included Education Scotland – school inspectors should surely feature in a future plot – staff of the nearby Sainsbury’s and Strathcarron Hospice, and a Rotary-style group.
The benefits, then, are more than just the social learning elements Miller spoke of earlier. There are community benefits, morale boosts and also a feeling of togetherness among staff and students.
“Not many schools do something like this – it’s almost like an incentive to stay on [to S6],” says Ethan, and staff confirm that some students might have left school earlier but for Night of the Living Denny. Staff and students alike say that it has quickly become a rite of passage for those in their last year of school, up there with the prom.
It has also proved to be a “wonderful” experience for pupils making the tricky transition into the first year of secondary school, who enjoy the camaraderie with new friends and being coaxed out of their comfort zone. Some have never performed in a school show before and autistic students have surprised themselves by playing key roles.
“There’s just something about it that’s alluring. It’s so important that you have to do it,” says Ethan.
“We’ve all known each other from S1 to S6 – and now, as young adults, we get to run for our lives from zombie infection.”
Henry Hepburn is news editor at Tes Scotland
This article originally appeared in the 13 December 2019 issue under the headline “‘Fleeing zombies is up there with the school prom’”