For the last six years, the mythology of The Walking Dead has played out in live-action settings on America’s coasts. For Seasons 1-5, the original television series took place in Georgia before moving to suburban Washington DC. In 2015, the prologue spin-off known as Fear the Walking Dead found itself set in Los Angeles. But this year, fans of the hit AMC franchise finally got to celebrate the show with a live event in Middle America. The travelling zombie-horror convention called Walker Stalker Con arrived in Denver, Colorado.
The two-day extravaganza took place in early April at the eerily apt location of the National Western Stock Show. While the spaciousness of the site comfortably housed the almost 10,000 attending, it was the very look and feel of the complex that gave a familiar air. Considering the original series’ rooting in southern culture, simply the idea of hosting Walker Stalker inside a rodeo venue was a natural fit. Grey concrete walls and floors, lit up by overhead fluorescent lighting, all combined for an atmosphere in which you’ve undoubtedly played a zombie apocalypse video game. Memorizing the layout of the convention attractions took a bit longer than expected with the square design of such a large interior, but the organizers made sure that you were never too far from an ATM, food vendor, merchandise booth or autograph table.
With the convention only lasting during daylight hours, 10AM – 6PM, the stars visiting Denver gave ample opportunity for visits during their autograph sessions. Easily, the busiest crowds formed for Michael Cuddlitz (Abraham), Josh McDermitt (Eugene), and Lennie James (Morgan), whose lines overflowed whenever they sat for a session. Nightmare on Elm Street legend Robert Englund also saw his share of large gatherings. American Horror Story’s Denis O’ Hare and John Carroll Lynch (also of True Blood and TWD, respectively), along with Gremlins star Zach Galligan, also helped provide a more broad experience for horror fans not yet turned to the Walking Dead franchise.
On the subject of retail, if you were in the market for Daryl Dixon gear, you didn’t have to search long. T-shirts, hoodies, and hats donning the motorcycle marksman were in abundant supply throughout the stock show concourse. For other TWD characters, you may never have stopped looking. Scant images of Rick Grimes or Carol Peletier might be seen at one or two stations, but it was clear very quickly who consumer-demand followed. Many of the traditional con staples – Pop Vinyl figures, local artist prints, and clothing collections of other popular fandoms – could also be found throughout Walker Stalker. Yet, if there was a distinctive look that guaranteed you knew the genre being celebrated, you could find it right after coming through the entryway.
The cosplay presence may have been less prevalent at Walker Stalker than most area conventions, but that made the individual efforts no less impressive. And one favorite style proved unmistakable. Roamers, Walkers, Biters – whatever the name – was the preferred dress for attending fans. Even if you came out still among the living, you could find ready opportunities to “turn” or “come back” once you were inside. To be sure, folks sporting their favorite surviving characters (?) – such as Carol, Rosita, Daryl and Rick – could be spotted venturing from stand to stand. Regardless, un-dead was en vogue throughout the convention weekend.
The final highlights from Walker Stalker, of course, came from the panels participated in by the stars themselves. The formal Q&A took place in the main downstairs arena of the Stock Show. Interviews were conducted by the convention organizers with random questions fielded from the audience. Saturday’s featured panels included Seth Gilliam (Father Gabriel) in a solo discussion, followed later by Ross Marquand (Aaron) and Jordan Woods-Robinson (Eric) who joined the show once the setting moved to Alexandria, VA. One of the more revealing insights in Gilliam’s chat came as he was describing the transition from being a fan of the show to being an actor in it. Gilliam recalled the challenge of taking selfies atop the boulder where Father Gilliam was first discovered, and then having to change into the absolutely panicked state of the character when Rick’s company came upon him. In their assembly, Marquand delighted the crowd with his talent for impersonations, assuming the voices and mannerisms of varied celebrities such as Woody Allen, Matthew McConaughey and Sean Connery. Woods-Robinson, also a recording artist, provided perhaps the most moving moment of the convention, as he serenaded two of the organizers with a Happy Anniversary song he had written himself.
On Sunday morning, Lennie James (Morgan) and John Carroll Lynch (Morgan’s mentor, Eastman) reunited to share a panel, alternately entertaining the crowd with some of the most thoughtful analysis and darkest humor of the weekend. When asked how Lynch could portray such contrasting roles as the psychotic killer clown “Twisty” and the peaceful stick-wielding cheesemaker “Eastman,” he wryly responded that he was only acting for one of them. Lennie James, originally from Nottingham and South London, riveted fans’ attention by describing his process for developing his Southern accent. Rather than learn through trainings or commercial tapes, James took recording devices into Atlanta-area barber shops and used a dummy pair of headphones to give the illusion he was listening to music. James then studied the natural conversations taking place in the shop until he found Morgan’s voice.
In the final grouping on Sunday, the feature session packed the entire rodeo floor, with “Abraham’s Army” – Michael Cuddlitz, Josh McDermitt and Christian Serratos (Rosita) – keeping fans at attention. Watching these three crack each other up – with humor ranging from the very dry to the even more blue – was an effective reminder of the bond that can grow between cast members on a television show. When Cuddlitz described the connection between the characters as something “much bigger than any difference between them,” it earnestly felt as though he could have been talking about the trio as actors and friends as well.
If there’s a lesson learned among the conventions I’ve attended, it’s that scenes like Gallifrey One (Doctor Who) or Walker Stalker (Walking Dead) provide the best experience for a fan. When attendees number in the low thousands, a palpable sense of a “happening” takes place while the atmosphere also doesn’t become overwhelming. A rapport develops between artists and fans when each knows the event is a celebration of the work connecting them. You can access the performers you invest in, and you can stop for a breath without sacrificing a desired opportunity. If you’re a fan of horror – or just the banner franchise for the genre, The Walking Dead – then Walker Stalker comes highly recommended. And the attendees travelling from places as distant as Arkansas or Hawaii would confirm it.
Written by Joseph Money