If you were asked to identify the day job of someone spearheading the development of a something described as a live-action immersive thriller experience, “Naval Surface Warfare Officer” might not be your first guess.
On second thought, perhaps it would be, if you happened to know that the military officer in question got his entrepreneurial sea legs in event production with his business partner about five years ago, developing a zombie-themed version of one of those now seemingly ubiquitous adventure races.
Ryan Hogan, an active-duty naval officer, and partner Derrick Smith together developed their first large-scale event in 2011, a five-kilometer outdoor obstacle course race called Run for Your Lives, in which participants learned to survive a zombie apocalypse by evading the undead. The course integrated elements of SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) military training programs, which teach survival skills to military personnel and civilians alike through, let’s say, intense means. The inaugural race was an unprecedented success with about 12,000 participants, but some management missteps ultimately lead to the dissolution of the production team Hogan headed, and RFYL was licensed to an Asian-based company. Hogan describes the missteps as a “rookie mistake,” in that they built their 2012 infrastructure based on projections for 2013 that simply weren’t met as “demand flatlined.”
But Hogan and Smith weren’t discouraged. Instead, they accepted the challenge of moving forward after learning from their mistakes, and continued to develop ideas while maintaining relationships with their consultants and partners in the entertainment and events industries. After some reevaluating and conceptualizing in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of RFYL, they emerged with the Hunt a Killer idea about 10 months ago, forming an LLC in January and officially hitting their launch button in May. Hogan is the “managing member”, while Smith identifies as creative director.
The Hunt a Killer website describes the upcoming October 1 event as a “living movie” wherein 200 teams of six people each explore a 600-acre crime scene over three hours filled with mental and physical challenges aimed to help identify an unknown serial killer. Hogan explains it as a hybrid of adventure races, escape rooms, and interactive theater, a combination inspired by “true immersion experiences” like Sleep No More, but more detailed, thematic, and seemingly real. Hunt a Killer participants shouldn’t expect to be passive observers, as Hogan explains: “People think they’re coming to investigate a crime, but they’re a part of the story. It will not feel like an event when they first walk on the property. They’ll feel like they’re actually a part of something that’s already happening, that they’re walking into at that point. Immediately there’s gonna be this complete mindfuck of ‘what the hell is going on?’”
A consistent component of RFYL race courses was their multiple paths to the finish line. Hogan compares the experience to a “choose your own adventure” book, explaining that “there are different ways of getting to the same ending. There can only be one killer, but the actual event can go in different directions and not everybody has the same experience. You can go repeatedly and experience something new each time.”
The event will be held at Camp Ramblewood, a rustic site outside of Baltimore that was also the location of the first Run for Your Lives race so many years ago. Says Hogan: “This semi-haunted, very weird campground exists, and we’re already familiar with the owner and the layout of the land. Things just kind of clicked with that destination.” With ample opportunities for tossing corpses (there “may or may not be dead bodies in the lakes,” Hogan hints) and shadowy settings perfect for unexpected surprises, the existing setting is a pretty great location for unexpected twists. “There’s a lot more to the experience than finding the person”, says Hogan. But that’s what the waivers are for. The event isn’t for the faint of stomach, as Hogan warns “there’s gonna be a lot of sick stuff” to create a sense of realism, including nudity, gore, and smells to activate every sense.
To help make sure their concept isn’t DOA (unlike the victims in their story), they’ll begin rolling out related components the day after the October event that enhances the storytelling aspect of the event through stories narrated by a “Hannibal Lecter-ish” type, to be delivered to members’ doorsteps.
Tickets are still available for the event, and participants can sign up as individual registrants (a “free agent”) who will be placed on teams, or as a whole or partial team, with tickets priced accordingly. Swag includes supplies for your murder investigation (flashlights are probably a given), plus access to the boozy bonfire and after party, with the option to camp overnight. There are VIP packages that feature plusher cabins (with private bathrooms) and behind the scenes access . . . but where’s the challenge in that?