Chapter 8: The Zombie Apocalypse
AFI Packaging Plant
Port Jervis, NY
I’ve only played Silent Hill once, and I couldn’t even tell you when.
I remember gripping the controller and watching the terrifying interstitials, produced like a B horror film, but I couldn’t tell you anything about where I was or who I was with. I just know that I was scared and that I decided I’d never play the game again. This is odd, considering my complete obsession with scary movies (and the macabre in general), but it was too much.
I’ve never had a problem with zombie flicks. I was very into the first two seasons of The Walking Dead. World War Z is one of my top rewatchables. In 2012, I was glued to the story about a man (dubbed the “Miami Zombie” and “Causeway Cannibal”) who chewed off and ate (literally) a significant chunk of another man’s face. The sensationalization of that particular attack (headlines like “No human flesh found in Causeway Cannibal’s stomach”) upped the stakes on the reality of zombies in the cultural ether, prompting ongoing discussions amongst my friend group about a possible apocalypse. Where would we go? What roles would each of us take in our survival unit? And just how would we survive?
It’s not as if I’m unable to consume zombie-themed entertainment or imagine having to navigate a world of the undead — but something about that original Playstation game, released in 1999, put me out in the same visceral way that I refuse to watch torture movies (think Hostel or The Human Centipede). I endured no more than fifteen minutes of the game, and that was enough for me. Maybe because it was an RPG (roleplaying game), where I could plop myself down into a world, turn any corner, and run into with a zombie barrage. It’s a scary thought as-is, but to experience it almost firsthand is a totally different experience.
To this day, I won’t play Silent Hill. I realize it’s unlikely that a zombie apocalypse could ever happen. (Though I feel like we’ve been navigating a zombie apocalypse of sorts for the past year and a half , without the flesh-eating corpses.) So imagine my surprise when I walked into a zombie apocalypse fantasy of my very own at the abandoned AFI Packaging Plant in Port Jervis, NY.
I’m fully aware of the fog. It crawls up and over the hills above Port Jervis, a tidal wave of compressed water droplets, drifting to wherever the breeze takes it. My car inches through it delicately as I ascend the incline up to a deserted parking lot. I’m in Elks-Brox Memorial Park, an unkempt, rusty symbol of pride for Port Jervis, the trijunction where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania collide.
Incorporated in 1853, Port Jervis is a fading centerpiece of the Rust Belt. In its heyday, it was a bustling industrial port for coal shipments passing through on the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal (closed, drained, and abandoned by 1898) and via the Erie Railroad and the New York/Ontario/Western Railway companies. Between 1929 and the early 1970s, both railway companies suffered major blows from the Great Depression, the induction of the interstate highway system, and plain ol’ natural disasters. These hits ultimately forced the federal government to create Conrail, a revitalization merger that softened the collapse of passenger and freight train operations in the northeast. Nevertheless, the failure of the canal and railway systems sparked a steep economic depression that still cloaks the city and surrounding towns in Orange County, never to fully recover.
Wandering through the city, the reverberations of this economic crisis are painfully visible: boarded-up storefronts, crumbling structures, deserted city streets, piles of litter and garbage, and a drug epidemic that continues to rock the once-vibrant city. Overlooking the semi-ghost town stands Trilobite Mountain, bordering the southern tip of the Neversink River Unique Area, a nature preserve of 6,000+ acres fastened to the bottom of the Catskill Mountains and Borscht Belt.
As I step out of my car, I notice that I’m the sole adventurer in this section of Elks-Brox. There’s an eerie stillness lingering in the air. I strap on my backpack and walk a few hundred paces down the hill to the abandoned AFI Packaging Plant, tucked away from sight behind a small ridge. I reach what appears to be an old security entrance at the side of the property. Goosebumps fester up and down my spine: it’s 1999, I’m 12 years-old, holding a Playstation Controller, on the precipice of the scariest level of Silent Hill.
I look past the gate to see a gravel pathway leading up to the backside of the building. I duck under and make a cautious approach, careful to walk slowly and make as little noise as possible. I don’t realize it yet, but the complex is an expansive sprawl, an amalgamation of nine individual buildings, awkwardly stitched together over time. As I round the final corner to the derelict shipping and receiving dock, I snap my head to the left and see giant letters on the side of a metal half-shell: DEATH. My fate is sealed. The fantasy evolves. It’s no longer 1999. I’m no longer playing Silent Hill — it’s December of 2020, and I’m the sole survivor of a zombie apocalypse, seeking shelter for the next few days, hoping to figure out a plan to stay alive. Death is not an option, nor has it been an option since the end of February 2020, when I succumbed to the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I make my way towards the front lip of the loading platform, lined with weeds and office furniture, and hop up. The building is one giant cinder block, painted a creamy white, soaked in graffiti. As I pass through one of the open garage doors, I look down and see a single work boot. The shoelaces are missing. Juxtaposed against an enormous, empty room, devoid of most human activity (except a few pieces of trash), the boot amplifies that eeriness I’ve felt the entire time as if someone else is there watching me.
Am I here alone?
I always wonder this as I pass through these American ruins. These empty and crumbling spaces sit vacantly, so why wouldn’t a vagrant set up shop in any one of them? I pull myself out of this thought spiral and move from Building № 1 into the hallway separating it from Building № 2. The passageway is covered in a thick layer of dead leaves, and I’m careful where I step. Who knows where a zombie corpse might be rotting, a spear through its head from a previous, violent encounter with another lone survivor of the plague? In my fantasy, this zombie pandemic has infected 99% of the global population, leaving an immune 1% to fend for themselves against these vicious creatures who were once human beings with full lives.
It’s like the ghosts I always seem to happen upon in these sanctuaries of forgotten history. They lived and collected stories, all likely untold. My imagination flares as I drift through these unique relics, decaying architectures that once saw so much human activity bustling through them. I see their faces though I don’t know who they are, what happened to them, or where they wound up. They bring a sense of comfort to any otherwise spooky activity, unlike the zombies I pray to avoid.
I crunch-crunch through the leaves, down the hallway past a NOT AN EXIT sign forgotten on the floor next to banged-up metal filing cabinets and stripped electrical panels. I step outside to a connecting courtyard and notice a freight elevator with an exercise bike resting on the platform. (It’s always confusing how these household objects make their way into these locations.) I stand still and listen to the silence and feel the fog gently drifting through me. I close my eyes as the whirr of machines fades in from the adjacent building. I open my eyes. A gaggle of metalworkers, ghosts, make their way into the shop, ghosts from a time before this zombie apocalypse.
I follow them, aware of the fact that they can’t see me because they don’t know they’re dead. As I enter a large workroom, the spirits evaporate. The machines are still running as if they were left without warning when crowds of employees escaped into the woods surrounding the factory, running for their lives from a sweeping zombie attack. Drawers flung open, documents strewn all over the floor, company notices dangling off crooked bulletin boards, dented filing cabinets and smashed glass and insulation hanging by a thread from the ceiling. I move through the room as silently as possible, watching each and every step so as not to disturb anything, to find the circuit breaker to turn off the machines in this room because noise attracts the zombies. Who knows if they’re on their way up the mountainside right now?
I hop over a broken fax machine and race into the adjoining hallway where I find the master switch. I yank it, the machines slow, and the silence enters in again. In the stillness, I step out of my fantasy and say a prayer. It just dawned on me how real this zombie apocalypse reverie feels — and how grateful I am for modern science. It’s December 12, 2020, and yesterday, the FDA announced the emergency authorization of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine; and in six days, they will do the same for Moderna’s, with Johnson & Johnson soon to follow.
I step through a hole in the concrete wall to my left into another large, dimly lit room. In the back, I see a strange scene: settled in the corner of yet another cinder block room against a backdrop of muted foam green trim, stands what appears to be a 360° bar shaped like a giant birthday cake. It’s about three feet tall, seven feet in diameter, and hollow in the center so that someone can stand in the middle and serve drinks. HAPPY BIRTHDAY is awkwardly splashed across the front. I have no clue how this gargantuan eyesore got here.
I glance through an adjoining entrance into the next room where I see three spots on the wall, illuminated by light pouring in through holes in the ceiling. In each of the shining spots, there’s a different piece of stunning graffiti, basking in the glow of the peeping sunlight. It’s intentional: a merry band of artists must’ve held a birthday party here. These are their decorations. I hope they’re alive.
My curiosity shifts when I hear rustling to my right. I pace slowly toward the double doors on the western side of the room and push one open. I’m outside, between the “new wing” of the factory and what appears to be the backside of the “old wing.” The roof on this side looks like it’s been ripped off a rural European warehouse: a crimson-salmon color that stands out on this particularly foggy day. This is the front building of the entire complex. I pass through thick brush into the old wing and see piles of tires neatly stacked on either end of the long hallway that lines the back of the building.
I begin to walk down the southern extension, making sure there are no zombies in sight. I note the clumsily installed offices fitted with tacky wooden paneling (straight out of a 1970s office sitcom) or tacky vinyl paneling (straight out of a 1980s office sitcom). Messages like “Do you love it?” or “Do you know the muffin man?” are splattered across most of the walls like blood. I wonder if they’re clues to help me find safety in this zombie apocalypse. I reach a certain point in the building where the roof has caved in entirely. The second floor and surrounding walls have crumbled with it. In the name of safety, I decide to head down a flight of concrete stairs to the front entrance, undoubtedly once bustling with human activity before the virus shut down the plant. (Or, in reality, the greed of unpaid taxes that shuttered the doors of AFI Packaging Plant for good.)
I hit the bottom of the stairs, also littered with dead leaves, and exit the building. Walking away from my zombie apocalypse fantasy and back into reality, I realize that this portion of the building is shaped like a moon, concaving into the front walk. It isn’t until I make it about fifty paces and turn around that I am able to, for the last time, see how fully actualized my Silent Hill reverie/nightmare is.
A comprehensive, seismic seiche of fog has encroached and blanketed the entire factory, billowing down from the hill behind it. It’s thick, loud, and unapologetic. An old leather chair sits autonomously in the center of the plaza. I snap a pic to provide evidence to future generations, proof of how the zombie apocalypse looked.
At least in my imagination.
Months later, I return to the AFI Packaging Plant to snag a few more photos in the golden hour of summer. The leather chair is gone, along with the world that I created in my imagination back on that dreary December day. Though the fog has vanished, along with the potential threat of zombies, there’s still that same eerie stillness lingering in the air, even in the stunning afterglow of this sunset dreamscape.
I close my eyes.
I take a breath.
I offer my gratitude that I have pocketed another sanctuary of safety, security, and serenity.
With or without zombies.