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Thrill the World Eugene’s zombies are dead serious about helping others

Zombies walking.
Brian Bull
A group of zombies advance up the stairs of the Shelly McMurphey Johnson House at an Oct. 14 performance.

For weeks now, growling and groaning hordes of the undead have sprung up across the Eugene-Springfield area. But these zombies are more interested in your charity than your brain, and more apt to shimmy and shake than crush humanity.

As a reporter, KLCC’s Brian Bull is used to occupational hazards including heavy traffic or crowds. But this was a new one for him:

“You have to be really careful. There’s zombies here and they might eat you,” warned Jenette Kime, organizer for Thrill the World Eugene.

It’s the group's twelfth year being part of a worldwide movement, where people dress up as the rotting undead and dance to Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit, “Thriller.”

Thrill the World Eugene

“And in 11 years, we’ve raised over $62,000,” said Kime. “Our goal this year is to hit $70,000 with our fundraising through doing dance.”

This gutsy ensemble benefits ShelterCare, a Eugene non-profit that provides support for the homeless. Besides feeding into people’s community spirit, it also gives some participants a new lease on life. Or in some cases, “unlife.”

Dancer dressed up as a zombie Coraline.
Brian Bull
Michelle Bretz takes her place on the steps of the Shelly McMurphey Johnson House, dressed as a zombified version of Coraline.

“I get to dress up like a zombie and dance. Not a lot of places for an old guy like me to be a kid again,” said 52-year-old Jason McMahon. He performs in a torn, bloodied suit while carrying a brain. This year marks his first time back with “Thrill the World Eugene” in about seven years. His grade school daughters got him interested back then.

“I helped them dress up like zombies and I thought, ‘Why should they have all the fun?’”

And one doesn’t have to be a brain-eating walker to join the ensemble. A few feet away, Christine North practiced her spin, dressed in a distinctive pointy hat.

“I am this year, a witch,” said North. “And I bought this at St. Vinnies, which I often do every year. Go to St. Vinnies and pick something out.”

Erin Frey helps instruct the participants in the “Thriller” dance. In her seven years of teaching ghouls the steps, she’s seen it all.

“We have a blow-up dinosaur, she comes every year,” recalled Frey. “We also have…I believe she’s a porcelain doll, she does not speak to anyone the entire day, so creepy. We have a group that does the Addams Family. I think this year we may have a Predator.”

Frey told KLCC that turnout was higher before the pandemic, but they still see about 100 dancers at events. These include flash mob performances at the BEAM Bright Parade, the historic Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, and a halftime gig during the University of Oregon Duck’s soccer game. But the big event is the simultaneous global performance, coordinated by the Thrill the World project which began in 2006.

This year saw over 50 officially registered dance events in roughly 10 countries, including six in Oregon. Thrill the World Eugene did its mass zombie dance at the Amazon Community Center Saturday afternoon before a crowd of roughly 100 people.

Cat Mathewson of ShelterCare was among the dancing zombies at the event. After it wrapped up, she said that was blown away by what appeared to be one of the best turnouts in recent years.

People in costume.
Brian Bull
While zombies are the norm for "Thrill the World" events, participants can don any guise including (from left to right): the Predator, a witch, and the Easter Bunny.

“It’s really good to see the community support, because we know homelessness is still the number one issue in our community and to see this many people come together to support what we’re doing, it’s really a miracle.”

So while these ghoulish dancers may look literally dead on their feet with their organs falling out, their hearts are in the right place.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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