Photography by Ryan K. Morris
Like a zombie apocalypse unfolding in reverse, the undead have returned to their daily lives, the streets have been cleared of wreckage and debris and, by most accounts, the city of Cynthiana, Kentucky, looks pretty much the same as it did before more than 20,000 people packed its streets last Saturday for the first ever The Walking Dead Day celebration.
Only look a little closer and you'll see that things aren't quite the same in Cynthiana. The town of about 6,400 residents has been on an uptick for quite some time now. Part of it can be attributed to the rabid popularity of The Walking Dead comic series and television show — series creator Robert Kirkman and original artist Tony Moore both grew up here and bonded over comics in the 7th grade — but the bulk of the growth comes from the ways in which Cynthiana's citizens are working together to revitalize their town.
Two years ago, Cynthiana's downtown wasn't too far off from the scene on display during The Walking Dead Day, only with none of the crowds and all of the boarded-up storefronts were real. Today there's hardly any retail space to be had downtown.
"We probably had about 20 empty storefronts 18 months ago, and now there's only three or four. We've had that much of a revival," says mayor James Smith.
Smith is also a part owner of the historic Rohs Opera House, home of the only movie theater in Harrison County — or any of the surrounding counties, for that matter, except for one other in Scott County. The theater was in danger of closing for good two years ago, until Kirkman stepped up and donated the digital projection equipment and screen the theater needed to show modern films. And, just a few months ago, the city teamed up with Kentucky for Kentucky and other sponsors to commission a huge Walking Dead-themed mural on the side of the building that's also had a big impact on the town.
"It's amazing what just a painting on the side of a building will do for a small town," Smith says. "Restaurants have seen an increase in business since the mural went up. And, on any given day, whenever you're downtown and walk up to someone who's looking at the mural and ask them where they're from, they'll say 'Maryland, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan' … from all over."
Actor Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon on the show, even re-Tweeted a photo of the mural with a congratulatory note. Cynthiana's residents have taken notice, too.
"In the few months that the mural has been up, you've had people who were never really into [The Walking Dead] start watching the show or checking out seasons from the library and buying the comic books," Smith says. "It's amazing to watch everyone trying to get on board."
In fact the idea for The Walking Dead Day started out just two months ago as a simple dedication ceremony for a roadside sign honoring Kirkman and Moore. More people started getting on board and the event quickly grew into a full-fledged festival. Kirkman and Moore were impressed.
"My wife and I run a comic convention up in Cincinnati, the Cincy Comicon, so I'm fully aware of all the cat wrangling and everything that's involved in something like this," Moore says. "They pulled it together and that's awesome. This is the kind of place where, when something shows up to do, people come out of the woodwork to help."
"This is a big thing for Cynthiana," says life-long resident John H. Walker, who I met while waiting in line for a copy of the limited-edition comic handed out during The Walking Dead Day. "This is one of the biggest things that's ever been here, except for maybe Rod Run."
Speaking of, Cynthiana's annual Rod Run, one of the largest car shows in Kentucky, is coming up on August 27. Come check out what's new in Cynthiana for yourself.