TAMPA — Outside a deed-restricted community where uniformity reigns, one newlywed couple is raising eyebrows.
Their hearse is parked on Puritan Road.
You've heard of the Munsters and the Osbournes. Meet the Fishes.
Bridgette, 35, is a hairdresser with a ring through her nose and fire-red pigtails. Jesse, 23, is a bartender at a Plant City bikini bar with pierced lips and muttonchops. Combined tattoos: 20.
The couple may stick out in their Temple Terrace neighborhood, but they found dozens who share their dark side and started a zombie social club. They come out at night and spill onto the sidewalks of Ybor City, clad in scabs, boils and rotted flesh.
The Fishes can be found at the front of the pack, leading the creepy pub crawlers from bar to bar. They call themselves the Deadite Empire.
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Zombies make for the scariest kinds of horror movies. They are corpses brought back to life and hungry for brains. They look enough like humans to evoke our darkest fears about death.
The flesh-eating armies have been a part of mainstream American culture since the 1968 debut of Night of the Living Dead. But they've taken on a more three-dimensional form in the past few years as groups across the world organize "zombie walks," peaceful parades in tattered clothing and gruesome makeup.
For the past seven years, Bridgette had worked inside Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream haunted houses as a scare actor. She loved the costumes, the makeup, the adrenaline of scaring people. Jesse was looking for something fun to do.
They planned the first Deadite Empire zombie pub crawl in November and invited makeup artist friends to help them look the part. They expected 20 people to show up. About 250 did.
Since then, the zombies have dressed like dead mafia members and cowboys at Ybor pub crawls and plague victims at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival.
Bridgette alerts the police every time they have an event, to avoid misunderstandings. Two years ago, six zombies were arrested for "suspicious and disturbing" behavior on the streets of Minneapolis. So far, the Tampa group hasn't had any problems.
In October, they're expected to lead a pack of hundreds in Orlando for the Screamfest Horror Festival and will synchronize with local walks from Alaska to Australia for World Zombie Day.
Tonight, Friday the 13th, they're throwing a Slasher Bash at Crowbar in Ybor City, which will feature contests for the most elaborate costumes and the loudest screams.
So why the fascination with the dark stuff?
"Because," Bridgette said, "not being into it would be boring."
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Bridgette and Jesse met last year at the Castle, an Ybor City nightclub for vampires, punks and Goths. They bonded over their shared love of the outdoors and the 1985 zombie film The Return of the Living Dead.
They had been dating for 2 1/2 months when Jesse took Bridgette to meet his mother in Spring Hill. First, they stopped in at Taco Bell to get some food for the road.
Bridgette grabbed a handful of hot sauce packets and threw them in the bag. (Here, it's important to mention that Taco Bell hot sauce packets are printed with "saucy sayings," like You had me at taco.)
Back in the car, Jesse reached into the bag. Of all the packets he could have picked, Jesse pulled out one that simply said, Will you marry me?
He looked at it, snickered and tossed it to Bridgette.
"You're not serious," she said. "Are you?"
"Totally," he said.
She asked, "Wouldn't it be funny if someone actually did do this?"
Their eyes locked. Two weeks later, under an oak tree outside that deed-restricted condominium, they married.
A year later, they share their home with a family of five ferrets, 10 cats and a dog named Tiny Dancer. The kitties like to sleep inside their coffee table. It's shaped like a coffin.
Bridgette and Jesse always told themselves they'd never marry. No way they'd find the right person. But now, Jesse sees the world from an entirely different perspective.
His hearse? "A family vehicle."
The locks on the back? "Childproof."
"So now," Jesse says, "we have to work on little Fishes."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.