MOLINE — Michelle Vetter and Cheryl Nielsen are best friends and have the best time performing as dancing zombies every Halloween season.
Co-workers for years at the Rock Island Arsenal, the women started the Monsters of Mayhem group and began performing to Michael Jackson’s immortal “Thriller” five years ago at various Quad-Cities locations.
“We are a group of women that love Halloween, and what better way to celebrate than being a zombie and learning ‘Thriller?’” said Vetter, 56, of Rock Island.
The 17-member troupe — currently all women, mostly in their 50s — will dance at Thursday’s Fright Night in Schwiebert Riverfront Park. They also plan to be at several places Saturday, which is international “Thrill the World” day.
The global celebration of Jackson’s life and music now in its 12th year, Thrill The World has grown from its initial 62 dancers in Toronto, Ontario, to thousands of zombie dancers in several countries.
Nielsen, 55, of Moline, said she started taking ballroom-dancing classes with her husband Steve in 2012 from instructor Gunter Schlueter. They saw him at an outdoor concert five years ago as Funktastic 5 was playing “Thriller.”
“As I was talking to him, I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to learn how to do the ‘Thriller’ dance,’” Nielsen recalled, noting Schlueter was recruiting people that fall for a flash mob version of the dance.
Nielsen told Vetter about it and eight people formed the group, practicing at the Silver Spur Dance Hall in East Moline. They practiced to the instructional videos posted at thrilltheworld.com/learn-the-dance.
“We thought we’d never figure it out,” Nielsen said.
“It’s a six-minute song, so there were some moves we were really not sure of,” Vetter said.
They danced the first year in flash-mob style with Schlueter at nursing homes, a bank and a Verizon store.
“People loved it, especially at the bank,” Vetter said. “They were all coming out of their offices, like ‘What’s going on out here?’”
She said it has grown every year since and isn’t limited to women. “We’ve tried hard, but no guys have joined us,” she said.
They’ve danced at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and bars. Last year, for the first time, they danced at Goodwill stores in Moline and Rock Island.
On Saturday, they will dance at all four Quad-Cities Goodwill locations, and the nonprofit is sponsoring Fright Night.
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“We’re kind of their zombie ambassadors,” Vetter said. “We absolutely love Goodwill. Our whole wardrobes are from Goodwill.”
Dancers dress as different zombie characters each year. This year, the two of them are “Alice in Wonderland” characters, with Vetter as Alice and Nielsen as the Queen of Hearts.
“I love the audience’s reaction; it’s fantastic,” Nielsen said. “You have all that makeup and it’s like you’re not you. People don’t know who you are, and it’s a great way to express yourself.”
“You become a different person,” Vetter said. “That eye contact you can make. It’s like, ‘I can eat you.’ At Rock Island Goodwill last year, I was dressed as Harley Quinn and all the little girls wanted their pictures with me. It’s fun; they were really into it.”
The last of couple years, they’ve also done a dance in addition to “Thriller.” This year it’s “Ghostbuters.”
They haven’t actually been part of “Thrill the World,” which is done at the same time around the world simultaneously. That would be 5 p.m. in the Quad-Cities, which is their break time between day and night gigs, Vetter said.
“We usually do it the same day they’re doing it, but different times,” she said.
Starting at 7 p.m. Saturday, they also will do bar excursions, driven by a party bus. This year they’re doing the Dwyer & Michaels Costume Ball for the first time at 9:30 p.m. at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds. They’ll also be at Daiquiri Factory and Icons in Rock Island, Fargo in Moline, Hawkeye Tap and Gypsy Highway in Davenport and the Foster’s Voice Birthday Bash at CASI in Davenport.
Mindy Kayser, VP of marketing for Goodwill of the Heartland, said the dancers “help create awareness of our stores as a Halloween costume shopping destination.
“Goodwill really depends on strong Halloween sales to support our mission, which is to advance the well-being of those who experience barriers to independence,” she said. “The weeks leading up to Halloween mark the largest seasonal sales opportunity of the year for our nonprofit organization.
“The Halloween shopping season is essentially our biggest annual fundraiser.”
Vetter retired from the Arsenal in January after 37 years. Nielsen plans to retire next month after 36 years. They have matching forearm tattoos that say “Besties.”
Nielsen’s husband, Steve — who’s dressing as the Johnny Depp Mad Hatter — handles sound for the gals.
“It really does keep you young,” Nielsen said. “I don’t know if I have an inhibited bone in my body.”
“It’s seriously fun,” Vetter said. “We’ll do it until we can’t walk anymore.”