At Wizard World's most recent New Orleans Comic Con, I conducted a panel titled, "The Walking Dead Psychology: Fight the Dead, Fear the Freud," in anticipation of a book I'm editing, The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead (Sterling Publishing, August, 2015). My colleague Eric Bailey and OuterPlaces.com's Kieran Dickson and Janey Tracey joined me in discussing a variety of issues, both before and after our special guest joined us. We were discussing our weapons of choice and what those choices say about ourselves when actor Andrew J. West, who played the cannibal Gareth on The Walking Dead television series in 2014, arrived to our audience's surprise. 

West's answer regarding his weapon of choice: “My teeth.”

Once he joined us at the front, we got into the topic of why anyone might welcome a zombie apocalypse.

West: You guys know about Negan? {Note: Negan is a powerful antagonist in the comic book series, one who has not yet appeared on the television series but eventually will.} I’m a fan of the comics, too, and I read it. He’s a character who clearly is thriving after this apocalypse. It sounds like he’s happy that this happened. It seems that way, the way that he lives his life and treats people. And I think some people like the idea of a nihilistic world where there aren’t any rules. You’d have to be a sadist, I think, in order to enjoy or appreciate a world like that, but if you’re a guy like Negan who doesn’t really have empathy or really care about other people, you might do pretty well. For the most part, I think most of us wouldn’t do so well or at least wouldn’t enjoy it. Unless you’re as tough as Rick Grimes, I suppose.

But my character? I don’t think that Gareth was a guy who was excited about living in a world like this or thought that it was going to give him some sort of special opportunity to live a life that he wasn’t able to live before the apocalypse. I think that it was something that he wished had never happened, but then he figured out a way to survive and then was like, ‘You know what? I’m good. I can do this.' Of course, until he met Rick Grimes.

[A zombie apocalypse] levels the playing field a little. It’s like everybody’s a cop, everybody’s a firefighter, everybody’s a politician, an organizer. If you didn’t get to be those things in your real life, it’s all even now.

Bailey: Out there in the zombie field, you could be the President but if you’re no good at killing zombies, you’re gone.

Tracey: It doesn’t really level the playing field so much as it changes the criteria for being the elite. If people are not particularly intellectual or if they wouldn’t have been good at tech, they wouldn’t have worked at Google, it doesn’t really matter in a zombie apocaypse. It’s more about your physicality, your ability to put your emotions aside and be ruthless. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be sadistic. Before the zombie apocalypse, Daryl – who’s not really sadistic – was kind of a drifter and he was controlled by an abusive family. Then he gets this do-over. He has this specific set of skills which never would have been appreciated when he was just drunk and getting high all the time. Now he’s a hero.

Langley: Would these situations, severe crisis, all bring out the worst in so many people?

Bailey: I think it brings out the worst and best.

Langley: Who will rise to be the hero or who will be the worst? For example, Philip Zimbardo conducted a prison simulation study in which some of those assigned to be guards got really cruel to the other participants, but some of the guards were nicer to them. It’s very hard to predict who’s going to be the one to rise to the occasion. Empathy for others seems to be a predictor, but sometimes a psychopath who doesn’t have empathy does have the fearlessness that will let them be heroic. A psychopath lacks conscience, the emotional aspects, lacks empathy for other people. A sociopath acts like that, but it’s more acquired. In the zombie apocalypse as it’s depicted, this world seems to be bringing out some of the sociopathic potentials in people who’ve been pretty decent before. Was Gareth always a psychopath?

West: No, no, definitely not. I never looked at him that way. Of course I’m biased. I came to really like this guy a lot. But no, I looked at him as a very normal guy who probably had a severe case of PTSD after some things that went down. I think something mentally snapped for him, and it was a case of ‘I can’t let anything like this happen again.’ I think his view toward humanity certainly changed but not in a complete way. I think he still valued human life but only those humans with whom he was close to begin with, his family, certain people. I think he also was introduced to an aspect of humanity – a really dark aspect of humanity, through being imprisoned by this group that got a hold of them, put them in the train car – that he didn’t know existed before. I think it broke something in him, and it changed him in a way that a stronger person like maybe Rick or Glenn probably wouldn’t be changed. Rick and Glenn experienced some really horrific things, too, and it didn’t seem to break them the way that it did to Gareth. I don’t think that Gareth was a psychopath, I don’t think that he was a sociopath to begin with, but it is an interesting study in how a traumatic event can alter someone. And their eating habits.

Langley: You mentioned that Gareth valued humanity. He does something really interesting when he’s talking to Bob. There’s a whole lot of ‘us versus them’ in this world [of The Walking Dead], and in crisis situations that’s a very common human response. For a lot of people, the normal thing is to dehumanize people on the other side. But while playing Gareth, you’re humanizing these people. You’re calling them by name. You’re trying to be a person and have a conversation with Bob. Why in the world are you having a conversation with your dinner?

West: It’s a good question, and the answer is complex, too. A lot of that is strategy. Gareth and his little crew, they didn’t want to kill Bob. That was never the plan. I don’t even think it was about that particular meal. That was maybe a little bit of a bonus. They got a little snack in the meantime, but what’s really going on there is that they want to send a message to Rick and the rest of the group. What they do is take his leg and they eat it. They send him back [to the church where Rick and the others are holed up] because they want to put a profound fright into the group and they want the group to scatter, and they almost succeed. They get part of the group to leave and they think that the group will be a little bit more vulnerable, that they can attack them in the church. So I think he has that long conversation with Bob because he wants Bob to go back and to share all of that stuff with Rick and the group and say, ‘Look, these guys are nuts. Look what they did to me. They’re not playing around.’ Which is exactly what happens. Gareth’s plan almost succeeds. So there’s a lot going on there. But you have to have a detached viewpoint and you certainly have to dehumanize somebody to a certain extent to be able to talk to him that way. At the end of the day, the end game is that they are going to get a huge meal out of the entire group. They’re going to have a big roast, a big old party.

Langley: They left all the veggies they’d been growing back at Terminus. That’s a protein-heavy meal.

West: I know. They were sick of veggies, I guess.

Langley: This isn’t the first character you’ve played where the worst gets brought out. For example, you did a film, Bipolar, where you played a Jekyll and Hyde kind of character, which even explored the power of the situation to change a person. How do you approach these roles? Do you really try to get into the character or you do go, ‘I’m just going to go say my lines’?

West: Honestly, it’s more of the latter. I think when a role is really well written, like Gareth was and like a lot of the film that you’re referencing, Bipolar, one of the great things about being an actor is that you get to be these people that you never would in real life. You get to do things that you normally never do. So if you’re given the license to act like a psychopath, because it says that you can do that on a piece of paper, when there’s this script and you’ve got these great lines, I think that all of us would be surprised at what we can tap into, like what is deep down inside of us. That’s not to say that you’re ever going to go behave that way in real life, but given these imaginary circumstances, you can sort of say to yourself, ‘How would I behave in this situation?’

If I understood the only way I could survive was by taking this guy’s leg off and eating it and convincing him that we are as scary as we actually are so that he’ll go back and tell the rest of the group, and you really commit to that, some surprising, strange things start to happen. That’s what you hope for in terms of acting. So it’s not so much about research as it is just really getting in touch with what is deep down inside you, what you’re able to bring out when you let yourself mentally go into that imaginary places that’s created for you by the writers and by the people in charge of the show or the film.

Eric, Janey, Kieran, and I had much more to say about the characters and stories after Andrew left and the audience hit us with some smart questions and comments. We ended with a question I'd asked West the day before: "Fight the dead, fear the living" is a cynical-sounding tagline. So is The Walking Dead a pessimistic or optimistic story? Is there hope? I'll share a lot of people's answers – including ours, West's, and another TWD actor's – another time.

Right now, though, check out Andrew J. West and another TWD alum, Emma Bell (Amy from season 1), in the film Bipolar on Amazon Instant Video, included with Prime Instant Video. (I'm certainly not trying to push Amazon.Those of you who find it elsewhere are most welcome to share that information in comments below.) Sit back, remember it's a micro-budget movie, and mull it over accordingly. Readers who follow PsychologyToday.com should find the film pretty intriguing.

I've embedded the trailer below even though I think it gives too much away. I recommend that anyone interested should skip the trailer and just go watch the movie.

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