We love zombies. Can't get enough of them. The mid-season premiere of the AMC television series The Walking Dead had more viewers than the Olympics during the same time slot among people ages 18-49. This is not unique; undead entertainment is everywhere and has been around for decades: Dracula, Night of the Living Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 28 Days Later, Twilight…you get the picture.
But why do we love zombies? While undead creatures such as vampires and werewolves have magical powers, friends and adventures, zombies lead a "lifeless life." And perhaps herein lies our fascination. We all fear leading a monotonous existence filled with boredom, emptiness, and loneliness: being one of The Walking Dead.
Unfortunately, we can’t avoid these feelings any more than the humans in The Walking Dead can avoid "walkers." As lead character Rick Grimes informs the audience, “We are all infected." Boredom, loneliness, and emptiness are in every part of our lives—work, marriage, family, daily routines. One of the reasons the show is so successful is because the writers depict how people can struggle against living an “undead” life—and can do so with some success.
While zombies are fake, the consequences of these negative emotions are very real. We actually can be "bored to death." Boredom predicts not only poorer work functioning and marital satisfaction but also early mortality. Loneliness leads to social incompetence in children and poor health in adults. And chronic emptiness is one of the key features of borderline personality disorder, which carries long term risk of self-injury and suicide.
Some people, like certain characters of "The Walking Dead," manage these feelings through maladaptive behaviors like alcohol or drug use or even violence—witness Shane. As Shane becomes more stressed, he grows increasingly violent: from beating up Ed to attempting to assault Lori to trying to kill Rick which ultimately leads to his demise. Similarly, Bobby Stokey risks being consumed by walkers so that he could salvage his stash of alcohol. His explanation is clear: "But, when it's just you out there with the quiet…used to be I'd drink a bottle of anything just so I could shut my eyes at night."
Others manage these feelings by becoming overly fearful and protective. "The Governor’s" attempts to protect his newly formed community of Woodbury are ultimately defeated by his need to kill anyone he sees as a threat. Trust is not an option, only total control. Carol becomes so fearful of the people catching a deadly flu that she burns sick people alive to prevent the virus from spreading, leading to her expulsion from the group (although she's back!). Of course these are extreme examples, but they bring up real questions: how can we avoid leading a “lifeless life” in a healthy way?
While several theories have been proposed, two important skills emerge as critical. First, we can understand and even accept the presence of unpleasant emotions, rather than hiding from our feelings. Mindfulness and acceptance-based techniques can be effective in treating a range of clinical conditions including borderline personality disorder as well as mood and anxiety disorders.
Second, we can engage in meaningful behaviors and experiences that evoke positive feelings of pleasure, achievement and connection. Behavioral activation therapy is a type of treatment that helps an individual engage in meaningful behaviors, and has been empirically found to relieve depression.
The difficulty is that these strategies often require lifelong application. We often must attempt new courses of action, knowing they may only work for a limited time or not at all. The Walking Dead's Herschel tried at his farm. Rick tried at the prison. All of these "answers" worked for only a time.
With a lifeless life breathing down our necks, how do we keep going, keep trying? Most of us struggle with this question. This is what makes The Walking Dead so compelling. Each remaining character attempts a unique path to survival: true love (Glen and Maggie); helping children grow (Rick with Judith and Carl); and pure ass-kicking (Michonne and Daryl).
In the end, we can’t be sure what techniques The Walking Dead characters will switch to in order to keep on fighting. But we can be virtually assured that they will keep fighting, and it’s their struggle that keeps us glued to our televisions. Likewise, rather than becoming discouraged, we can be okay with acknowledging when we’re feeling bored, lonely or empty and take steps to overcome the feelings when they start to get in the way of our day-to-day lives.
This is perhaps the best we can do to avoid becoming the Walking Dead.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.