When The Walking Dead aired on AMC in 2010, I resisted watching it. Several people urged me to see it, but I don’t like zombie movies and I can’t imagine liking a zombie-based TV show. Despite my investigative books devoted to vampires and serial killers, zombies just aren’t my style. They’re just lurching, mindless, rotting corpses with a disgusting appetite. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
But then AMC ran a marathon of episodes this past weekend from both seasons. I thought I’d check out one, maybe two, episodes. Or three… OK, I got hooked. So then I had to figure out why this show about a zombie apocalypse resonates. It’s kept me awake, distracted my driving, and even intruded while I was trying to write a different blog. So, I’m giving it my attention.
You might think it’s the characters that grabbed me, but it’s not. At one time or another, they’re all annoying. Their issues get resolved almost at once, so there’s little suspense. You know they’re going to encounter zombies in every episode, and there aren’t a lot of different ways to kill a zombie, so it’s not that kind of suspense, either. Nevertheless, this intrepid group does pull viewers into a caustic mess, and for me there were echoes of how I’ve felt over the past few years while watching the real-world news.
Without giving any spoilers, I think that several aspects of The Walking Dead capture something dark but persistent about our current culture. When we see our Congress stall on issues that they know will hurt us, or when we watch as one after another person entrusted with our welfare betrays us, we feel just as stunned, angry, scared, and powerless as these characters do when they know they’re screwed. If there’s no accountability for bankers who steal or officials who cover up child abuse, how can we move trustingly through a world that seems increasingly heartless?
As I consider the show in a metaphorical context, the zombies appear to be the wave of dehumanization that threatens us. And since these creatures were once our spouses, our children, our siblings, our friends, and our neighbors, they mirror us all. Anyone can become a mindless, unfeeling, greedy predator with a hunger for flesh. The major struggle, as on the show, is to maintain your sense of humanity – to keep caring for others even after you’ve been violated.
The characters must all make choices that force them into something they never imagined they'd do. Faith is tested, integrity fails, secrets are kept, and the courageous sometimes fall. All are flawed, and those flaws become weak spots in the wall of defense. Everyone is expendable on this show, because each is vulnerable. Truly anyone can go down, even those characters with action figures on the market. It makes viewers (like me) sense that there is no firm ground on which to stand, no stronghold in which to hide until things get better.
The struggles this show depicts, from killing zombies to just getting along with someone who might have to save your life one day, are about that tiny bit of control we do have (or hope we have). There might be ravenous creatures bearing down on us from unexpected places, creatures that are concerned only with their own next meal, but we can find ways to resist.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes about different kinds of horror, from the psychological to the total visceral gross-out. He describes the core elements of the horror tale as a fear of death, the unknown and the dark, coupled with the sense of helplessness that ensues when we’ve lost control. That seems about right, and with most horror tales, we can close the book, turn on the light, and walk away. But with a horror tale like The Walking Dead, which taps the invisible current of threat that runs beneath our feet, we can’t so easily turn on the light. At least, I can’t.
Maybe I’m just suffering from marathon overdose syndrome, but as I watched I couldn’t help but think about dwindling resources, squabbling politicians, and a darkening future for a planet from which there’s no escape. I think I’ll go practice my archery skills now.