Hungry for Answers: Questions about The Walking Dead

Why do characters act as they do on The Walking Dead and are they true to life?

Posted Feb 17, 2016

Travis Langley
Source: Travis Langley

On this week's episode of The Walking Dead, a group of characters disguise themselves with gut-ponchos so the walkers won't notice them. Time passes from late afternoon into darkness before one character panics, draws the walkers' attention, and abruptly gets eaten. Someone on Twitter tweeted me, wondering about that: "Please help me understand why he panicked after he had been out there from daylight to dusk."

Today in my "Psych of the Living Dead" class (which is mostly about The Walking Dead but we will also cover Night of the Living Dead), we discussed how panic works in the brain, how the amygdala and other areas of the primitive limbic system can override reason and logic to overwhelm us with fright and the impulse to flee. It's a survival mechanism that can help us escape from danger, but it can also cause problems in the wrong situations. 

To the person on Twitter, I offered these tweets in reply:

  • Some people acclimate to ongoing stressor but some feel tension, tension until passing limits of endurance.
  • Panic involves activating primitive brain that overrides reason and logic.
  • Frontal cortex might control until exhausted kind of like a muscle holds a piece of metal high until too fatigued.
  • Some people panic when an obsessive thought creates a dangerous feedback loop that escalates until emotions explode.

Students in my class have provided me with their own questions that they hope the course might answer during our semester, questions beyond those addressed in the book The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead. Which ones we explore will depend somewhat on which ones (1) can be answered using what we know from empirical research and human behavior and (2) have answers that can help my students learn more about psychology and real human behavior.

Here are some of their questions so far:

  • Why was Shane so lovable to begin with? Why were we so heartbroken when he was "bad"?
  • How did that one walker, early in the series, pick up a rock and try to smash the glass door to get the group?
  • Why is it only loved ones/family members' deaths that set Rick off, not other group members that are "family"?
  • What psychological term best fits what happens to Father Gabriel?
  • Why do the people in these postapocalyptic stories automatically file into groups?
  • Why is group formation so important?
  • How does Eugene's use of deception increase his likelihood of survival and ensure his protection?
  • How long will Carol be a "happy homemaker?"
  • Do any of the characters have nightmares?
  • What does Judith represent in such traumatic circumstances?
  • Why are Maggie and Glenn not more freaked out about the fact that they are about to have a baby?
  • Why did Carl not tell Jessie and Rick that Ron attacked him and let the walkers into the house in the process?
  • Why did Sasha lie down on all the dead zombies in the hole?
  • Why did the walkers not get Sam when he began talking in the crowd of them?
  • What's going to happen to Carl now that he has only 1 eye?
  • What is the meaning of life, how do they value life in these circumstances?

They also asked plenty of questions that fall outside the realm of psychology (e.g., "What are all the ways that you can turn into a walker?" "Is the outbreak in the rest of the world?" "Is the disease passed through birth?"). Some of those matter in terms of characters' behavior and strategy, but for the most, they're not the ones to explore in a psychology course.

What questions do you have about The Walking Dead's characters and stories? Why do they do the things they do? Feel free to add question to this list or even suggest answers of your own in comments below. Tweet me also as @Superherologist.

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