Why You're Going to Watch The Walking Dead on Sunday

Hint: The reason involves baboons

Posted Oct 22, 2016

Here’s why some of us (maybe even lots of us) will at least consider watching The Walking Dead tomorrow night.

Actually, let’s do this the other way around.

Here are  three reasons you think you’re going to watch The Walking Dead tomorrow, but that I’m not so sure are the real, or at least the main reasons.

1. You’re not going to watch The Walking Dead for the cliffhanger. 

You THINK you’re going to watch it for the cliffhanger, but that cliffhanger is the same cliffhanger we’ve been fed over and over for the last seven seasons.  That doesn’t make it a bad cliffhanger, or even a reason not to tune in.  We can all agree that it is totally and uncomfortably enticing in a familiar sort of way to see what kind of havoc a well-dressed man with a baseball bat can wreak on characters with whom we’ve developed strong para-social bonds.  But think about it.  Negan’s nothing new.  And the cliffhanger that revolves around Negan and his bat is nothing new.  We’ve had the Governor.  We’ve had Dr. Anderson.  We’ve had Merle, and Lt. Lerner and even Shane way back when (and a whole bunch more) and they have each had their motivations and calculations and methods of inflicting harm that have inevitably led to good old fashioned Stallone-like cliffhangers. But at the end of the day, these scenarios are all inextricably, recognizably, and even unfortunately (for our species) human.  So no.  You’re not going to watch The Walking Dead merely for the cliffhanger.

2. You’re not going to watch The Walking Dead to get freaked out by zombies.

C’mon!  This year’s political silliness has shown us that our attention is best captured by violent rhetoric and nasty threats and easily recognizable expressions of disdain. Zombies just can’t muster that kind of personal connection. The Walking Dead (and this is hardly a newsflash), like any good zombie story, cannot possibly be about zombies.  That’s especially the case if you’re working with what to my mind are the only kind of zombies worth calling zombies in the first place. Ever since George Romero introduced us to his nightmares in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, there’s really only been one truly terrifying zombie.   I’m talking about the slow, shambling, hungry, don’t give a damn because they CAN’T give a damn, once human but now just drunk and uncooperative bipedaled crocodiles; those are the zombies that still scare the crap out of me.  And yet a good story cannot be about those zombies.  Those zombies manage the unusual trick of  being scary and downright boring at the same time.  That’s why they play so well in morality tales.  It’s never been about the zombies.

3. You’re not going to watch The Walking Dead because of your desire to engage in the survivalist narrative. 

That scenario is getting a little old.  It’s been part of every other movie and television show for the last five years. Don't’ get me wrong.  I can definitely see the appeal. We’d like to think we can go it alone, but give most of us a couple of weeks on our own in the barren wilderness, let alone one filled with zombies, and it’s not going to end well.  Most of us would be pretty much dead or at least starving.  That’s because we’re a funny species.  We value self-reliance, as Thoreau taught us, but then we also value community and altruismRemember that even Thoreau brought his laundry home for his mother to wash.  I bet you he said “hi” and even chatted a bit with the good people of Concord while he waited for his knickers to dry on the clothesline.  It can get lonely for us to be alone for too long.  And it can get pretty miserable, too. Just read some of the diaries from the Oregon or Santa Fe Trails.  There’s nothing romantic about losing your teeth and catching horrible diseases and then starving to death while your cattle rot in the mountains.   

You're not watching The Walking Dead to indulge that survivalist thing.  

But why, then?  Why are we going to watch this show?   

As it turns out, a rabbi recently asked me this very same question.  The good rabbi almost sheepishly took me aside and told me that he wanted to talk.  This was following a discussion on child development that my employer had asked me to give at the rabbi's temple, so I thought he might want to discuss his own children.

(This, you must understand, was an uncomfortable and important moment for me.  Though I am no longer very observant, I was brought up fairly religious (and Jewish), and that means that if ever an esteemed rabbi wants to have a private conversation, it is a daunting and brow-sweating proposition.  I suppose that’s why we have Bar Mitzvahs.)

“Tell me, Dr. Schlozman,” he began.

“Please,” I interrupted.  “Call me Steve.  Only my mother calls me Dr. Schlozman.”

He smiled and tugged at his beard.  “OK,” he said.  “Tell me, Steve.  You think about this zombie stuff a lot, right?  I mean, I read about you before we had you come speak at our temple.”

“Um, yeah.  Is that OK with you? That I’ve written about zombies?”

He laughed, maybe even a bit uncomfortably.  “Of course, Steve.  Of course it is.  I just want to know…well, you know…as a psychiatrist and as a zombie…um…thinker?  I just want to know why you think I think about the show so much.”

“Well, have you seen Dawn of the Dead,” I asked.  “The original?  1978?”

“Great film,” he replied, whispering, as if he ought not to admit this so near to his congregation.  “And of course this brings me back to the same question.  Why do I like these stories?  Why do WE like these stories?”

“Because,” I said, nervous and blurting out whatever I could think of on the spot, “Because these stories show us our at our best and at our worst.  And both of those states are hard to live with or to look at.”

“The gore?” he asked.

“Window dressing,” I replied.

“The violence,” he wondered.

“Humanity,” I suggested.

“And the kindness,” he muttered.

“Our salvation,” I concluded.

And of course, if you’ve read this far, then you know me well enough to surmise that the conversation didn’t really happen so smoothly.  It happened smoothly only in my neatly packaged recollections.  We also discussed Max Brooks' novel World War Z, and other movies and shows, but in reality we sort of muddled through our discussions and came to more or less the same conclusions.

The Walking Dead, like all good horror, shows us what we can be and what we should be.  Most importantly, it reminds us that getting those two states aligned is the most integral key to our survival as a species.

That brings us to baboons.

Baboons are nasty creatures. They also just so happen to be the creatures that animal behaviorists argue are most closely related to you and me in terms of social interactions. 

Most baboons live under the rule of someone like the Governor or Negan.  The alpha male baboon beats the tar out of anyone who won’t do what he wants.  He also often has a henchman or two to enforce his rulings.

But there is evidence that if that alpha mentality can be overcome, a new kind of order emerges. In a fascinating paper reported in PLOS Biology, the alpha male baboons in a baboon colony in Kenya ate tainted meat and died.  The kicker?  The baboon colony did not, as was expected, create new alphas. The other male and female baboons “decided” that they were sick of the alpha scene.  Instead they formed a baboon commune.  A primate kibbutz, if you will.  They still fought, but it was a heck of a lot friendlier.

Baboons are the key to why I think we watch The Walking Dead.  That primal tug of war between alpha-driven fascism and commune-like cooperation is played out in every single episode.  Fear makes us that much more likely to choose the dictatorial approach.   

When we're afraid, we can’t decide which version we prefer.

Steven Schlozman is the author of The Zombie Autopsies, which was optioned by George Romero for film adaptation.  He is also the associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.