How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Zombie ApocalypseDr. Frank Gaskill
“Oh, you’re awake. We’re just getting ready to have dinner.”
- Morgan Jones to Rick Grimes
In 1996, was living in a Philadelphia suburb. That January, close to four feet of snow fell over two days, leaving much of the Northeast paralyzed. My apartment complex of over a thousand people was cut off from everything. All we had were our candles, a chess set, and some poorly supplied battery radios. Through my second floor window, beyond the trees, I could see 7-foot snow drifts and the once lumpy parking lot now as a smooth, snowy field. Not one of the hundreds of cars could be seen under that deep snow. Ordered not to leave their homes, any civilians who chose to go for a snowy stroll, as one of our friends did, would be picked up by the National Guard and taken to shelter.
At that time, Valley Forge Apartments was filled with young professionals beginning their careers in computer programming, psychology, and theology. Next door lived a barrel chested, chess-obsessed Russian. Further down the hall were computer gamers with a LAN set up between their apartments. A few musicians, actors, models, and national defense contractors rounded out the crowd.
It was a disconnected, diverse group of strangers with common interests trying to make our way in the world. In retrospect, these neighbors would likely have made a formidable group if pitted against a walker herd. Prior to the storm, however, my neighbors were unknown to me. Afterward, I would have chosen most of them for my zombie survival team. The blizzard of 1996 is the closest personal reference I have to a zombie apocalypse.
Why Do We Watch?
We love The Walking Dead. LOVE it! But why? Most readers and viewers do not consider that they are tuning into a formula, one that deliberately and intensely excites their conscious and unconscious senses, hopes, and dreams. The formula created by Robert Kirkman and the writers of the television series and games provides an audience experience deeply seated in the biology of violence, the stripping away of our technological existence, and our innate desire for intimate social connectivity. We welcome the simplicity of decluttered lives and a clear and present danger we can physically confront. Walkers offer something tangible we can kill. Deadlines and taxes are walkers only in our minds.
Trapped in homes, a farm, a prison, and even within the seemingly safe communities of Terminus and Alexandria, the lower-to-middle-class characters of The Walking Dead face an identifiable, threat to their existence. We are obsessed with their relationships and their survival. Countless blogs, books, and articles attempt to answer the question, “Why do we love The Walking Dead?” The zombie genre–and specifically The Walking Dead–can seem like the ultimate Rorschach test allowing us to project our fears, hopes, and dreams onto the meaning of “Why do we watch?”
Walkers – The main characters call their world’s reanimated corpses “walkers,” a term Rick picked up from Morgan. Because electronic and print communication have broken down, people everywhere develop different terms. The respective zombie names – geeks, biters, deadheads, lamebrains, monsters, skin-eaters, rotters, or those people in the barn – reflect the nature of the people who do the naming.
Lurkers – Instead of staying on the move, some linger in one spot, not walking until stimulus snaps them into action. Everyplace living characters step can be minefield-dangerous. Alert for roamers, they can wander right up to teeth ready to chomp an ankle.
Roamers – Most walkers the characters encounter tend to wander.
Talkers – Walkers do not talk, although a few comic book issues left fans wondering if they might. For information on what the talkers turned out to be, see Case File V-I: The Whisperers.
Herds – The environment makes walkers take paths of least resistance – following pavement, ambling downhill – and appetite drives every roamer toward stimuli they associate with living food. Without remembering gunshots they heard or passing vehicles they stumbled after, they walk. They cross paths. One follows another. Groups grow. New noise redirects groups. Hundreds, even thousands may merge into this mindless mass. It’s not what social psychologists call conformity, which would be matching others’ behavior due to real or imagined pressure). They herd themselves no more deliberately than creeks flow into rivers.
Do we watch because we want a simplified life with less technology, or because we enjoy vicariously feeling the deeper social connections brought on by a common threat? Maybe we just like watching swordswoman Michonne decapitate walkers. Once upon a time, you would likely have doubted my sanity if I’d told you the world would obsessively watch a show in which a mother asks for a suicidal C-section and to be fatally shot by her own son. But we watch and rewatch week after week, death after death, trauma after trauma. Why do we talk about it at work? Why do we think through our zombie survival plans and contemplate whom we might save or where we might go in order to survive?
I believe The Walking Dead. The zombie genre as a whole excites us biologically and awakens an unconscious longing. The walkers clear away what distracts us and exposes not only who we are now but also who we might like to become. The zombies do more than provide the mechanism for the story. The zombie apocalypse embodies the definition of “Apocalypse” in its true meaning. The term Apocalypse is a word generally meaning “a revelation,” derived from the Greek apokalypsis, (“to take the covering away”). “Anyone who watches zombie movies must be prepared for a strong indictment of life in modern America.” Romero’s groundbreaking movies provided needed mechanisms to decry societal evils and call out the worst of us, but TWD is not so blatantly a social commentary.
When I think of Romero’s films, I am horrified by the idea of living in the worlds he visualized. I don’t try to imagine myself in those settings. I usually feel disgust when I watch them (even though I love those films). In contrast, I often imagine and talk with my friends about living within a world similar to that of The Walking Dead. The zombies are just as real; the scenes of violence and gore are often worse than in the most intense zombie films to date. This special and communally shared space on Sunday evenings allows us the excitement of the kill, freedom from the trappings of our current existence, and deep social connections. Everyday responsibilities and the superficial niceties of gatherings surrounded by people with whom you have little to no connection are radically stripped away. The uncovering process of the zombie apocalypse forces us each week to examine consciously and unconsciously what is hidden from our view.
Yes Virginia, We Love Gore.
Many people ask why I watch The Walking Dead. “It’s so gross!” “All those zombies are disgusting!” My indignant reply: “It’s not about the zombies! It’s about people and relationships. Have you ever watched it?!” In response, I get blank stares after reinforcing people’s sense that I’m a weirdo. A close friend challenged me on my own egocentric assumptions and suggested that maybe the gore element of TWD is exactly why people watch. He questioned the simplicity of my theory that the primary reason we watch is for the imagined hope or longing for a more simplistic and possibly primitive existence. Many people will be drawn to gory movies as these scenes of violence ignite primeval systems that are both stimulating and reinforcing. Violent sports, the Rocky movies, and many other films which stimulate our crocodile and predatory “old brains” are very popular. Our conscious and unconscious preoccupation with violence is also why the news starts off with fires and shootings.
The violence and gore typical of The Walking Dead comic book are exceptional for TV and cross barriers never before seen on a mainstream network like AMC. The scene that crossed new boundaries appeared in the series premiere. Rick rides into Atlanta on mankind’s domesticated companion of thousands of years, the horse. Rick has lost his family and society as he knew it but has a companion in the horse, a connection with the living. The symbolism of the Sheriff riding into town offers us hope. Skyscrapers and an M1 Abrams Tank surround him with representations of humankind’s technological feats. Alas, to survive the assault by scores of zombies, Rick must abandon his horse to climb into the belly of the tank. His equine companion’s cry and the walkers’ ensuing ant-like attack shock me to this day, a flashbulb memory my mind can replay frame by frame. The violent and primeval carnage inflicted upon the brave and helpless animal who unknowingly sacrifices itself for Rick’s survival invokes a visceral response of revulsion and revenge. This scene was brutal, and I did not look away.
The level of violence elicits in the viewer a basic biological response which compels people to watch and discuss each episode. The imagery shocks and holds us in such a primitive way that we bond to the experience. The story’s creators hold us hostage to our biology, innate fear, and fascination with violence. While the violence pulls in many viewers, people also get satisfaction from watching such violence beyond the physical exhilaration.
Social psychologist Jeffrey Goldstein, in his exhaustive review of violent media, suggests we gain cathartic emotional experiences when we view violence and that we enjoy the spectacle because of our need to identify with others who are experiencing trauma and stress. The more intense the violence, the more readily we pair ourselves with either the aggressor or the victim. Rick’s role as solitary survivor finding his way allows us to identify with and root for him as he travels the hero’s path. The horse gives us our victim, helpless and at environment’s whim. The horse trusts Rick and ultimately falls prey to walkers.
Goldstein states, “The attainment of pleasure from violent spectacles is tied to identification with the aggressors and victims as they act out the respective parts in the spectacles.” The highest rated episodes feature more violence, excitement, and death (“Too Far Gone,” “No Sanctuary,” “Killer Within,” “Pretty Much Dead Already,” “The Grove”) whereas the lowest rated episodes focus more on social connection and story building, with little violence in comparison (“Cherokee Rose,” “Secret,” “Arrow on the Doorpost,” “Slabtown,” “Live Bait”).
Have We Lost Our Way?
“Morgan, I don't know if you're out there….. My wife and son, they're alive. I wanted you to know that. There's something else you need to know. Atlanta isn't what we thought. It's not what they promised. The city is– Do not enter the city.”
- Rick Grimes
Our technologically advanced world surrounds us with warmth, self-driving cars, and instant communication. With a few swipes of our fingers, we can download books, check the weather in New Zealand, and buy whatever we want. Through social media networks, family and friends update us minute by minute on their lives. We’re always plugged in. As the human species goes, we are working harder and demonstrating the highest levels of anxiety in known human history, with people reporting more stress, worry, and panic attacks (at least 40% more!) than in the 1950s. Have we pushed our brains past the point at which we can process all the data in our lives? And does this stress make us lose the meaningful social connections that hold us together and protect us? Rick’s effort to contact Morgan symbolically addresses these questions and illustrates two more variables that cause audiences to tune in each week: (1) a need for deep feeling and human connection as well as (2) a desire for a simplified life.
Rick is calling out over radio waves to his first post-apocalyptic human companion, the man who nursed him to health after the horrors of the hospital. Rick reaches out to share the joy of finding his family and to warn Morgan to stay safe. He doesn’t text. Through hearing the spoken word rather than reading through a text, we feel both elation and survivor guilt over his reunion with wife and son. Both are fathers, striving to save their sons, but with a difference: Rick finds his wife and gains a community of social support while Morgan’s family will never be made whole. Morgan’s dead, reanimated wife returns on occasion, possibly out of a distant, loyal memory of her family, but neither Morgan nor his son can love her again. The audience feels these relationships on a deep level and feels the need for community as a means to survive.
When I was a kid, we had three television networks, four if we count PBS. At school we could talk excitedly about the stories we’d watched the night before, from Battlestar Galactica to The Dukes of Hazzard. We had a shared experience. Today the Internet and TV stream thousands of shows at any given moment. As we watch relationships develop on The Walking Dead as each episode first airs, it brings millions of us together that night in a way even the comic book series, which thousands read at scattered times, does not. The show allows us to share our thoughts and experiences. Together, we watch the pain of Rick being innocently betrayed by his wife and the despair of Andrea losing her sister. Together, we see Rick and Shane, brothers-in-arms who have risked their lives for one another, tear apart to the point of murder.
Experiencing The Walking Dead allows us a deeper social connection not only because we see our heroes’ pain, but also because 17 million of us are watching their pain together. Although Breaking Bad, also a powerful shared experience for its fans, became a phenomenon in its own right, The Walking Dead’s audience experiences a wholly different subject reinforced by the formula of gore and powerful relationships stripped of technology.
A friend and colleague of mine said, “It is very notable that people seem to want to feel a sense of deep loss.” In top rated episodes, we lose Sophia, Lori, Hershel, Mika, and Lizzie. Viewers feel deeply, potentially “feeling” in a way that they do not feel in the real world. A part of us misses such deep connections and loyalties. The Walking Dead is not just about loss but also excitement, betrayal, revenge, love, and loyalty. Psychological literature largely supports the role of social support as a significant ameliorating effect against stressful life events. Our societal stress is high and we are losing the face-to-face connections that protect us. These characters are allowed to have those communities back into their lives, and through our identification of and love for them, we get a little piece of the connection back as well.
During the snowstorm of 1996, the lesson of social support was powerful. The bonds of stress enhanced social connectedness created a lasting memory, one that resonates with me when I watch The Walking Dead. We are social animals surrounded by everything which makes real connections increasingly less and less possible. Just as in The Walking Dead, without true social community we are all as good as food.
Alone Together author Sherry Turkle believes that in some meaningful ways we are becoming more alone. Despite and because of social networks, an argument can be made that we are losing relationship depth as well as the skills needed to connect in a meaningful way. Social media can let us expose our best sides to the world and hide the worst. We don’t usually take selfies of us crying in despair. We escalate the war of “look how happy and connected I am!” The more we promote such false versions of ourselves, the more we lose who we and others truly are. Turkle describes the experience of a teenager going to a party. Those first parties as a teen can be exceptionally stressful but developmentally useful in creating strong social skills. Prior to the smartphone, teens had to figure it out on their own and navigate the shark filled waters of social experience. With the smartphone, the teen can go to the party, but when the social stress and anxiety hits, she can turn on that smartphone and “leave” the party without physically exiting. Avoiding the social stress will not help her to build her skills or gain confidence in her relationships. Society may be becoming increasingly isolated and superficial. As a result, we could be losing the value of deep, loyal, and ongoing relationships.
The Walking Dead’s viewer is unable to escape deep feeling. Relationships are among the gravitational forces that draw us in week after week. Their world has no social media, no book deadlines, and few boring routines other than maybe collecting firewood. It may be a stretch to say we actually want a zombie apocalypse, but the experience of a more simplified life has a draw. When Rick says, “Atlanta is not what we thought,” he is obviously telling Morgan of the presence of walkers, but we can take a deeper symbolic message from this statement. Technology would not save them or restore their families. The tank was useless, the government failed, and all the impressive structures of humanity designed to keep us safe and comfortable collapsed. A rescuing force would not come. Audiences connect with their stories in part because we too long for these connections in our own lives. Relationships are our characters’ salvation.
My first, stress-built community was realized through a blizzard, trapped with strangers inside the concrete bunker of an apartment. During the storm, neighbors opened doors. We were looking for information. Our technology was gone, cutting us off from the world. Through the stress of the storm, we became closer. No longer did we just say, “Hi.” Now we went further by asking real questions: “How is your family?” “Are you still stressed at work?” “How about a nice game of chess?” Food, laughs, and real stories were shared by candle light. Our community came together, and we became better for it. With superficial niceties apocalyptically stripped away, we became real.
The Walking Dead strips away the Nothing to reveal the Everything that matters to us all. The formula includes violence and gore, for sure. But within the why-we-watch equation are deep, powerful relationships and characters with whom we can identify and for whom we can cheer. Seeing a world in which the stressors of modern society and superficiality are stripped away leaves us longing. We watch to be excited by who we are now, to feel deeply, and to ponder who we would like to become.
George Romero was right as well. My wife and I moved into that small Valley Forge apartment knowing no one. All the store names were unfamiliar and the roads confusing. Scared and feeling alone, we longed for a connection to anything that would feel familiar. We were able to find such a connection on the second day of our adventure. We went exactly where George Romero would have expected us to go. We went to the mall.
Frank Gaskill, PhD, is the co-author of Max Gamer: Aspie Superhero and Dr. Gaskill specializes in parenting, Asperger’s, and how technology affects children, teens, and families. Follow him on twitter (@drfgaskill).
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