Walking with the “Walking Dead”

I have just watched the first four and a half seasons of “The Walking Dead.”  I will first give my assessment of the series thus far.  Second, I will give my interpretations—where applicable.

As for my impressions of the series, I must say that it is visually the most disturbing television series I have ever seen.  It is hideously violent, and for those of you thinking of watching the series, do not do so if you are squeamish about any of the following: decaying bodies, dismemberment, cannibalism, bashed in brains, spilling intestines, horrible wounds, rape, torture, violence against children including babies, exploding people, burning people, and chopping people up with machetes.  The violence in this series is simply astonishing.  And I am still wondering whether or not it is too violent.  That may seem like a strange thing to wonder about, but I will get back to that point…

The settings are disturbing in that there is so much decay everywhere, streets populated by corpses either re-animated or rotting—or half-eaten.  Yet there is a banality about the towns.  There are homes with kitchens and dishes in the cupboards, tinned tuna and dry pasta, forks and knives in drawers.  Pictures on the walls.  Bathrooms with toilet paper, shampoo on the side of the bath tub, deodorant in the mirror cabinet.  Bedrooms with blankets, pillows, alarm clocks, televisions, clothes in the closet, clothes in the laundry hamper…. Etc, etc, etc.  The houses are the homes of the North American “every-person”.  These are the homes of Joe and Jane Smith, their 2.5 kids, and Fido their dog.  The people who owned these homes are ‘you and me.’  That the owners are jumping out of closets and basements trying to eat people is frightening, but because these people are ‘you and me’ (both as re-animated corpses and as survivors), it is truly disturbing.

The cities are still standing, but even from a distance through binoculars, one can see that they are as dead as the re-animated corpses haunting their streets.  No running water, no flush toilets, no showers, no electricity, barely a battery, no news, no operating radio stations, no television stations, no internet, no professional medical facilities, no infrastructure, no government, no phones, no law, no help.  All human survivors on the planet are left to their own devices, and this point is also terrifying.

What is the most unsettling thing about “The Walking Dead” is that the violence and the human remains normalize both in the survivalist characters in the series and in the audiences.  Also, as a viewer of the series, don’t become attached to any one character, (spoiler) as the most beloved characters seem to die off every four or five episodes with the exception of six characters:

  1. Rick Grimes: A deputy sheriff who, wounded in the line of duty, was in a coma in a hospital bed when the “Zombie” virus outbreak happened. It’s a miracle that he survived. Conflicted leader, teetering on the edge madness.
  2. Carl Grimes: Rick’s son, about 10 years old at the time of the outbreak. Is now 12, and damaged. Angry and didactic. Accomplished killer. Dangerous and self-loathing. Older than his years.
  3. Carol: Woman of about 35 years old. Was abused in her marriage, but her identity has changed. Her husband and daughter are both dead. She has gone from slave to warrior.
  4. Glenn: Young Asian guy, about 21. He’d been the pizza dude until the outbreak. He is smarter than everyone else but under-valued. Had lived by his wits until he met Rick.
  5. Daryl: Redneck drifter who lived a very hard life. Good at hunting, and the cross bow is his weapon of choice. Uneducated and not highly intelligent, but resourceful, very loyal, and hard as nails. He had Rambo’ed it in the forest eating bugs and leaves until he attached himself to Carol’s group.
  6. Morgan: Seldom seen man who first rescued Rick and brought him up to speed about what had happened in the world while Rick was in a coma. Is trailing Rick’s group of survivors, and hoping to meet up with them. Resourceful, intelligent, and ‘invisible.’

All other characters currently in the show, even if they seem like central leads, are peripheral characters—and the kill fodder for the writers.  The show is balanced in this way.  When villains die on “The Walking Dead”, a pattern has developed over 4.5 seasons that this ‘death of evil’ is answered by the death of a central character (aside from the core six—at least, thus far).  So, one of the good guys dies also.

As for my study of the series…

The series is a metaphor for those instances within and the mechanisms of modern Western culture.  Those that terrify.  The writers seem to cover everything, but there are three major questions that are explored through the story lines.  These questions are:

  1. Upon what is human civilization built?
  2. Does human morality actually exist or is it merely a philosophical rubric for the world of now?
  3. How does the individual endure the astounding depths of meaninglessness already present in this modern Western culture?

Going back to the violence of the series—violence that simply cannot be overstated… The violence happens on several levels, and these levels seem to have stabilized within the story: the violence against the ‘other’ (killing zombies), the justifiable violence (killing the enemy), the unjustifiable violence (killing each other), and the interior violence (destroying one’s own mind and soul).  The world is seen within a fishbowl, highly magnified, and where most conflicts—even within the established heroic collective—are resolved by violence in one form or another.  All violence that occurs can be rationalized.  Even the most evil ones can make amends—or seem to be offered this opportunity.

There is a price, both implicit and explicit, for anything of value that passes from person(s) to person(s).  The saying “there is no such thing as a free lunch” comes to mind.  Altruism and mercy are subject to an unsound form of utilitarianism.  Rather than Mr Spock’s famous paraphrase of Jeremy Bentham’s “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, the society of “The Walking Dead” believes that “the needs of our many negate the needs of the other.” This revised take on the old apothegm is constant across all the various survivor settlements encountered in the series.

One thing I found quite fascinating about this series is that there are no “good guys.”  Even the good guys are not good guys.  The “heroes” in this series can be compared to the “man with no name” archetype of the old “spaghetti westerns” of the 60s and early 70s.  The character is amoral, on the edge, ultra-violent, with a very binary code of justice.  His fearlessness and seemingly “moral” acts are also self-serving, and the primary reason he acts in the first place.  Then he leaves without having truly revealed himself or his motivation other than his own survival.  The rest is speculation because he is necessarily an enigma.  Without that sense of mystery, the character is so two-dimensional, that it would degrade without it.  In “The Walking Dead”, a brilliant example of this archetype is the character of Daryl Dixon.  He is a simply a rephrasing of the gritty-voiced, dirt-smudged, lone-wolf anti-hero with the icy stare—the man of few words.  It is implicit that Daryl has “a code”, yet the audience struggles to define it, and after 5 seasons, well, I think I’ve made my case…  However, what I was saying about the “good guys” being not so good, and the series lacking anyone who is actually “good” is a valid point, and part of what makes the series not merely cohesive, but also makes it a study in the humanness of humans.

The good guys don’t win; they just get lucky from time to time.  The universe keeps score—one good guy death for every bad guy death.  “Only the strong survive” is the overindulged truism that is both proved and disproved repeatedly.  The series holds a reductionist viewpoint of human civilization and contends that all the ethics and principles valued at large by modern Western culture can be reduced to a cruel brand of moral relativism and anarchy.  We aren’t “human” without our civilization, that is to say, we are no longer capable of maintaining our humanity without our cellphones.

I will be discussing more about “The Walking Dead” and other “zombie” literature and films in the coming weeks.  This is my first real take on it…

I will keep you posted!

Our Fears, Our Monsters

The new trend in pop culture monsters seems to favor an emphasis on the Zombie.  I have been trying with difficulty to identify exactly what a Zombie is, and I think I have come up with a definition that will suffice for now.

The Zombie is a reanimated corpse that has no mind, no memory of its humanity, and no ability to reason.  It is driven only by its incessant ravenous hunger.  It has no strategy in the hunt for “food” which is usually human beings—brain, flesh, etc—and simply wanders until it finds someone to kill.  While they have the behavior of wild animals, they have none of the common sense.  Most apex predators are cunning, extremely cautious, and adept at the art of escape probably more than the art of attack.  Zombies just plow on through with no care for personal safety.  Zombies are not stronger than ordinary people, they are in a constant state of gradual decay, and they cannot be reconstituted into their previous human form.  Other than the fact that they are actually moving about, they have no supernatural powers.  Most importantly, they are not “evil.” They are mindless and soulless, but not demonic or possessed.  They can be destroyed if their heads are destroyed.

However, I have not yet answered the question about why Zombies are so popular today.  If monsters are the mirror of trending fears, then what fears do Zombies reflect in today’s world? My upcoming paper is going to examine the Western pop cultural fears reflected in the monsters from Victorian times forward.  So, I will be commenting on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the “Werewolf” mythology from Kipling, Bierce, Doyle, Dumas, and Guy Endore.  I will also consider the “Mummy” lore from Rice and Loudon.  I don’t think I can do a paper about monsters justice without touching on some tales of madness, and the first name in such tales is Edgar Allen Poe. If there’s time, I’d also want to consider Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Lastly, I would like to look at two of the best Zombie books I can find: I am Legend, by Richard Matheson and Word War Z by Max Brooks.

So, considering that my paper will be a “double” paper (80-90 pages), I think I have enough stuff here to read.  Thankfully, I have already read Bram Stoker’s Dracula recently, and years ago I read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

What I’d like to concentrate on are those monsters who have gone beyond the pages and on to movies and other media such as television.  These monsters haven’t disappeared—they are still around—but now the rage is the Zombie.  To my mind, each monster is representative of a specific type of dark desire or terror, and now I will find out what is driving the popularity of the Zombie.

More to follow!  🙂

Pop Culture and Movie Monsters: Are We Facing Our Fears or Creating Them?

Lately, I have seen a fresh awakening of the movie monster.  Now, we have always had our “stand-by” monsters:  the vampire, the werewolf, assorted demonic creatures, and all the other entities that go bump in the night.  Lately though, I have seen a resurgence in the “zombie” monster.  I find this fascinating, unsettling, and a little confusing.  Here’s why…

Starting with the most popular of the movie monsters–the vampire.  This guy is immortal, usually young and beautiful (or appears to be until it’s too late), crafty, intelligent, sometimes amoral, and usually delightfully wicked.  He’s terrifying, in that one would not like to meet him on a dark street, but he’s not exactly scary.  Not anymore.  That’s because we know him too well.  We know what he can and cannot do, where he will go and will not go, and most importantly, we know what compels him.  He wants blood.  But when he has had his fill of blood, he seems to retire to whatever place he retires. Generally speaking, we know that to safeguard ourselves against a vampire, we just need to stay in the sunlight and carry a great big crucifix.  We also know that we can kill the vampire if needs be.  And there are several ways to do this.  That vampire CAN be beaten and avoided.  More than that, he’s also considered kind of cool now, and there is a section of the populace that wouldn’t mind at all if they happened to be bitten by a vampire and made into one.  Now, rather than scare us, the vampire movie provokes us to thought.  We wonder if he is evil, or if he is misunderstood.  We feel for him in his loneliness.  We are outraged by the horrors that brought him into being.  Sometimes, we wonder if there is a way he can be saved.

The werewolf is truly frightening.  He is a person until the full moon when he transforms into a mindless beast.  He runs rampant during the night, killing on sight, and then at the first light of dawn, he transforms back into his human form.  He is actually a pitiful creature, cursed normally through no fault of his own, and doomed to live out his feral bloodlust until he is destroyed as werewolves are destroyed–by a silver bullet.  The difficulty lies in determining who is the werewolf.  Sometimes the person does not recall his transformation, and tends to wake up in the morning, naked, and in a strange place.  He retains no memory of having killed during the night.  However, once identified, he is easily dispatched.  Like the vampire, the werewolf can also be beaten.  And we feel sorry for him because he did not choose to become a werewolf.  The curse was passed to him when he was bitten by one.  So, even though we accept that he must be destroyed, like the vampire, if we could save him from the curse, we would.

Ghosts.  Well, I suppose it all depends on where a person stands on “lost or vengeful spirits.”  Able to manipulate their environment, appear and disappear, walk through walls, and freak us out with creepy vocalizations, these entities are a bit harder to deal with.  They can’t be killed because they are already, well, dead.  They must either be placated in a way that is meaningful only to them, or they must be exorcised by a professional or religious leader.  Mostly, ghosts all have a tale to tell, be it one of insanity, terrible violence, unrequited love, or deeds left unfinished.  When the concern is answered, the ghost tends to move on and not bother the living anymore.  Usually, but not always.  Sometimes the ghost is insane with rage, and cannot be appeased.  In this case, an exorcist is required to cast out the spirit.  Sometimes it works and sometimes not.  Sometimes the ghost cannot be sent away or overcome, and then it is up to the living to escape whatever place the ghost haunts.  This is seen in the movie “The Amityville Horror.”  Best just to leave well enough alone.  So, sometimes just leaving the place that is haunted to the devices of the ghost suffices.  The best ghost stories leave questions unanswered and the ghost still at large.  The audience leaves looking over their shoulders.  It’s scary fun, but it takes a really creepy ghost story, in my opinion anyway, to allow ghosts to count as “movie monsters.”

That brings me to evil Demons.  Now these guys are truly frightening.  Not only can they get you anywhere, except maybe on sacred ground, but they can inhabit your body and torment you for years.  They cannot be reasoned with.  They cannot be appeased.  They cannot be bribed or offered anything of earthly value.  They are powerful, intelligent, and ruthless.  To defeat a demon, that is, cast him out, one needs an exorcist.  And lots of holy water.  The demon cannot be killed because he is truly immortal.  He can only be banished, and is free to go on to his next victim.

There are many others, including the unkillable slasher and the wicked alien creature.  All of these monsters have their powers and their weaknesses.  And all of them reflect an aspect of our own humanity–the aspects that live in the corners of our dark side. Through these monsters’ eyes, we explore our lust, our greed, our rage, our need to control others and ourselves, and because we have these monsters, we can explore to our heart’s contend without feeling any need for accountability.  We stay in the safety of our own minds.  So, how do zombies fit into this paradigm?

So far, what I have gathered about the zombie monster is that it is not very “metaphorical.” I say “it” because the zombie, once human, has become a “thing.”  Gratefully, the human being the “thing” once was has now totally vanished and with it any recognizable theory of mind.  It’s not simply lacking in intelligence, it is utterly mindless.  It cannot speak.  It cannot reason.  It has no fight or flight response.  It is not afraid of anything, and this is both bad and good.  It will tackle anyone, but it will also walk stupidly into a fire. Some are slow.  Some are fast.  But all of them want to eat your brain. Aside from the steadily decomposing body of the zombie, brain-eating is its most grotesque calling-card.  They have absolutely no winning qualities whatsoever.  So, why are they so popular??  What shadowy reaches of the human psyche do they represent?

Stay tuned folks, because my big project will be looking into movie monsters with a focus on the zombie. I will be asking questions like why does popular culture feel the need to present the masses with horrors that are compounded by mindless shadows of human corpses?  What is the cultural impact of “created” symbols of fear that are “created” only for fear, and are not the by-product of anything fearful.  That is, they are entities unto themselves with no purpose other than to scare the audience.  They teach nothing.  They provoke no thought.

I have many other similar questions that I will be developing.  I will keep you posted.

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