“The Walking Dead” is one of the most popular series in cable-TV history. Why? What does the American zombie — an idea that came to the U.S. on transatlantic slave ships — mean? Three scholars weigh in.
Spoiler alert: This article isn’t really about zombies, and neither is “The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular cable-TV series in U.S. history.
They’re both about people, our anxieties about catastrophe and what kinds of communities we might form if central authority collapses. No government, no Wall Street, no power grid — just you, the strangers you stumble across and a kaleidoscope of dangers roaming the landscape. As the show’s human characters bounce around the southern U.S., they run into a spectrum of mini-societies (dictatorships, democracies, theocracies, loosely organized bands of feral killers) and try to figure out what kind of world they want to live in.
In its best moments, “The Walking Dead” is an action-horror story that doubles as a series of political thought experiments — which might explain why last weekend’s season premiere on AMC (in which a human despot smashed a few beloved characters to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire) brought in 17 million viewers, beating out that night’s football game.
‘The Walking Dead’
9 p.m. Sundays on AMC.
At the Roanoke tavern last Sunday, Seahawks fans debated with “Walking Dead” fans about which cliffhanger would dominate the screens: the end of the game (which was tied) or the beginning of the show. The zombies won.
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“I sometimes don’t know how to convey this to people who think the show is just about gore,” said Dawn Keetley, chair of the English department at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a scholar of horror — from real-life domestic violence to monster myths — for 20 years. “It has been, from the beginning, a series that tackles every issue that is foundational to human life.”
But the zombies grab people’s attention.
Zombie stories, said University of Tampa English professor Sarah Juliet Lauro, came from West Africa to the Americas on slave ships. Early records of Haitian zombies described them as pliant laborers, summoned from their graves by greedy necromancers to work in sugar-cane fields at night. By the time zombies hit U.S. pop culture, they were transformed from thoughtless producers into thoughtless consumers: the ravenous cannibals of George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” and, now, “The Walking Dead.”
Since then, zombies have become a metaphorical bucket for almost any cultural angst you can imagine: viral infection; nuclear radiation; immigration; class war; environmental collapse; the fragility of law and order; or, as Marquette University professor Gerry Canavan recently wrote in his essay “Don’t Point That Gun at My Mum,” how adults agonize over their kind-of-dead but kind-of-alive parents with late-stage cancer and dementia.
Lauro grew up in Africa, where her parents set up AIDS clinics in remote areas, but hadn’t heard of zombies until a college boyfriend convinced her to watch “Night of the Living Dead.” She didn’t really like the genre as a fan, but was hooked by what zombies might mean.
Every cultural moment, she said, has supernatural fads that come and go — vampires, chupacabras, Harry Potter-style magic — but zombies stick around because they are a “frozen dialectic” between living and dead, producer and consumer, conformity and revolution.
“The zombie is always ambivalent,” Lauro explained. “They’re always simultaneously about slavery — to capitalism, to your body that will die — and revolt.” In her opinion, it’s no accident that Haiti, the cradle of the American zombie, had one of the most successful slave revolts in history. Zombies, Canavan added, are “the perfect resisters.” They rise up, refuse to go away and force social change.
That’s consistent with “The Walking Dead.” Its early seasons began with status-quo stereotypes — women do laundry, men hunt, Asian Americans are skittish and nerdy, African Americans are passionate but unreliable, rednecks are dangerous dummies who can fix things — then slowly turned some of those tropes upside-down. The subservient Carol becomes a tough assassin. The show’s “redneck hero” Daryl grows a conscience. Rick, a white sheriff’s deputy, forms a strong alliance with Michonne, a powerful African American with a Japanese-style sword, who used to travel alone with a couple of zombies in chains as her pack mules.
The show forces us to wonder how all those people might have dealt with each other in a pre-zombie world.
Lauro and Canavan keep writing about “The Walking Dead,” though both said they stopped watching after the first few seasons. (They keep reading the graphic-novel series it’s based on.) The show is too violent, still stuck in some old-fashioned gender and race politics and, Lauro said, “catering to a survivalist mentality where you create little militias — the only solution is to have a firearm and the only law and order is you.”
“The Walking Dead,” she decided, is whipping up our worst fears.
Keetley disagrees. “It’s not superficial,” she said. “It’s not about ‘are guns good or bad?’ It’s about questioning the way in which guns — and violence generally — may be foundational to any political system we can think of … It’s the same with gender and race.”
She also thinks “The Walking Dead” is exploring what she calls “vegetative consciousness” — the zombies are the thoughtless part of ourselves, all appetite and no will, laying waste to society.
“The difference between human and zombie,” she said, “is something that happens internally in all of us.”