I have a confession. I am addicted to The Walking Dead. It’s not the zombies so much, although I think the make-up and special effects are fantastic. I don’t find gore particularly appealing.
Anyway, zombies are not particularly terrifying. Any determined child with a sharp enough crayon and a penchant for violence could subdue one. All they do is shuffle very slowly towards you, groaning. I cannot for the life of me understand how the military bases in the series managed to get overrun by them. Is it really plausible that a couple of farmer’s daughters with a shotgun could do what highly trained soldiers, armed no doubt with the most sophisticated weaponry, could not? I have my doubts. That is one of the plot weaknesses for me, but I am prepared to overlook it because I love so much else of what the programme offers.
I have always believed that zombies – like any other monster, for that matter – are merely projections of humanity’s darker characteristics. In the case of zombies, I believe that to be consumerist culture. The single-minded and insatiable desire to feast, completely oblivious to potential consequences and with absolutely no regard for self-preservation, exemplifies – for me, anyway – much of what our society has become. Our fear of them is, I think, a sort of metaphysical fear of not being fully alive. There is, in our horror of zombies, the tacit recognition that a life motivated only by carnal desires is essentially no life at all. It is the result of minimal brain activity, and serves only to diminish the human experience.
But my real interest in The Walking Dead has been the ethical dilemmas in which the characters so frequently find themselves. The zombies simply form part of the backdrop. They are an essential component of the laboratory in which the writers can explore what it means to maintain dignity, principles and humanity in a world where life itself has little value. As I said, not so very different from the world we find ourselves in today.
So I don’t think you need to wait for a zombie apocalypse before being able to apply the lessons from the series. I am sure I will discuss some of them in future posts, but I will start with this thought: one of the more compelling insights for me has been that if life is reduced merely to survival, it is robbed of dignity. It is only when the characters make choices that are true to their own principles, and which serve their communities, that their lives and deaths are given any nobility.
The Walking Dead, as I have suggested, is just a different picture of our own reality. Like it is for all of the characters in the series, death is unavoidable, and life all too often seems hopeless. The struggle for the characters in the series is – in some way – not to become simply breathing versions of the undead they try so hard to avoid turning into. As Rick says at one stage in the comic:
“The second we put a bullet in the head of one of those undead monsters — the moment one of us drove a hammer into one of their faces — or cut a head off. We became what we are! And that’s just it. THAT’s what it comes down to. You people don’t know what we are.
We’re surrounded by the DEAD. We’re among them — and when we finally give up we become them! We’re living on borrowed time here. Every minute of our life is a minute we steal from them! You see them out there. You KNOW that when we die — we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead?
Don’t you get it? We ARE the walking dead! WE are the walking dead.”
The challenge is this: what principles can you choose to centre your life on, and what cause can you choose to serve that will give your brief life meaning and dignity, that will separate you from the walking dead?