By: Shannon Walter
“Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society and our society’s station in the world. They show us gore and violence and all of that cool stuff too but there’s always an undercurrent of social commentary and thoughtfulness.”
– Robert Kirkman
When watching a television show based on a zombie apocalypse, it makes sense to assume that the main antagonists are, in fact, the zombies themselves. After six seasons of The Walking Dead, it is now clear that this is not always true. Yes, the show is overflowing with decaying, flesh-hungry corpses, referred to as “walkers.” But are these “walkers” really the true monsters in this storyline? No. Over the course of the series, what our beloved TWD cast realizes is that their fellow surviving human beings are the ones they should really be fearful of. The writers and producers are forcing their viewers to take a step back and consider the possibility that our society, with its desensitization to murder and death, and its fear and distrust of societal change, is not far off from that of this post-apocalyptic television show.
Whether it be The Governor, Gareth and his band of cannibals, or Negan with his ever-impending doom, human monstrosities have taken over the “new world order” in which our characters are fighting to survive. TV Tropes, a pop culture wiki that focuses on motifs used throughout various mediums, discusses a trope they label “Beware the Living.” Within this trope, “zombies, on an individual level, aren’t really that threatening. . . the protagonists will often come to realize that zombies are the least of their problems. The real threat will come from roaming gangs of bandits. . . or even normal, everyday people who were Driven to Madness by the horror going on around them” (“Beware the Living”). The Walking Dead utilizes this trope exactly as it is defined by TV Tropes. But what is this “Beware the Living” trope saying about our society today? What does it say that these characters are more fearful of their fellow human beings than of half-dead, rotting monsters that roam the Earth in search of human flesh? I would like to revert back to Robert Kirkman’s statement that The Walking Dead serves as a type of commentary on the happenings in our society. The idea that, according to TV tropes, people inherently go “crazy” when faced with a new type of society or a new idea of what it means to “live” calls into question a human being’s ability to endure major changes in their lives. Thinking specifically of our own society in comparison to that of The Walking Dead, we can recognize that both societies become increasingly more violent with time. According to The New York Times, as of May 2016, there was already a 9% increase in homicide nationwide over the previous year. On The Walking Dead, this increase in violence is illustrated through a particular one-eyed dictator.
The Governor, who appears as the villain in season three and four of the series, illustrates this commentary through his very drastic alternations between a typical, American man and a murderous, power-tripping monster. The Governor was a normal person before this “zombie apocalypse”— he is a husband, a father, an overall “typical” human being —and then his world is turned upside down. In addressing the new standards of society, he says, “In this life now, you kill or you die. Or you die and you kill” (“Welcome to the Tombs”). The Governor takes this sentiment to a new level through torture and cold-blooded murder. Throughout his reign of terror, we experience characters being held captive in rooms with “walkers,” mass killing sprees, beheadings, and much more. While in this new society it is true that you must kill in order to survive, The Governor is transformed by his new, chaotic surroundings into a murderous monster. This “kill or be killed” mentality is one that is adopted by many “monsters” that have appeared in The Walking Dead.
We can see this “kill-or-be-killed” mentality in our society today, although we do not have the excuse of a world full of flesh-eating zombies, whose only true goal is to eat human beings. It is often argued that because this mentality is portrayed in the media so often our children are becoming desensitized to violence. These outlets incite mass amounts of fear and rage in the members of our society, thus provoking people to fight back against perceived attacks on our community. There are violent murders on the news every single day. In their study on violence and the media, Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson come to the conclusion that “[p]eople exposed to media violence become ‘comfortably numb’ to the pain and suffering of others” (277). I believe that Kirkman and his writers are pointing at this violent phenomena through their social commentary on The Walking Dead. Monsters such as The Governor are being used to show that even “typical” human beings have the capability to turn into blood hungry monsters when exposed to constant killing and death. Our societal dynamic, as a whole, is changing, along with the members of our society. We need to address this rise in violence in our society, criticized by The Walking Dead, in order to make a positive and lasting change to the long, bloodthirsty road we are heading down.
Anderson, Craig A. and Brad J. Bushman. “Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others.” Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 3, 2009, pp. 277-277.
“Beware the Living.” TvTropes. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BewareTheLiving Accessed on 10 October 2016.
Kirkman, Robert and Tony Moore. Introduction. The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone By by Kirkman, Image Comics, Inc., 2008. pp. 4-7.
“U.S. Homicide Rates Rise Early in 2016”. The New York Times, 13 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/13/us/document-violent-crime-data.html?_r=0, Accessed on 8 Nov. 2016.
“Welcome to the Tombs.” The Walking Dead, season 3, episode 16, AMC, 31 Mar. 2010. Netflix, goo.gl/gt6iJXcontent_copy.