Our Shadow Side: The Appeal of The Walking Dead

By Clay Morgan

Whoa.

Along with other non-family friendly phrases, that was the general reaction from millions of people after watching the last three minutes of the season three premier of AMC’s The Walking Dead which pretty much lunged at us through television screens like a man swinging a hatchet. I’m not going to spoil anything major but in case you didn’t already know, this show is not for the faint of heart. More on the new episode in a moment.

One of the most surprising aspects to the rapidly increasing popularity of The Walking Dead is a diverse audience that includes way more than just comic book fans or people who love movies that require taking a clean pair of shorts to the theater.

So what is it about zombies that engage students, pastors, Jane Austen fans, and many others? We pondered that topic in a recent article here about why the undead are so compelling, but I’m struck by the mass attraction of things that terrify us in general. Sure, October is Halloween month and the perfect time to get our spooky on, but culture seems to be changing. The Walking Dead just happens to be leader of the pack when it comes to the mainstream macabre.

Scary pop culture is everywhere. Consider a couple of recent examples.

  • AMC just launched a major programming event promoting horror movies and shows.
  • Director Scott Derrickson’s new film Sinister came out over the past weekend and rocked the box office, even briefly overtaking Liam Neeson and his particular set of skills from Taken 2, despite playing on significantly fewer screens.
  • Animated features aimed at families are even breaking records, from Frankenweenie to Hotel Transylvania. The latter recently broke the record for biggest September opening weekend ever.

Entertainment gurus are selling fear, and we are gobbling it up like delicious pumpkin pie. How can something so frightening and gory be so appealing? (I’m referring to fear not pie). The social scientist in me is considering our need to escape into something that distracts from the scary realities of life as we know it, but I’ll leave the academic debate to scholars. Many of us simply love to be scared.

Back to The Walking Dead. Catatonic zombies weren’t the only things that jumped out at me while watching the new episode titled Seed. Here are a few tasty morsels to chew on, and each one reveals some of the relatable appeal we find in this fictional world.

1. Time has passed

The survivors made it through a winter we never see. The story has jumped ahead a few months as evidenced by pregnant Lori’s big belly and a couple other casual mentions in conversation.

2. The group has formed into a unit

You won’t hear one word of dialogue in the opening minutes. Rick’s people know what to do in dangerous situations and when things calm down conversation is limited. After all, it’s not like they’re all going to talk about their day at work and who they bumped into at Starbucks. When they devise a plan to clear certain areas of the prison they operate like a military team, even incorporating a phalanx at one point that would make King Leonidas proud.

3. They’re hardened

The environment of death has fully become a way of life. Dispatching stray walkers is a casual activity. Women who were once reserved citizens now rough it up with everyone else. The distinctions of society are obliterated. I also wonder if there will be as much existential questioning this season or if they are past questions of God and meaning.

4. They’re looking to rebuild civilization

Sure, Lori is pregnant and questions abound as to whether her baby will be a zombie or a cure or something else entirely (religious overtones of a potential savior child anyone?).

In this bat-smacked world, a fenced in field is considered a blessing of comfort. They speak of digging canals and planting seed in good soil. The lack of leisure also hit me. They sing to pass the time like in earlier centuries. No luxury or even electricity. And does romance ever really die?

5. These people change a lot

Season two ended with Rick putting his boot down and declaring himself unquestioned leader. Now he only needs glare at someone to make a point. Speaking of point, his young son Carl has gone from getting people killed all the time to keeping watch against the undead while the adults chat. Family fun with a pre-pubescent, gun-wielding kid. The intensely hostile environment causes people to change often. It’s these characters that draw us in most as we wonder what’s around the next corner and how they might react.

Why do we continue to flock to this type of brutal entertainment? Whether because of escapist desires, relatable characters, or something else entirely, the fact remains that darkness will always be compelling. We fear stepping into it ourselves yet can’t turn away when others do.

Maybe we just watch because we are hopeful and want to see what light will appear to push back that darkness. Either way, the emerging popularity of the horror genre is creating great opportunities to have meaningful conversations about life and death.

For more from Clay Morgan on zombies, God and the undead, visit the Patheos Book Club on Undead!

Clay Morgan is a writer, teacher, and speaker from Pittsburgh, PA who blogs about pop culture, history, and the meaning of life at ClayWrites.com. He is the author of Undead: Revived, Resuscitated, and Reborn about zombies, God, and what it means to be truly alive.


  • http://www.theofantastique.com John W. Morehead

    Of course there are a variety of reasons why this show is increasingly popular. When horror and the zombie dovetail with religion, and they do, there are reasons for this as well. Scholars have noted the long connection between the monstrous and religion, but beyond this it may be that the monster knocks on the door of our consciousness to remind us of the dark side of our psyche and our religious traditions that are all too frequently sanitized into goodness and light. The return of the religious repressed rises in the undead through popular culture. Better to come to grips with the shadow side in healthy ways.

  • http://randomlychad.com Chad

    Surely an aspect of the appeal of works of this nature is that it makes us feel better about our crappy lives, i.e. as bad as things are here at least it will never be as bad as…

    I contrast this from what you term “escapist desires,” and would label it more latent schadenfreude. Meaning there’s something (broken) in us that enjoys the suffering of others. Something to ponder anyway.

  • Pingback: Horror Reasearch Paper | Pearltrees


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X