Look! It Moves!: The Walking Dead And The Joy Of Feeling Bad

Adi Tantimedh writes for Bleeding Cool;

NON-WARNER: No spoilers here. Nothing to be afraid of. Read on.

It fascinates me that amidst the triumphalist power fantasies of the properties announced at San Diego Comicon like the next Superman movie, the next batch of Marvel movies, THE WALKING DEAD continues to have its own unique corner of popularity in the general pop culture landscape. The 100th issue of the comic couldn’t be a better lead-in to the Comicon promotions like the trailer for the third season of the TV show, the release of a new chapter of the million-selling video game and the haunted house-style obstacle course at the con. Unlike the empowering escapism of superheroes, THE WALKING DEAD is all about zombies and people dying and diminishing hope, and it is our biggest pop culture phenomenon outside of TWILIGHT and 50 SHADES OF GREY.

People say THE WALKING DEAD has no subtext. That’s true, it certainly has no conscious subtext, but the way things work is, when you don’t set up to write subtext, one will pop up for you. From what I can ascertain, the subtext of WALKING DEAD seems to be an expression of post-9/11 American anxiety, the continuing fear of losing control, of never having a grip on a situation before it goes to shit and ravenous hoards come to tear everything down and try to eat you. It’s not an accident that Rick starts out as a cop and not a civilian, cops being symbols or law and order, and everything he does in the story, including every bad and stupid decision, is informed by the weight of the authority he used to carry back when there was a social order. The latter is the main theme of the series and has been from the start.

What interests me is less THE WALKING DEAD itself, the comic, the TV show, the game, but why it’s so insanely popular right now. There was the WALKING DEAD ESCAPE obstacle (well, very mild obstacles) course at San Diego this year. The trailer for Season 3 of the TV show premiere to rapturous applause.

This is rapturous applause for scenes of people being menaced by zombies and shooting and hacking the zombies to pieces before they get them.

There’s another, deeper subtext to THE WALKING DEAD that I’d wondered about but never discussed because I had to wait and see if it really was there. That is, the desire to wallow in tragedy. Preferably someone else’s. The plots of the series follow a common melodramatic pattern: the heroes set out to make the best of their situation and decide on a course of action that seems to be the best one at the time but really isn’t, then things go to shit and everything comes crashing down, resulting in more good people dying and everyone having a good cry over it. In fact, issue 100 is virtually the pinnacle of it. The last thing you want to happen (unless you’re a complete sociopath… or a writer) happens in it and everyone, including the readers, is left to feel terrible. I couldn’t help wondering if the sociopathic character who commits the awful act in the story might be the writer’s stand-in, because, after all, nothing happens in a fictional story unless the writer makes it so. And his audience loves him for figuratively stabbing them in the heart with a chainsaw. That is the joy of being a fiction writer. Especially when you get paid for it.

I wonder if the popularity of THE WALKING DEAD and the zombie apocalypse genre is a kind of atavistic ritual that the culture is partaking in to magickally ward off the worst that could happen, which is societal collapse into full horror. Fiction, after all, is a way for people to safely explore ideas and situations that in real life would be horrific and unsurvivable, but the proxy of fiction allows the audience to mentally put themselves through the horror to find catharsis and feel more secure after the experience. Consider how grim the storylines of the comic and show are and compare that with the absolute joy the fans take in it, how they love to discuss the actions and deaths of the characters. This is basically a soap opera, the pinnacle of melodrama in our culture, with added explicit violence and gore that would make Giallo filmmaker Lucio Fulci swoon with envy.

I’ve heard people describe soap opera and melodrama as emotional pornography, and without putting a moral judgement on that term, I think THE WALKING DEAD fits that to a T. Much of the story is about characters arguing with each other about their feelings like it’s a therapy encounter group full of dysfunctional nutters in between outbreaks of gruesome violence. When the violence breaks out, someone dies horribly, and when it’s a sympathetic character who dies horribly, the emotional charge is even higher. And this is what keeps the fans coming back for more every month in the comic, every week in the show. Even the very good new video game version is about making moral decisions that the player will come to regret, but really, it’s about which decision the player will feel less awful about. There is no feel good moment in the story at all. It’s not about any happy ending, it’s about moving ever closer towards the inevitable, which is a bad death, and how much longer you can prevent that until there are no options left. I imagine THE WALKING DEAD will end when Rick Grimes can go no further, when there is nowhere left for the characters to go.

Melodrama is the genre where the characters make the worsening decisions in order for the worst possible outcomes to occur so the audience can take grim satisfaction in the tragedy of it all. I suppose the catharsis gives audiences a sense of mastery over the fact that they themselves would never make decisions that bad, no matter how awful their real lives can get, it’s highly unlikely to get as bad as being caught between murderous sociopaths and flesh-eating zombies.

THE WALKING DEAD is the reigning king of melodrama.

Feeling like a walking dead at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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