Apocalyptic Imagination and The Walking Dead Fandom
The visual conventions, narrative tropes, and social anxieties tapped by zombie discourses have long had a foothold in some corners of geekdom, and since 2010 AMC’s The Walking Dead has been perhaps the most prominent fandom that reaches far outside comic book nerds. The series premier in October, 2010 netted 5.4 million viewers, a far more successful debut than AMC had dared to imagine. Two weeks after its Halloween premier—and with an agreement to produce a second season immediately secured by AMC–, the New York Times mused that the cable channel was “surveying its new hit about a zombie attack, `The Walking Dead,’ and asking, what went right? On its face, `The Walking Dead’ would seem a hard sell to viewers, with its gory flesh-eating scenes and its comic-book roots.”
For many observers The Walking Dead once more underscores the influence of comic culture, since the series is based on a graphic novel series and some of the show’s fans are schooled in comic culture; that is, they arrive with a visual literacy in comic storytelling and likely know the graphic novel’s premise. Others may arrive understanding the visuality and narratives of zombie films, which became a staple of the horror genre after 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead a decade later, with a series of films in between and afterward establishing a formula for heightened gore and a tendency to end without a contrived resolution. Yet many Walking Dead fans appear to have migrated to the zombie trope and dystopian tale without any particular connection to comic storytelling or a significant fascination with the undead, and the series’ fandom illuminates how an apocalyptic imagination has expanded into popular culture.
The Walking Dead fan following is fevered even by geek standards. The Walking Dead has nearly all the classic hallmarks of 21st-century geek fandom: the narrative extends over a vast range of official canon and fan forms alike; its marketing tentacles reach into nearly every commodified recess of popular culture; and the fandom appears to extend well beyond the stereotype of comic book nerds. Like a vast range of big-budget movies, the series is based on a comic (this year alone, Iron Man 3, R.I.P.D., RED 2, Man of Steel are comic films, with Kick Ass 2 and Thor: The Dark World still coming), and most of these comics have done well at the box office. As with nearly any participatory fandom, a vast unofficial narrative extends beyond the master canon in fanfic, memes, fan art, and fan pages as well.
Most fans’ attention is fixed on the textual narrative—that is, The Walking Dead’s story about human survivors in the wake of apocalypse, which exists in a graphic novel canon as well as the television series. That official master narrative has reached into video game and novelized interpretations. As with any geek property, the transformation of the comic canon—the sacred origination text framing subsequent narratives—is zealously patrolled by comic fans suspicious of any mass marketed re-telling. The series does depart from the comic’s origin narrative in some forms, introducing characters such as the Dixon brothers and identifying the source of zombification early on in the series narrative. Yet in many ways the series transforms the tale more through the aesthetics of apocalypse and the weaving of a compelling visual story about human agency in the face of disaster. Inevitably, the series’ popularity raises the ethnographic question of why people are drawn to this particular tale and fan community.
In Fall 2012 the series had the highest ratings among viewers 18-49 of any show on television; and this past year’s third season finale was viewed by 12.4 million people, ranking first for all shows on that evening, including the frustrated broadcast networks that had passed on the series themselves. Not surprisingly, the sales of the graphic novel have mushroomed in the wake of the series’ success, with Walking Dead titles ranking at 1, 5, 7, and 14 in top-20 graphic novel sales for June 2013. The ratings success has produced a host of Walking Dead commodities, ranging from games to cards to toys. Hyundai introduced a Walking Dead chop shop app in which users outfit their Hyundai with zombie survival gear. Other firms are eager for product placements on the series, but the series has rebuffed those efforts so far because the appearance of commodities risks eroding the visuality of apocalypse. A universe of creative DIY marketers and artists have produce their own unlicensed Walking Dead tie-ins as well, ranging from jewelry (e.g., a Walking Dead survival vial) to dolls.
The Walking Dead fandom perhaps on some levels harbors a deep-seated fascination with mortality that has often been projected onto the imagination of supernatural creatures. The vacant animated corpse was part of numerous folklore traditions long before the word zombie. Sarah Juliet Lauro’s 2011 dissertation on zombies indicates that the term was first used in 1697 in France, and it subsequently appears in a few scattered texts to refer to a broad range of supernatural phenomena. By the 19th century it was being used in some contexts to refer to an animated human entity, but it retained many different uses. In 1872, for instance, Maximilian Schele de Vere’s study of “Americanisms” noted the term “Zombi,” which referred to a “phantom or a ghost” but did not make a reference to an animated human body.
The notion of a walking corpse is most commonly associated with Saint Domingue (Haiti), where African and European traditions shaped many of the central threads of zombie symbolism. In the wake of Haiti’s 1804 independence the notion of a zombie may have been an especially powerful mechanism evoking captivity, a condition whose return was among the most feared of all conditions, and sorcerers were reputedly attempting to raise the dead in the 1830s. During the American occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1930, a wave of Marines spread tales of zombies that were appearing in American popular culture by the 1930’s; these included William Seabrook’s The Magic Island and Inez Wallace’s series “I Walked with a Zombie” that became a horror movie of the same name in 1943. Wallace referred to zombies as “walking corpses,” and that notion of the zombie was being used in the 1930s and 1940s to refer to the lifeless. Thelonius Monk used the term to refer to general lifelessness in 1956, and Jack Kerouac used it in print a year later in On the Road (which had been completed in 1951, reflecting the term was in common parlance in the 1940s).
Zora Neale Hurston assessed zombie folklore in her Haitian ethnographic study Tell My Horse, identifying zombies as “living dead” who must forever “serve the master.” She noted in a fascinating 1943 interview that non-academics were fascinated with the zombie, who was beginning to establish a firm foothold in popular culture. Much of the anxiety framed by zombies hearkens back to the fears freed captives felt of the zombie; that is, Haitians were apprehensive of losing their agency and will if they were reduced to zombies. Between 1947 and 1954, filmmaker Maya Deren recorded 18,000 feet of vodoun ritual in Haiti and she agreed that Haitians’ “real dread” was not zombies themselves; instead, it was apprehension that they might be turned into zombies, lacking the conscious “capacity for moral judgment, deliberation and self-control.”
The fandoms for the Dixon brothers may be the most telling illumination of why many Walking Dead viewers are attached to the series’ characters. Daryl and Merle Dixon share their surname with the geographical boundary between North and South, and they do not appear in the comic at all. The brothers invoke a host of Southern stereotypes that attempt to circumspectly avoid redneck caricatures. Daryl is painted as an ingenious, rebellious Southerner raised in rural poverty that trained him to become a skilled tracker, an astoundingly proficient hunter, and fundamentally moral. In fine Southern tradition, he is utterly individual: for instance, Daryl chooses to spend the apocalypse atop a Harley, when we can theoretically have any vehicle we want, and he still appears to have a taste for squirrel, owl, and similar vermin (compare Angie Barry’s analysis of Daryl). Daryl’s brother Merle is starkly painted as a less sympathetic character, though, a brutal and vulgar racist whose role in the narrative is his invocation of the powers of family in Southern culture.
Daryl is not an antihero in the shallow vein of AMC’s Mad Men (which is peopled by politically regressive, hypocritical characters whose style would serve no purpose in the midst of apocalypse); instead, Daryl is framed as a sort of approachable proletarian who may be strangely better-suited to the end of the world than he had been to everyday life beforehand (actor Norman Reedus agrees that apocalypse “has given him a new sense of self-worth”).
Ultimately The Walking Dead paints the apocalypse as an elegantly simple confirmation of common folks’ profound potential masked in everyday life. The imagined apocalypse frames an oddly optimistic scenario in which survivors like Daryl are reduced to their fundamental personalities. That clarity of identity is routinely masked in everyday life, but in the wake of society’s end survivors’ goals are rhetorically cast as being clear and simple. The clarity offered by The Walking Dead’s animated undead is of course simplistic but nevertheless satisfyingly lucid, since zombies are nearly all anonymous and driven merely by the base desire to feed.
A variety of novel explanations of The Walking Dead fandom have been advanced, none completely satisfying but all seductive statements about a mass loss of agency. For instance, the New York Times’ Gail Collins proposed within weeks of the series’ debut that The Walking Dead’s popularity reflected a mass aversion to politicians and a state with whom we cannot negotiate: “we’ve entered the era of zombie politics: a small cadre of uninfected humans have to band together and do whatever it takes to protect themselves against the irrational undead” in a political system in which “both parties think they’re playing the small-town sheriff.” This is intriguing, but the international fan following of The Walking Dead underscores that such a frustration with the state cannot be limited to the US. Chuck Klosterman followed up by arguing that killing zombies was a vicarious thrill for a society that is drowning in media: “Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and–if we surrender–we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid.” Letters responded to Klosterman’s New York Times piece with their own equally clever readings of the zombie metaphor and series’ popularity: for instance, readers offered that zombies are “a metaphor for what is happening to the American worker right now. Think of the undead as the unemployed”; another suggested that zombies symbolize “the Bush administration’s constant warnings of terrorist danger”; one reader argued that zombies are “a great metaphor for the hyper-consumption of society of today. . . . When I saw video of people rushing into stores on Black Friday, the parallel became obvious”; or another reader reached the pessimistic conclusion that “’The Walking Dead’ has succeeded because it showcases that in a world filled with the undead, people are the real monsters.”
Perhaps a concrete answer is less interesting than the persistent efforts to explain why so many people are fascinated by zombies, apocalypse, and The Walking Dead’s delivery of their stories. Zombies may in fact mean nothing: that is, zombies themselves are simply expansive signifiers for us and our desire to feel capable of doing something. This will be on the (Parenting) Test included a prescient assessment of The Walking Dead’s appeal when the blogger described herself in sober if not self-deprecating terms as a “Middle aged woman, wife, and mom walking on a treadmill of routine, numbing myself with food and (zombie) tv – longing for something but not really working that hard for anything.” Her characterization of herself as routinely powerless is perhaps felt by many people, and she argued that in The Walking Dead “What keeps me intrigued are the choices that the survivors make”; this underscores not character arcs or zombie gore but instead fixes on the survivors’ efficacy in the face of apocalypse.
Many observers have recognized that The Walking Dead is not about zombies at all; indeed, it is about survivors whose lives are given an odd clarity by apocalypse. Zombies are actually utterly dull, interchangeable, and lacking subjectivity, and from a rhetorical standpoint that makes them an especially powerful foil to paint the survivors as compelling and sympathetic people. The Walking Dead’s appeal revolves around painting survivors as prosaic commoners; that is, they are sympathetic but mundane people who secured agency in the apocalyptic struggle for survival. The Walking Dead plays on the distinction between who we have been forced to be in everyday life and who we “really are” deep inside, a distinctively sober take on apocalypse.
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Ronni M. Davis
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2010 My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead. New York Times 5 December:AR.1.
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