The Walking Dead is Not About Zombies

Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead
Norman Reedus as Daryl

It’s about us.  This is what I tell people every time I proselytize to the unconverted.

Consider me a missionary that goes out into the world and speaks the good news about good stories including The Walking Dead.  When it comes to this particular conversion, I go to those who are “not into zombies”, “think zombies have been overdone”, and even those who “don’t really watch a lot of TV.”

The Walking Dead started as a graphic novel series, and is still going strong as that.  If you prefer that medium, then I recommend it as much as I do the TV Series that came later.  The two share a lot of things including characters, story lines, back stories.  However, the two mediums go off into different directions rather quickly and only converge every now and then when a character or circumstance is transported from the graphic novel to the TV series.  Even then, it’s usually morphed a bit so that readers can enjoy the TV Series without too many spoilers.

Both the graphic novel and TV series start out with the main character waking up from a coma to find that he is amidst a zombie apocalypse (perhaps inspired by 28 Days Later).  His name is Rick Grimes and he was a sheriff.  Meanwhile his best friend and his family, believing he’s dead, have moved on.  The beginning of the story involves his search for them and the lessons that he learns on the way about the new world he has woken up in.  These lessons usually don’t come easy.

The Supernatural is Secondary

I’m going to stop there in terms of giving away the story.  The Walking Dead is very prone to spoilers.  That’s only one of the ways that it’s similar to Game of Thrones.  Both are about the characters, the relationships, the power struggles and almost secondarily about the supernatural.  In Game of Thrones there are episodes without any supernatural elements.  In The Walking Dead there are episodes with few if any actual zombies. That’s not to say that these things aren’t important.  They are, but mostly in terms of how they affect the characters and story.

If I had to guess where many sub-par fantasy and science fiction breaks down, I would say it happens when the writers dwell on the science fiction and fantasy, and not on the characters and the story.  Also, it breaks down when the characters react to these things in artificial ways.  The creators of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones get this.

If you are expecting to know the entire backstory concerning how the zombie apocalypse happens you will be disappointed.  The story is told through the point of views of a small group of characters.  And, you know what they know.  They aren’t looking for the “why”.  They are looking to survive.  When they know you’ll know.

The Power of Stories

I am not a writer, at least not yet.  But, I do study the world in ways that I imagine an author would.  That’s why I believe in the power of stories.  You can’t have every experience.  You can’t make every mistake.  You can’t be put in every possible situation both real and fantastic through living life alone.  And, when put into situations in real life, you can’t always step back and see them from different points of view.  Stories help use explore things in ways we would not otherwise.

Good stories ask “What would happen if…”  Fantasy and Science fiction are often very good at this.  Some of the questions The Walking Dead asks are:

What would happen if…

  • things like electricity and technology were taken away?
  • corpses, that were previously people, were driven to mindlessly attack us?
  • we weren’t sure whether they were simply reanimated corpses or our love ones trapped in a diseased state?
  • we were almost certain to eventually be one of these “things”?
  • society broke down and we had to put together new political and economic structures from scratch, particularly given the above?
  • we needed to decide every day whether or not to stay human or give in to our baser instincts just to stay alive?
  • trusting and distrusting a person or group of people was the difference between life and death?

It’s not comfortable to think about, but sometimes discomfort is good.  It awakens what sleeps within us.

Isn’t that what fantasy and science fiction is for?

Nathan Lauffer is the Social Media Director of Mythic Scribes. He is a software architect with a strong interest in both computer and cognitive science and where they meet.

19 Responses to The Walking Dead is Not About Zombies

  1. Walking Dead is intriguing for me, because it is about survival, getting to see how the characters get through the obstacles they encounter, how they come together and move on when they have to make choices, It’s emotional, and I cry when someone dies. It makes me wonder what I would do, if I would be able to handle all that stress, I think the charters make the series so great and it is their reliance and support of each other that keeps them focused on surviving. ILWD!!!

  2. Walking Dead is one of those shows that makes us all think “what if” and I think that is why it has caught on the way it has.

  3. Perhaps one of the most important questions zombie narratives ask is: Are we really like this? 
    Zombies represent a serious external menace, but they cease to be much of a danger once the living humans have taken up a defensive position and fortified it. The real threat comes from the other human survivors on the inside of the barricades. The living are more dangerous than the undead. What does this tell us about humanity? Is it true? I think it is. But it’s also true that humans can transcend this devolution into animals. I think it’s fascinating that in zombie narratives, they rarely do.
    In zombie movies it is the living that are guilty of violence, territorialism, and irrationality. The zombies do not exhibit these negative human characteristics, but they always rise to the surface within the survival group.
    A greater human threat comes from outside the survival group as well—other living arrive on the scene and are the worst in humanity—monsters really. Again showing that the living are not that much different from the undead.
    Is this truely what humanity is? I think this is what the Walking Dead, and most other zombie narratives, is asking. More on this at trentdejong.com.

  4. The show is about choices. And it is about how the situations you are placed in can cause you to change your moral values. It is about survival, trust, depending on each other, working together, and getting along–or not. It’s about leaders and followers and power struggles. It’s about love, loyalty, jealousy, loss–and hope against all odds. This series is a brilliant portrayal of the human condition–along with very effective elements of suspense and surprise. The blood and gore is merely a side attraction to the feelings of the show’s characters, which are what really rip you apart.

    • @Caroline I agree.  Like all heroes, the heroes in zombie films face exceedingly difficult choices.  The modern hero has to make these choices in a modern world and that means there is no transcendent ideal to guide these decisions. Their choices are often between some moral principle and their survival. The focus in these moments of crisis is on the agony of the choice, rather than on the sacrificial nature of the hero, as has traditionally been the case. And despite the agony, the choice is almost always in favor of survival. Thus, in zombie narratives, it is not really appropriate to call the protagonists heroes. For with the emphasis on survival, and without transcendent ideals, it is more accurate to call them “would-be survivors.”  I’ve done some writing on this.  More at: http://trentdejong.com/?p=815

  5. You bring out some interesting angles. Story writing can indeed take us to places that we will never get to go to in real life. I am not so much a fan of the unreal things that would never happen in real life, but I do enjoy a good use of imagination. LOL, this reminds me of a story I wrote in school (5th grade) about how, by the year 2020, there would be no food, only food pills :)

  6. I agree that asking thought provoking questions about unusual and challenging situations can be the inspiration for great fantasy and science fiction novels.  The hypothetical questions you listed reminded me of Stephen King’s classic “The Stand” … quite a few of them apply to that book, which has always been a favorite of mine.  No zombies, but the themes are the same!

  7. Hi Nathan
    Great post, thanks
    It has generated some interesting comments as well. 
    I wanted to comment on your line about average sci-fi and fantasy skipping the characters and focusing on the setting. i couldn’t agree more that this is where it so often goes wrong, and it is this that can give the genre a bad name (or at least a peer down the nose from literary types!)
    Series’ like A Game of Thrones are helping to change this perspective in many people which is a welcome change. I also think that comics are sadly overlooked in their contribution to the creation of strong characters within fantasy settings. I’m in the middle of reading Buffy season 8, the comic run Joss Whedon has created following the end of the TV series and there as well the characters are a pleasure to spend time with and the heart of every story. 
    cheers
    Mike

  8. We all know the show is really about human nature – when a person is put in the most primal mode to survive, what are they really capable of? All our cultural norms, politically correctness, democracy, social structure are nothing in crisis mode to survive. People morph into animals in a sense to survive – that is the whole show.

  9. I think Nathan hit the nail on the head. Originally, I thought this show was about “OMG, ZOMBIES!” so I didn’t pay much attention. It wasn’t until all my friends starting talking it up that I gave it a shot. While I have some issues with the acting (Carl…) and the writing it is very much a character driven drama that has more to do with the human experience than the undead.

  10. I like the point you make about “What if…?”  That’s how I think good concepts become great concepts.  Also I agree that “The Walking Dead” is more about the character relationships than the actual zombies.  The zombie apocalypse is just more of the setting for these characters to interact with.  I think that’s why people love it so much.  They relate with these very realistic characters dealing with an unrealistic situation.

  11. Personally, I have almost no interest in the paranormal, but you do make a good case for giving zombies some substance. Of course, I agree with the statement “If I had to guess where many sub-par fantasy and science fiction breaks down, I would say it happens when the writers dwell on the science fiction and fantasy, and not on the characters and the story.”  Any good novel (or TV series) requires good plot, good characters, regardless of the premises.  Commenting on the idea that zombies may still be people, (i.e. human), I would say that the kind of SF/F that I write defines humans as “creatures in the universe who
    speak, form symbols, and share emotions.” (Mythmaker Precept No. 17)  Thus, all intelligent lifeforms, whether hominids, termites, lemurs, avians, monotremes, or insubstantial spirit-beings) are “human.”  Maybe the best written zombies are, too!

    • Lorinda J Taylor Thanks, Lorinda, I agree.  In The Walking Dead the characters have to come to grips with the fact that there is this thing that looks like their loved one but isn’t anymore.  And, since it effectively wants to eat them, they have to be put down.  The issue comes when members of the group disagree with whether or not zombies may still be their loved ones and may eventually be “healed.”  Keeping zombies alive puts people in harms way, so decisions have to be made.  This is a theme in other zombie movies and franchises, but The Walking Dead explores it more thoroughly than most.

  12. Thanks, James. I agree that we should counter the dark with the light as well. Sophia’s storyline was the first time that the show actually went darker than the books. It was rough. I love both Disney and Star Trek, by the way. :-)

  13. Great article! I think I am on the fence still as to how I feel about the show because I tend to like stuff with a little hope. Granted I have only seen the first two seasons but what I have seen leads me to believe there is no hope for them. I completely agree with the assertion that stories like these force us to ponder the human condition. I was not happy about Sophia’s storyline at all but it did tell the story rather effectively. I will continue to watch it and also read the Song Of Ice & Fire series (Game Of Thrones) but for my own piece of mind I have to slip in a little Star Trek and Disney, both of which also tell good stories. Thank you for sharing this!

    • @James J. Snedeger I responded on Facebook, and it put it in the wrong place here.  So, here’s my response in the proper place:  “Thanks, James. I agree that we should counter the dark with the light as well. Sophia’s storyline was the first time that the show actually went darker than the books. It was rough. I love both Disney and Star Trek, by the way. :-)”

  14. I think any good story should be about the people. This doesn’t mean a story can’t be plot-driven, but what’s most imporant is how the vents affect the characters and drive them to react. If that’s not the most important thing, there’s something missing.
    I’ve recently started watching The Walking Dead, and while I enjoy it, I’m astonished by how stupid the characters can be. If I’d change one thing, that’s what it would be – given the situation they are in, the characters should know better than to wander off alone and/or unarmed. So many of them are dead for failing to take basic precautions.
    I find it interesting you say ‘Even then, it’s usually morphed a bit so that readers can enjoy the TV Series without too many spoilers.’ I am an avid reader of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, and I watched Legend of the Seeker, but rather than enjoy the TV series because it had been morphed from the books, I hated the TV series BECAUSE it didn’t follow the books. This is in contrast to Game of Thrones, which has stayed reasonably true to main the plotline.

    • CiaraBallintyne1 Thanks for reading.  I’ve heard that a lot of complaints about the characters being stupid.  My only defense is that a lot of characters at some point “get too comfortable.”  If you imagine that they are in this situation day after day, you can see how things like cognitive dissonance kick in.
      Concerning the changes between the TV and series, the creator of the graphic novels also works on the series and he has stated that as a reason for the differences.  For some reason, I’m not bothered by it for The Walking Dead.  However, I am when there are differences between the books and series on Game of Thrones.  I’ve tried to do some introspection as to why.  I notice I don’t mind it on Dexter either, even though I’m a fan of the books.  Dexter is actually worse because the books have supernatural elements that are completely stripped from the series.  The only thing I can think of is that I know George R.R. Martin has a very in depth and planned out vision for the beginning, middle and end of his series.  I’ve become so attached to that vision that I don’t want it departed from because it means I don’t get to see the things that I’ve lived every day, while reading his books, come to life on the screen.

      • That could be right – I, too, am very attached to the vision in Sword of Truth and did not want to seeit departed from.
        I might agree re cognitive dissonance if I had ever, at any point, seen the characters behave in a way congruent with their new world. I’ve just started watching season 3 and now, finally, they are doing the things I always said they should be doing. Hubby said he supposed maybe it took them some time to adjust, to which I replied it shouldn’t have taken that long.

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