As the author of a Zombie-themed book, people inevitably ask if I watch AMC's macabre Sunday night masterpiece, The Walking Dead. The answer is, of course, a resounding "Yes!" I'm also quick to share with them my own personal encounter with Norman Reedus (Daryl) while I was speaking at a Zombie Convention, and how I found him to be gracious, accommodating and pretty darn cool, too.
The Walking Dead is more than a television show. It's a cinematic phenomenon, with the 3rd Season Finale watched by some 12.4 million viewers, most of them in the 18-49 demographic. But the question we have to ask ourselves is "Why?" Why are we so captivated with rotting flesh shuffling aimlessly about, empowered by an irresistible urge to consume humanity and its brains? Why is that so appealing? Is there something wrong with us? Why do we love zombies so much? Is it merely an offshoot of our enduring obsession with horror-related media (movies, games, TV)? Eh, I don't think so. Not totally, anyway. Though there is no short supply of fans of the horror genre, I'm not convinced it's these aficionados alone who have fueled the meteoric rise of TWD to the top of the TV food chain. A contributing factor? Sure. But "the" reason? Probably not. No, there has to be a more substantial explanation.
We could point out that TWD's acting talent is phenomenal and the show superbly cast. I would agree. Or we could also highlight the fact that it's extremely well written, produced and directed. Or is it because every episode leaves virtually every viewer screaming...er... moaning for more. Um, yeah! That's a "no-brainer." There is also the right mixture of bad guys, good guys, romantic interests and underdogs. Heck, even the make-up, prosthetics and gore-factor make the rotting horde appealing to millions of faithful viewers. All these components contribute to what, in in the opinion of this zombiephile, will cause TWD to be remembered as one of Network Television's most enduring legacies.
But wait, there's more.
I also suspect there may also be a few intangibles to TWD's success saga. And I think it has something to do with our humanity. We mortals have always had a subconscious fascination with ourselves. An ever-present, underlying quest to know who we really are. Not to wade too deep or far out into the philosophical pool here, but if you think about it, TWD poses questions about the human race itself. It reanimates the fears we thought we buried long ago. Ah, but perhaps this is the key ingredient in TWD's "secret sauce." After all, what could be more frightening than to discover mankind's worst nightmare turns out not to be aliens or giant insects -- but our own flesh and blood: neighbors, moms, dads, sons and daughters? Our own flesh! The grave truth is that the monster is indeed "us." But it goes deeper than that. We eventually discover in the show that we're all born with the potential for this deadly, reanimating virus (something previously proposed in a certain Zombie Book , long before it was revealed in the show... but I digress).
The sub-theme of TWD is that evil lies embedded within all our DNA, or within some immaterial part of us. This is a theory that blatantly challenges the feel-good sentimental notion that one day humankind will exist in a utopian, danger-free society (talk about fantasy and fiction!). Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, humanity has yet to produce a solution or even a sufficient explanation as to why we have such capacity for badness.
For some, this evil lies dormant, and TWD has yet to reveal exactly what causes it to become the rage-inducing, death-causing, flesh-eating disease so gloriously and gore-ishly portrayed by AMC. Is it something in the environment? Some secret Government conspiracy? A galactic, atmospheric accident? Global warming? Or is it something else? Something worse? Could one of TWD's (albeit unintentional) subliminal messages illustrate an ancient curse, ignored by many because it sounds too wicked, too horrifying to be true? Is it possible that, as we kick back on our couches on Sunday nights, we are witnessing a modern depiction of a reality revealed centuries ago? Could it be that millions of viewers are being exposed to a primal truth, introduced in writing long before television or the invention of zombies? A truth now brilliantly brought to life in living color?
Of course, who thinks that deeply or that far behind the scenes? I mean, we just want to be entertained, right? And scared a little. And what difference does it actually make, anyway? Zombies only really matter if they're real. Right, Rick? Right Darryl? Right Maggie? Herschel, you in on this?
In a post-modern, pre-apocalyptic culture where most everything, including truth itself, is considered optional and relative, we tend to equate "reality" with that which we ourselves have personally experienced. We sip our lattes in the local Tolerance Café, quick to affirm that, "If it works for you," it must be real, and therefore "okay," no matter what it is, and there is no "absolute truth" (except, of course, that very statement claiming there is no absolute truth).
While most today would shun the that "we're all bad," we still have to account for the imperfections (and yes, even the evils) of humankind. They exist. And so do we. That much is undeniable, though we may debate the causes.
Through the metaphor of TWD's zombies, we see the juxtaposition of humanity at it's worst, and some would say, best. Spiritually-speaking, I see instead an affirmation of a truth recorded long ago in ancient Scripture: that the human heart is "more deceitful than all else,and is desperately sick;Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) Not the most palatable concept in a culture that recoils at the mere suggestion that human nature is anything other than morally neutral. Still, TWD beautifully illustrates how our survival instincts kick in when an apocalyptic reality presents itself, whether real or acted out on your flat-screen. Some people run and try to avoid this reality altogether. Others hide from the truth. Some may even pretend it doesn't exist. And yet we're still left with an indisputable and unpleasant truth about ourselves. That, as a race, we're not "ok" after all.
When it's all said and done, and when TWD's final episode airs, imprinting a blood-stained asterisk in the chronicles of television history, I suspect there won't be any guiltless good guys -- just people who were smart enough to try and deal with the problem.
Even if that problem is the zombie within.