Previously: Being faithful to your genre, monsters as liminal beings, and horror as fascination.
If the archetypal zombie story is apocalyptic, it’s worth considering what apocalyptic stories actually are. Chandra Phelan notes that very few “apocalyptic” stories actually showcase the world coming to an end. Rather, “the only things that can usually be said to have come to an end in post-apocalyptic fiction are ways of ordering reality, moral codes, or belief systems.” The “zombie apocalypse” is experienced as a totalizing anxiety and disorientation: “We are left feeling ostracized from our own reality. We can no longer rely on the old patterns and narratives, which makes us feel constantly off-balance, cut loose from the anchors that previously protected us from being overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of existence. The only way to alleviate some of the discomfort imposed by defamiliarization is to find new ways of looking, new patterns to create meaning in the new world.” The brunt of defamiliarization in this particular apocalypse, of course, is the violation of our systems of meaning dealing with death. Zombie stories, while driven by a narrative of fighting for survival, often feel like a meditation on the worth of continuing to live. As in the original suicide-by-helicopter-decapitation finale of Dawn of the Dead, the idea of suicide as a courageous act rests at least in potentia in most zombie stories. The allure of the zombie apocalypse is a reflection of our distance from death: the sight of a made-up, preserved corpse at a wake is enough to upset us, let alone the rotting, dead human flesh that zombies present. Zombies are visible, inexorable agents of death, serving as a constant reminder to the survivors that death is approaching, however slowly. It’s no wonder, then, that the heroes of zombie stories tend to be somewhat prosaic: they (typically) aren’t adventurers, they don’t have any special destiny, and are not especially chaste or virtuous. Pragmatism and practical thinking, and not dramatic action, mark our protagonists in the face of their slow and undignified deaths.
I mentioned earlier that Sartre believed that emotion arises through non-rational thinking, “when the world of the utilizable vanishes abruptly, and the world of magic appears in its place.”(Sartre 105) The “utilizable” should not be confused with the physical world – the world we live and interact in is built on non-physical systems of meaning, from “money” to “family” to “religion” to “cocktail parties.” In this sense, the apocalyptic condition is exactly the world of magic, as we have no choice but to create our world with every action; human will is paramount. For Sartre, the characteristic attitude of our lives is what he called Bad Faith, the attempt to ignore and evade the basic knowledge that we are ultimately responsible not only for our actions, but for how we feel and how we understand the world. Sartre asks us to consider an alarm clock: “to apprehend the summons of the alarm as a summons is to get up. Therefore the very act of getting up is reassuring, for it evades the question ‘is work my possibility?’ …In short, in so far as perceiving the meaning of the ringing is already to be up at its summons; this perception guarantees me against the anguished intuition that it is I who confer on the alarm clock its exigency… I and I alone.”(Warnock 55) Our post-apocalyptic heroes, however, have had the alarm clocks and bank accounts and library memberships of Bad Faith stripped away from them, and they have been shoved into existential awareness and the concomitant anguish.
Religion is, of course, a perennial source of Bad Faith, and Kirkman takes time to show its impotence. (Romero-derived) zombies, as we’ve seen, come from a materialist/rationalist tradition, and, while often unexplained, don’t normally hint at specific supernatural origins. While other pop-cultural monsters offer us glimpses at transcendence even while they scare us, whether it be vampiric immortality or alien technology, zombies seem to offer only death. In The Walking Dead, religion is a holdover from an earlier world, and serves for the characters as a way to push away their reality. When the protagonists encounter a priest on their travels, it’s only a few pages before he’s told “you might want to keep your fucking theories to yourself.” The priest, Gabriel, echoes H.G. Wells’ clergyman in The War of the Worlds, who clung to a system of meaning that was no longer utilizable so fiercely he couldn’t survive. Insofar as the book ventures into satire or social commentary, these moments are better read as demonstrations of Bad Faith no longer cutting it.
This brings us to Rick Grimes, the protagonist of The Walking Dead. Throughout the comic’s hundred issues, Rick’s central characteristic has been his drive to create and/or restore some measure of meaning to the lives of his (high-turnover) group of survivors (Kirkman is infamous for mercilessly killing off scads of his characters regardless of importance or popularity). These efforts inevitably fail due to circumstance, malevolence, or Rick’s flawed leadership, at which point Rick takes time to regroup and try again. The archetypical structure of zombie films has the protagonists establish a stronghold, which collapses in the third act. The Walking Dead features an iterated – and evolving – set of strongholds both physical and moral. Rick works to set up and maintain barriers against the zombies as well as moral guidelines for his group and himself. Increasingly, Kirkman’s cliffhanger endings are predicated not on the question of whether our heroes will survive, but whether they will reach new moral depths. Rick proves increasingly capable of killing and torturing pre-emptively to not only ward off violence, but even theft and betrayal, while at the same time struggling to work out a moral framework for his actions. The central theme of the comic is how to live with this violence, and this springs from the zombie concept itself, and our fascination with the thin line between us and them. In the apocalyptic condition, the lines between zombies and humans blur even further – in the absence of any social order, killing a zombie or a human is basically equivalent. We are the walking dead (as Rick says in one of the book’s painfully on-the-nose moments). The ‘frontier cowboy’ trope is built into the book (with Rick being a former police officer periodically on horseback), but it is constantly subverted: cowboys and vigilantes are attractive because of their moral clarity, and The Walking Dead gives us anything but. Rick struggles with his decisions, because he acknowledges those decisions are his and his alone. He has no codes except the ones he creates.
Anxiety, Kierkegaard famously said, is the dizziness of freedom, the dreadful awareness that all our decisions are ours and ours alone and we cannot pin the responsibility on anyone else, no matter the circumstances. The corollary to anxiety is despair: the knowledge that our failures and our vices are ours as well. To fall into despair is to hate yourself, and to be unable to live with the results of your freedom even as you must continue to. As Kierkegaard puts it, “The torment of despair is precisely the inability to die… Far from its being any comfort to the despairer that the despair doesn’t consume him, on the contrary this comfort is just what torments him; this is the very thing that keeps the pain alive and life in the pain. For what he… despairs over is precisely this: that he cannot consume himself, cannot become nothing… what he cannot bear is that he cannot be rid of himself.”(Kierkegaard 48) Despair is suffering without meaning. After creating the apocalyptic conditions for despair, zombies present us with a tempting and grotesque mirror in their own ability to keep moving without the capacity to feel anxiety or despair. Rick’s heroism, such as it is, lies in his fight against despair. He lives out fundamental contradiction – he wants to create a meaningful moral order even as he lives with the brutal and fruitless decisions he’s made in service of that goal. Kirkman’s other characters provide a contrast to Rick: Michonne doesn’t look back, Dale’s instinct is towards quietism, and Carl (Rick’s son) accepts their world as it is.
Consciousness, and life, isn’t really what separates us from the zombies – they can hear, smell, and taste just as we can. Rather, the key difference is our existential freedom, the capacity to create our selves on top of our bodies and their basic drives. In Sartre’s terms, our existence as bodies precedes our essence as people. Zombies are without meaning, without freedom – hence the common readings of zombies as consumers, or mobs, masses of people caught in an ideology. But Kirkman allows the zombies to be themselves, and ourselves. The real terror is not being trapped within Bad Faith – to be so trapped is a comfort. The real terror is to be free, and to fail, and zombies fascinate us in illuminating this truth. All we are will ultimately come down to rotting meat, and we will never fully succeed in creating ourselves. Entropy always wins out in the end. Zombie stories draw us in with a simplified world, shorn of the Bad Faith-filled institutions that surround us. The Walking Dead’s genius lies in taking the time to show us the full expression of that world, and the depths of despair it holds.
Some Books to Consider:
Stephen Asma, On Monsters
Kyle Bishop, American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture
Noel Carrol, “Why Horror?” in Horror: The Film Reader ed. Mark Jancovich
Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death
Jean-Paul Sartre, Basic Writings ed. Stephen Priest
Mary Warnock, The Philosophy of Sartre