Justin and I recently started watching “Walking Dead” after hearing several of our friends rave about the show. We eagerly popped the first disk into our DVD player, and proceeded to watch 4 hours of zombies wreaking havoc on Atlanta, GA.
I have a few thoughts on this show. Please dive with me for a moment into the cerebral exercise of considering arts & entertainment and the society that both produces and consumes it.
I decided that people recommend this show entirely based on the fact that people like zombies. It’s not because of the character development (which we have yet to witness), nor the plot movement (which is slow, at best). Although I must admit I have learned a few things about zombies which I never knew. So here’s what I’ve learned:
#1: They look scary. They snarfle and grunt around, teetering unpredictably on their feet, yet possess surprising strength. Eyes partially rolled back in their heads, decaying flesh and blood covering their bodies, zombies appear and people think, “I’m afraid.”
#2: They are dumb. They are “undead” because only their brainstem remains alive, possessed by a virus that drives them forward, seeking live flesh to consume. They eat all living flesh, not just humans. If they do not feed, they die. Something like sharks, except without even a conscious brain.
How, exactly, did this show gain such a following? I have heard it gets better near the end of the second season, so perhaps I have yet to experience the engaging plot twists. But what sort of plot twist can zombies take, exactly? They are not dynamic. The only way to move the plot forward is through the relationships of the remaining humans, which quickly becomes a soap opera peppered by zombie attacks. I don’t really understand what there is to go on about. Sure, the characters may have to kill or be killed by a zombie from time-to-time in the future but didn’t they learn anything from the other dozen post-apocalyptic films that came out in the last few years? Eventually life is new. No use beating a dead horse… er, zombie.
So then I started thinking about our opinion of entertainment. We’re willing to accept mediocre acting, poor writing, and a plot that goes from muddy to stagnant. Why? Because we love zombies, is that a good enough reason? Where did the fascination with zombies come from in the first place?
I have a theory, and I’m interested to know yours. I believe we create art in response to our environment (and yes, I still consider even the worst forms of entertainment to be, at their core, art). That is why you see certain genres dominate the entertainment industry every few years: superheroes, historical dramas, musicals, epic tales. Recently there has been a surge of vampire and zombie entertainment, and I’ve been trying to figure it out. Where did these demons come from and in such numbers?
My theory twofold. First, we live in hard times: economically, socially, politically. There is an umbrella of fear when it comes to the safety of our children, the direction of this nation, our personal financial security. We have been at war for a decade. To produce a wave of realistic fiction would hit too close to home. So, like children, we use monsters to represent our problems. There is an unknown enemy – the opposing side of war, the downturned economy – and we gave it a face. It’s a vampire, it’s a zombie. We allow ourselves to face our fears through our imaginary foes, and we enjoy it. The psychological distance allows us to feel safe; after all, we know a zombie could never hurt us.
This undercurrent is carried on the wave of technological advance: we can make these villains realistic. We are wowed and inspired by the special effects we created for ourselves. The technology which we pride ourselves in replaces the need for character dimensions and a motivating plot.
When I teach reading my mantra is, “always ask why.” Why did he just do that? Why did she feel that way? It makes the piece become coherent and cohesive. There is always motivation, even if you don’t understand it. The same holds true in music or painting or dance. If you can understand why, then you appreciate the art more fully. If you cannot understand why, there are two reasons. One is that there wasn’t enough thought put into it by the creator and it is therefore incomprehensible. Poor craftsmanship. However, conversely, the meaning may be so complex, pulling at your very fibers as a human, begging the questions of morality and existence without overtly banging your head with them, that you simply must enjoy the mystery. Savor a decadent meal where you cannot guess the ingredients.
When you are faced with a piece such as “Walking Dead,” and you ask why, you are forced to examine yourself. The psychological dealing-with-problems is one thing. But tolerating mediocre acting, poor writing, and a plodding plot is entirely different. Is only your brainstem working? Are you the zombie?
Please don’t just tolerate. Ask why. The best creators will cherish your questions. The vast majority will be challenged. And you will come out changed.