And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Undead

Spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead abound.

There’s a scene in David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green in which the young pro­tag­o­nist notices the adults in his small English town com­mu­ni­ty behav­ing in a cer­tain, rather strange, way. In a town meet­ing about a gypsy group who have set­tled just out­side the town, the adults begin to blurt out all sorts of sin­is­ter and clear­ly exag­ger­at­ed rumours regard­ing the gyp­sies, paint­ing them as mur­der­ers, thieves, rapists. They eat dogs and marry their sis­ters, that type of busi­ness. Having expe­ri­enced first-hand the rel­a­tive nor­mal­i­ty of the gyp­sies, young Jason quick­ly comes to real­ize that his elders are paint­ing a pic­ture of dif­fer­ence, they want the gyp­sies to be dif­fer­ent to assert their own nor­mal­i­ty. Jason neat­ly sym­bol­izes this act as a type of sten­cilling, explain­ing,

I missed what he said next, think­ing how the vil­lagers want­ed the gyp­sies to be gross, so the gross­ness of what they’re not acts as a sten­cil for what the vil­lagers are.

What’s obvi­ous about the community’s reac­tion is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the dif­fer­ent, fear of the other. The adults’ impulse to fun­da­men­tal­ly sep­a­rate them­selves from the gyp­sies is emblem­at­ic of the way fear can act to define us. We fear that which is other and other that which we fear, a cycle which works to both insti­gate and per­pet­u­ate very human traits such as stig­ma, para­noia and stereo­typ­ing.

Fear, then, is telling. Its basis in dif­fer­ence works, as Jason real­izes, to delin­eate the bound­aries and lim­i­ta­tions of a whole vari­ety of human fac­ul­ties, be they phys­i­cal, social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, what­ev­er, be they ratio­nal or oth­er­wise.  Be they moun­tain­ous or molehill-ous. Fears, par­tic­u­lar­ly those wide­spread anx­i­eties that cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of whole soci­eties, if not all humankind, focus on what we are not and, by asso­ci­a­tion, what we are. Or, rather, what we think we are, because all fear is psy­cho­log­i­cal and cre­at­ed with­in the imag­i­na­tion. While there are, of course, a great many dan­gers in the world, fear itself is not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­nect­ed causal­ly with those dan­gers. If it were, we’d all be more con­cerned by house­work than shark attacks, or with a drive to the shops than a long-haul flight. As with the over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tions of Black Swan Green’s adults, our fears serve to sig­ni­fy our inner bias rather than any exter­nal objec­tiv­i­ty, they frame the view of the world made in our mind’s eye. When a writer cre­ates some­thing intend­ed to cause fear, it is a com­ment on that which is nor­mal, nat­ur­al and com­fort­able by way of oppo­si­tion.

So let’s talk about zom­bies. Through their oppo­si­tion to that which is nor­mal and com­fort­able, zom­bies are a com­ment on just that. By read­ing them in terms of what they are not, we can make infer­ences about what we (think we) are. First and most obvi­ous, of course, is alive.  Zombies quite lit­er­al­ly embody our fear of death. But there’s some­thing more.  The fear cre­at­ed by a zom­bie is quite dif­fer­ent from that of a nor­mal dead body. Perhaps con­trary to what we might ini­tial­ly and instinc­tive­ly think, what zom­bies cre­ate is a less extreme ver­sion of death than the reg­u­lar permanent-lights-out we are all des­tined for. The pri­ma­ry dif­fer­ence between a zom­bie and your run of the mill dead guy is that a zom­bie gets up and moves around, even eats and, depend­ing on your writer’s pref­er­ence, per­haps breathes, bleeds or burps. Zombies occu­py a mid­dle ground between life and death: “undeath,” which falls non­com­mit­tal­ly between the two. Because of this, we iden­ti­fy with them enough to empathize with their posi­tion, which is damn well scary. Human beings, par­tic­u­lar­ly young ones, are adept at repress­ing a fact that we actu­al­ly all know for sure: we will die. The semi-alive semi-dead sta­tus of the zom­bie dis­rupts our abil­i­ty to sup­press that knowl­edge, it reminds us of the inevitabil­i­ty of the end.

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead mag­ni­fies this effect in ways now pret­ty com­mon in zom­bie fic­tion. In what is already an incred­i­bly dis­tress­ing sit­u­a­tion, (zom­bie holo­caust and all that) sur­vivors in zom­bie fic­tions are fre­quent­ly exposed to the yet more dis­tress­ing sight of fam­i­ly mem­bers, friends or other sur­vivors who’ve so far been part of their group turn­ing into zom­bies. The Walking Dead uses this to most effect with fam­i­ly: in the course of a short jour­ney we come across Lee’s broth­er, Clem’s par­ents and watch as Kenny bat­tles with the knowl­edge that his young son Duck will soon turn. These expe­ri­ences force those wit­ness­ing them to make the con­nec­tion between the past (and passed!) liv­ing ver­sion of the per­son they knew and the present dead form, their recog­ni­tion of the indi­vid­ual is too strong to ignore. This recog­ni­tion and the con­nec­tion it forges under­lines the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of the observ­ing indi­vid­ual: Anyone can die. It is never, after all, real­ly a ques­tion in The Walking Dead of whether Duck must be shot before he can turn, only of who must do it. The semi-death of zom­biehood doesn’t actu­al­ly appear to be all that dis­turb­ing for those expe­ri­enc­ing it (zom­bies don’t seem to feel pain or have any aware­ness of their plight) so the choice to shoot Duck is actu­al­ly based out of con­cern for those around him. We like our dead calm, nor­mal and in the ground, where they won’t worry the neigh­bours. Such is the strength of this feel­ing that for Kenny (if you played the way I did) it is bet­ter to shoot his own son in the head than have him return.  Either way, the boy is dead.  The dif­fer­ence is that if he is a zom­bie, Duck will remain unburied, both phys­i­cal­ly and in the con­scious­ness of Kenny.

Speaking of con­scious­ness, (yay segue!) we can per­haps fur­ther read into its lack in zom­bies.  It’s actu­al­ly a lit­tle bit dif­fi­cult to define death: There are phys­i­cal ces­sa­tions of fea­tures like heart­beat, breath­ing, elec­tri­cal brain activ­i­ty and so on, but each seems to be coun­ter­actable, CPR can get the heart and lungs going again, a brain may sit in a coma for years and restart good as new. Perhaps death exists more in the loss of regain­able con­scious­ness, per­son­al­i­ty or func­tion­al­i­ty, but who are we to decide what level of con­scious­ness counts as life? Many low level sin­gle cell life forms must lack any­thing in the way of con­scious­ness but there is cer­tain­ly a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between their life and death. Trees aren’t exact­ly the finest con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists, but sure­ly they’re alive? In fact, a spe­cif­ic def­i­n­i­tion doesn’t mat­ter all that much here and now, but it seems to me that for humans what mat­ters is the loss of someone’s con­scious per­son­al­i­ty in death. Rarely do we hear a mourn­er lament­ing the loss of the beat­ing heart or mus­cu­lar jaw of the depart­ed, it is much more com­mon to miss “our lit­tle chats” or “her lov­ing nature,” and so on. When a zom­bie returns it does so along with cer­tain aspects of its pre­vi­ous life, most­ly the phys­i­cal and very lit­tle of the con­scious­ness, usu­al­ly none of the per­son­al­i­ty.

This is a dis­tress­ing aspect of the zom­bie, that it appears humanoid whilst com­mu­ni­cat­ing no signs of human­i­ty. Humanity, then, is some­thing beyond our shape and our sens­es and our mus­cu­lar func­tions, life is more. Frequently zom­bies are pre­sent­ed with the back­drop of some kind of apoc­a­lypse, usu­al­ly of their own mak­ing, which strips the land­scape of mean­ing in the same way that the zom­biehood strips bod­ies of human­i­ty, reflect­ing them in their sur­round­ings. Let me expand on that.

In The Walking Dead the items and archi­tec­ture which rep­re­sent soci­ety have been, or are in the process of being, turned into sim­u­lacra, empty sig­ni­fiers with­out ref­er­ent. Some of the most strik­ing exam­ples of this are sta­ples of the hor­ror genre- TVs and radios pick­ing up sta­t­ic sig­nals, shop signs which have bro­ken, burned or fall­en, vehi­cles which are over­turned or immo­bile. Each of these items con­tin­ues to carry a ref­er­ence to some­thing that no longer exists, the TVs and radios to a sig­nal that no longer broad­casts, the signs to shops that no longer hold goods, vehi­cles to move­ment they can no longer pro­vide. By con­tin­u­ing to exist phys­i­cal­ly but lack­ing the inter­nal mean­ing they ought to con­vey these items, like the zom­bies them­selves, draw atten­tion to that very lack. It is per­haps sig­nif­i­cant that in The Walking Dead, Lee and his group, and by exten­sion the play­er, set about active­ly reas­sign­ing mean­ing to at least a cou­ple of those exam­ple I’ve given there.

One of the game’s ear­li­est and sim­plest fetch quests is to find some bat­ter­ies for Carly to get a radio work­ing, and the play­er is made to spend fur­ther and more in-depth time fix­ing the radio step-by-step, turn­ing it over, flick­ing switch­es and rear­rang­ing the bat­ter­ies. Later, Kenny in par­tic­u­lar is fix­at­ed on move­ment and vehi­cles, from the camper van to the train to the boat, all of which need fix­ing and restart­ing anew. To be sure, each of these activ­i­ties has a prac­ti­cal expla­na­tion, but the empha­sis both Carly and Kenny place on their suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion is wor­thy of a read­ing into sub­tex­tu­al motives. Reassigning mean­ing to these items exer­cis­es a form of con­trol over them which goes some small way to renew­ing a fall­en soci­ety, dis­tract­ing from the fact that in the case of the empty-of-meaning zom­bies, this is impos­si­ble.

I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road not so long ago, and was remind­ed of it in many of the The Walking Dead’s themes and plotlines- a strong pater­nal fig­ure with a more vul­ner­a­ble child in a post-disaster waste­land, the dichoto­my of the chid’s inno­cence with the world’s aggres­sive dan­gers, the focus on the jour­ney with a spe­cif­ic Holy Grail-style tar­get, cer­tain sac­ri­fices and expe­ri­ences the char­ac­ters must work through which seem to be mir­rored. In The Road there are no zom­bies — some unde­fined dis­as­ter has swept across the world killing off most life. The father and son make their way towards a warmer cli­mate for fear of freez­ing, and apart from star­va­tion and ill health the only dan­gers are other peo­ple, many of them can­ni­bals. The father talks often to his son in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

A sim­i­lar thing hap­pens in The Walking Dead, in which there are three cat­e­gories, ‘us’, ‘them’ and ‘zom­bies’. Apart from the obvi­ous zom­bie threat, Lee’s group faces the dan­ger of ban­dits, can­ni­bals, the dan­ger­ous­ly intro­vert­ed mini-society of Crawford, and Clem’s rather insane stalk­er. In each of these cases there seems to be an ele­ment which sug­gests that in these extreme sit­u­a­tions, human­i­ty can be lost in the break­ing of social con­tracts that main­tain human inter­ac­tions. In fact, in more con­tem­po­rary zom­bie fic­tions, the remain­ing humans are fre­quent­ly more of a dan­ger than the zom­bies them­selves, which make up a threat­en­ing back­ground by con­strict­ing move­ment and safe spaces.

An inter­est­ing thing to note in both The Road and The Walking Dead is that there often seems to be a cor­re­la­tion between phys­i­cal move­ment and the main­tain­ing of humane ideals. Those who do not move or migrate become stag­nant and sub­hu­man. In The Walking Dead, the St. John broth­ers are can­ni­bals who are encoun­tered almost exclu­sive­ly with­in their farm, and are inter­act­ed with in con­stant ref­er­ence to it. The rel­a­tive safe­ty of the farm has the down­side that they can­not find addi­tion­al food with­out mov­ing away, and it is pre­sum­ably this which has led them to eat­ing other humans. Likewise, in The Road most dis­turb­ing scene comes when the father and son come to a house whose inhab­i­tants are trap­ping passers­by and keep­ing them in a sort of human larder in the base­ment.

Perhaps this oppo­si­tion between move­ment and stay­ing put speaks to a deep­er aspect of humankind, who are, after all, great wan­der­ers. Certainly in The Walking Dead the group’s in-fighting reach­es its height when they are trapped with­in the motel for months on end, sug­gest­ing any­one is sus­cep­ti­ble to the ero­sion of stag­na­tion. What may be sig­nif­i­cant is that, as I men­tioned above, both The Walking Dead and The Road have Holy Grail nar­ra­tives, jour­neys to a spe­cif­ic place through trial and dis­as­ter with the idea that get­ting to that place will make every­thing bet­ter. This style of nar­ra­tive demon­strates a way of think­ing rare out­side of humanity- we per­ceive and plan for the future, rec­og­niz­ing that it will come and ready­ing our­selves for it to our advan­tage. Human migra­tion is the under­ly­ing suc­cess story of the species, rely­ing upon and devel­op­ing our skills in cre­ativ­i­ty, adap­ta­tion, cul­ti­va­tion and social­iza­tion. In a nar­ra­tive that extolls the virtue of move­ment, those who choose to hun­ker down at all costs are nat­ur­al choic­es for ene­mies. Zombies once again make up the mid­dle ground in this equa­tion. Unable to think, they instinc­tive­ly fol­low their sens­es in the hunt for food but if unaware of any, seem to sham­ble around a sin­gle spot, pre­sum­ably des­tined to rot away. They are never inno­cent but never malev­o­lent, only instinc­tive. Their pure­ly instinc­tive nature under­lines its oppo­si­tion to human­i­ty, wh plan and adapt and envis­age a future. Sometimes, though, the nature of human­i­ty makes zom­bies look pos­i­tive­ly pleas­ant.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.