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.