Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beth’s Books: The Walking Dead Psychology

It’s been a while since I wrote about The Walking Dead, and with the midseason finale of Season 6 coming up, this seems like a good time!

Besides, I absolutely loved this book. It takes a serious look at the psychological aspects of the show, both why viewers watch and the toll the Zombie Apocalypse (or any other type of apocalypse) takes on survivors and affects their behaviors. Psychology has always been a casual hobby of mine, and of course, I am truly obsessed with the show, so this was right up my alley. The book is a collaborative effort of several Psychology professors and counselors, and they all offer interesting insights on varying aspects of the show.

So why do we watch? One of the authors posits that it is because we have a longing for a sense of community, deeper relationships, and connections. There are no cell phones or computers in the ZA. No television, no Internet, and none of the constant bombardment of stimuli that we are subjected to on a daily basis. The survivors have to rely on each other for everything and deep relationships are formed. When you place your life into the hands of others on a daily basis, forging such strong bonds is a major contribution to your survival.

There is also a strong sense of nostalgia for things lost. The survivors feel it as they make their way through the wasted land filled only with walkers; something as simple as the ice cubes in Andrea’s glass of lemonade at Woodbury are seen as a long-lost luxury. After Rick and Carl flee the prison and find refuge in an empty home, Carl looks at the video games in a kid’s room and the big screen TV with longing...then rips the cord off of the useless TV to use to secure the front door. The viewers feel it, too. Seeing abandoned homes and signs of the people who lived there, seeing rusted cars grown over with kudzu, seeing a world that has ended for the vast majority of human can you not feel a sense of longing for what has been lost? The premiere episode of the show is called “Days Gone Bye” for a good reason.

Another author believes that part of the show’s appeal to so many of us is that it causes us to reflect on existential questions such as the meaning of our lives and to what purpose we would continue in such a scenario. It may cause us to confront our fears and think about how we would react in the ZA. Would we retain our humanity? Would we grow hungry with power like the Governor, or would we do whatever it takes to protect our family, like Rick is trying (and not always succeeding) to do? The author draws an analogy between survival in the ZA and survival in the death camps of the Holocaust. It’s not a bad analogy because surviving both would take courage and the ability to confront the worst that humanity has to offer. How can anyone deal with such inhumanity (in the ZA, both from the walkers and from certain other survivors) and come through unscathed? It’s natural to question our own abilities to deal with such extreme circumstances.

As for the survivors’ response, they are all suffering in varying degrees from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have all seen and done some incredibly horrible and brutal things and are under constant stress and constant fear. All of this can result in unpredictable behavior and bad decision-making, both of which can cost you your life or the lives of those who are looking to you for protection, resulting in further stress and survivor’s guilt. Many of the survivors have experienced psychotic breaks, such as Morgan after losing his son Duane, or Rick after Lori died. Michonne spent months by herself, talking to her dead boyfriend as if he were there. One of the big questions in the series has been, “Do you get to come back?” In other words, after all you’ve seen and done, do you get to survive with your humanity intact? It’s a question that is still being answered for many of our survivors.

The most interesting chapter to me was the one that considered Daryl Dixon’s transformation from angry redneck to reliable soldier, and even to transformative hero. The author looks at Daryl in the context of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero arc,’ in which the character embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Daryl is compared to the classical hero Ulysses, who experiences hardships and tests in his travels and learns much about himself in the process. Daryl was an abused child, growing up in sad circumstances; he looks for Sophia with such dedication because he thinks about how he wished he could have been saved when he was a child. It has taken the ZA to make Daryl realize his potential as a human being with meaning to his life, and a valuable, trusted member of the group. As such, Daryl is a symbol of much-needed hope in the apocalyptic world. If Daryl can overcome what he did and grow into a position of trust and leadership, then there is hope for all of us. Daryl sets the bar high and challenges us to become our own “better angels.”

The book also does a few case studies of some of the characters to see if they fit the profile of a psychopath. Shane, the Governor, the Claimers, Negan, and others are examined using professional criteria.

The book concludes with the thought that zombies help us confront one of our biggest fears: our own mortality. We see that the zombies are simply bags of meat, without purpose or meaning other than finding their next meal (and hopefully it’s not us). We all have a desire to find meaning in our lives, to be more than another bag of meat. The book feels that The Walking Dead succeeds in showing the human struggle to find meaning in life, even knowing that our mortality is inevitable, and that our struggle matters.

So why do I love the show so much? Because it makes me think about all these things. Yes, you can say that it is “just a TV show,” but I’ve always felt that good TV can speak to us on a level that makes us address certain things in ourselves and also connects us with others who feel the same way. The best shows make you wonder how you would react in certain situations, whether it’s Walter White confronting a cancer diagnosis or Don Draper dealing with his past and the rapidly changing world around him. The Walking Dead makes us wonder what we would do in order to survive...or would we even want to? And why?

Highly recommended for anyone who is a fan of the show, comics, or novels.