The Walking Dead AMC’s gritty and gruesome apocalyptic hit “The Walking Dead” places the blood thirsty, agonized groans of zombies right in our living rooms. The show follows a small group of survivors in the midst of a zombie apocalypse that has decimated some seventy-five percent of the population. The cable series which first premiered in 2010 made no bones about its weekly offering of flesh-eating, blood-splattered gore.
The opening sequence of the pilot episode features a virus-ridden little girl being thrust into the pavement when former sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) shoots a bullet into her skull as he struggles to ward off her flesh-hungry zombie attack. “The Walking Dead” has since amassed quite the following of fans who rave in equal parts about the show’s violent and spine-tingling special effects and its subtle commentary on hope and the human condition.
Watching the hour-long gorefest in which infected men, woman and even children are repeatedly shown receiving violent and bloody blows to the head, one cannot help but wonder, is “The Walking Dead’s” portrayal of violence harmful in its appeal to debased human interests or does it ultimately provide a hopeful look at the human spirit trying to survive in a bleak world? One look at primetime’s lineup of this or that network’s violent flavor of the week and it is not a stretch to surmise that the populace has not come very far since the gladiatorial games of the ancient Romans.
From a macro perspective, humans love gratuitous violence. The media is inundated with copious images of cold killings and moral depravity that serve no other purpose but to shock the masses. Violence tends to equate to ratings, which in turn leads to the exposure of more violence. Studies have shown, however, that continued and prolonged exposure to horrific images, like those in “The Walking Dead”, is not necessarily without consequence. According to researchers Craig A. Anderson and Brad J.
Bushman in the peer-reviewed “Effects of Media Violence on Society”, televised violence, as substantiated by six major professional societies in the United States including the American Psychiatric Association, is shown to adversely affect certain members of our society. Fictional violence across television waves has a very real human effect. The greater the exposure, the more pronounced the effect. Violent televised images, Anderson and Bushman continue, have been connected numerous times to a propensity towards violent behaviors such as assault, robbery and even childhood aggression (Anderson and Bushman).
Given this research, it is therefore reasonable to conclude that “The Walking Dead” will not leave all of its viewers unfazed. In all of its gore, blood and killing, “The Walking Dead” is yet another piece of the violent puzzle that contributes to the aggression of many in our society. Even those who do not respond to the viewing of violence with aggression are likely to experience some effects from watching “The Walking Dead”. Prior to the opening of the show each week, viewers are provided with a parental advisory which reads, “This program contains violent images which may be too intense for some viewers.
Viewer discretion is advised” (“The Walking Dead”). Disturbing images permeate the AMC hit drama. They are unsettling, unnatural and can lead to psychological trauma and fear. Current trends in media suggest our generation is obsessed with shows featuring a post apocalyptic world. We both fear and favor the dark. Like the tendency toward aggression that can be created from exposure to violence, other antisocial or anxiety related behaviors can manifest from such images. According to Dimitri A. Christakis and Frederick J.
Zimmerman in “Violent Television Viewing During Preschool is Associated with Antisocial Behavior During School Age”, exposure to violence can also result in a variety of anti-social behaviors including depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies (Christakis and Zimmerman). Again, we see a strong correlation between media violence and behavior. Perhaps the biggest fear, however, concerning viewership of “The Walking Dead” is the possibility it has of eschewing one’s moral compass. Viewers continually watch protagonist Grimes and his cohorts violently kill and maim the walking dead without pause and vice versa.
It leads one to wonder, if this prolonged exposure to killing without thought can also increase one’s own ability to exercise uncivil behavior without hesitation or remorse. If a society’s values are represented in what that society chooses to watch, should we be concerned that our viewing choices revolve around barbaric killer instincts? One too, however, could take the opposite look at what violent, post apocalyptic television, particularly “The Walking Dead”, reflects about our society.
Many critics argue that “The Walking Dead” is ultimately a tale of one man’s struggle to create peace and unity for his family amidst a world of terror and strife. Our society’s interest in disaster and cataclysm is likely synonymous with our feelings of isolation and duress omnipresent in this modern and technological age. The violence shown in “The Walking Dead”—the fight for survival, the loneliness, the internal struggles the characters face in response to the violence—can be compared to the challenges humans face every day.
In this society in which modernism distances humans from nature, each other, and often a connection to what is genuinely important, it is easy to feel as though we are living in a dark world in which many of its inhabitants are out to attack us. Pop Matters television critic Jesse Hicks defends “The Walking Dead” as an important character study about modern man in the article “The Walking Dead: Blurring Lines”. Hicks explains that, like any good horror tale, “The Walking Dead” effectively scares with its use of monsters but more importantly balances this fear with “a search for answers, a way to remain decent among the ruins” (Hicks).
Humans are calling out for more and more post apocalyptic examinations and thereby guides for how modern man can survive and ultimately succeed in a seemingly bleak world. Through all of its violence and grisliness, “The Walking Dead’s” dynamic characters and themes regarding a search for humanity among chaos do indeed offer such a guide. Among the layered personality struggles examined in “The Walking Dead” is Grimes’ and other characters’ quests to display bravery and self-sacrifice when faced with zombie attacks.
The images are often unsettling and even at times shocking. However, the feelings conjured up by such startling images illuminate the magnitude of just how dire the surrounding circumstances are and just how difficult the decisions the characters make must be. Through the violence, we see Grimes do nearly anything to protect his family. He struggles with the decisions he makes—killing an infected child, taking the life of persons who could potentially threaten those dear to him, and abandoning his best friend.
Grimes moral struggles to exhibit heroic character traits in the face of violence ultimately provides an uplifting tale of courage and principle regardless of how dire circumstances may appear. The violence in “The Walking Dead” might also provide some positive influences based on the various ways in which we watch different characters deal with that violence. Grimes’ opposing character, best friend and fellow officer Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), reacts to violence and aggression in stark contrast to Grimes. Grimes is slow to anger and tends to make decisions based on morality and he interests of all involved parties. Walsh, on the other hand, takes a more pragmatic, militaristic view of violence and the challenges they face. While the two characters’ plights can be disturbing, acknowledging how they fail and succeed based on their interactions with violence offers thought provoking questions on how we as individuals can deal with violence and pressures. In Alan Sepinwall’s “The Walking Dead Review—Better Angels: What a Shane”, Sepinwall argues that in contrast to Grimes’ ultimately more ethical decisions “Walsh’s death was inevitable” (Sepinwall).
While a zombie apocalypse is hopefully not in our imminent future, the ways in which we deal with violence, aggression and personal struggle surrounds each of us. Though it is important to give sufficient attention to how violence in the media is affecting us as both individuals and a society, the dynamic character development as well as the various ethical questions raised by the violence in “The Walking Dead”, if viewed with care, ultimately offer a more positive than negative depiction of violence.
Violence in television, if served with purposeful intent, is an effective storytelling device for displaying the difference between good and evil. “The Walking Dead” effectively makes the distinction between gratuitous violence and violence necessary for plot and character development. In an apocalyptic world of isolation and gory yet morally charged killings, a small band of survivors in “The Walking Dead” are fighters for good amidst evil and a model for those seeking modern interpretations of what it means to survive in the real, and sometimes seemingly bleak, world in which we all find ourselves.
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