Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us,” the German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine wrote in 1842, “and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of Saint John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.” Heine wasn’t thinking of zombies, necessarily, but 170 years later, many of us are. Zombies seem to be everywhere these days. Barnes and Noble called the decade from 2003 to 2013 a “Golden Age for zombie fiction.” Max Brooks—son of comedian Mel Brooks—has written several zombie-themed books, the most popular of which—2006’s World War Z—sold more than 1 million copies and inspired the blockbuster 2013 movie of the same name, starring Brad Pitt. (I recently jumped into the genre myself, with a novel called Resurrection, which has been optioned for film.) Zombies dominate the video-gaming world. Dead Rising 3 for Xbox One and Microsoft Windows, released last November—the latest in a zombie-killing franchise—has already sold 1.2 million copies, at $50 a pop. In May 2014, CNN reported that the Department of Defense had come up with an elaborate (fictional) zombie-based contingency plan for a military response to “a planet-wide attack by the walking dead.” Pentagon planners liked CONOP 8888 (a.k.a. Counter-Zombie Dominance), the report claimed, because it allowed them to avoid “casting” the role of the bad guys in their training scenario with denizens of real countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a Zombie Preparedness page on its website, meant to be “a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages.” The Wall Street Journal recently noted a surge in dissertations and academic books with the word “zombie” in the title. Zombie characters show up frequently in everything from road races to flash mobs, as well as at the expected Halloween parties.
But when it comes to zombies’ hold on our collective imagination, AMC’s The Walking Dead, starting its fifth season October 12, is in a class by itself. Based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book of the same name, the show chronicles the efforts of a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse to stay alive in the ruins of civilization. Ratings were good for the first season, in 2010, and have grown every year since, making The Walking Dead a massive hit—indeed, a cultural phenomenon. According to Variety, 16.1 million viewers watched the season-four premiere—a record not just for AMC but for basic cable—and that’s before counting everyone who saw it on Hulu, Netflix, and other on-demand outlets. The Walking Dead’s popularity has spawned a small industry of related products, from video games to action figures, and regularly put stars Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus on the covers of big magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and GQ.
Why so much enthusiasm for a show filled with gruesome violence and almost unbearable tension? Why all the interest in the end of the world generally?
The ongoing story of The Walking Dead begins with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Lincoln) waking in a hospital bed, dazed, from a three-month coma—he’d been wounded in a gun battle—and finding himself in a world gone mad. The hospital, located near Atlanta, is seemingly empty, with signs of violence, including the mangled corpse of a woman and blood-splattered walls, all around. Outside, the dead are piled high in bags. Stumbling about, Rick heads home to find his family. On the way, he comes to a park—where, to his horror, a severely decomposed body, missing its lower half, begins to crawl toward him.
At first, Rick doesn’t understand any of this. He slept through the apocalypse—a virus has animated the dead with a mindless, relentless urge to consume human flesh, spreading the plague further by their lethal bites, and civilization has collapsed—and it’s too much to comprehend. But he soon meets a live human being, Morgan Jones, who gives him shelter and a rude education.
“Hey mister,” Jones says. “You even know what’s going on?”
“I woke up today in the hospital,” explains Rick, “came home, and that’s all I know.”
“But you know about the dead people, right?” Jones asks.
“Yeah,” Rick says. “I saw a lot of that, out on the loading docks piled in trucks.”
“No,” Jones says. “Not the ones they put down. The ones they didn’t. The walkers”—what The Walking Dead’s protagonists call zombies. “They might not seem like much, one at a time,” Jones later warns Rick, “but in a group all riled up and hungry, man, you watch your ass.”
Rick sets out to find his missing wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and, against the longest odds, succeeds, becoming the leader of a small group of ragged survivors, struggling against infection and death in a world where everything is shattered and danger lurks around every corner. The suicidal Dr. Edwin Jenner, whom the group meets at the abandoned offices of the Centers for Disease Control, sums up the bleak reality in the season-one finale. “This is what takes us down,” he says. “This is our extinction event.”
Like all good science fiction and horror, The Walking Dead is completely believable once you accept the premise—the existence of corpses that walk and bite. But though the zombies are integral to The Walking Dead’s plot, they’re not what the show is really about. They’re just a way to blow up the world. As creator Robert Kirkman tells Matt Mogk, author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies, The Walking Dead is “about us. It’s about how we respond to crisis.” Director George Romero, who kicked off the zombie genre with his 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead, said much the same about his film. “Zombies could be anything,” he told The Big Issue magazine. “They could be a hurricane or a tornado. It’s not about the zombies. The important thing to me is the way people react to this horrible situation, misbehave, make mistakes, and screw themselves up.”
Kirkman’s dystopia swarms not only with the walking dead but also with bands of desperate—and sometimes predatory—survivors, competing with one another for dwindling supplies or food, ammunition, and defensible shelter. Everyone left alive learns that distrust is essential. Yet, even forced to spend their lives in survival mode, the characters of The Walking Dead still yearn for meaning. There’s a wish-fulfillment aspect to the story, which anyone who has ever fantasized, even idly, about living through an apocalyptic event will recognize. The last people on earth can reinvent themselves into something better, or more powerful. Glenn, a pizza-delivery driver before the zombie plague, becomes, postapocalypse, a vital strategist and skillful navigator of deadly terrain. Philip Blake was an office drone in the old, normal world; in the dark new world, he’s the Governor, the feared and charismatic ruler of Woodbury, a walled-off town of survivors. Carol was a cringing victim of domestic violence before the end of civilization; after, she chops her zombified husband’s body into pieces with an ax and transforms herself into a hardened, capable survivor.
Society begins to reinvent itself, making The Walking Dead a study in primitive politics. Different models of government emerge—Rick’s tough but basically consensual and fair leadership, the Governor’s brutal authoritarianism, and a mysterious new system, which appears to involve ritualized cannibalism, at the end of season four. All these systems are more or less based on the chieftain model that humans lived under during their prehistory. Nobody builds bridges, founds nonprofits, or splits the atom in The Walking Dead. No one mentions the United States Constitution.
Most important, The Walking Dead is a morality tale that disdains easy answers. How does a civilized person behave in a world where civilization has collapsed? Decency is still possible, the show instructs us, but ruthlessness is needed as well. “It’s ugly,” Carol says when explaining this to a child, “and it’s scary and it does change you, but that’s how we get to be here.” To save his son in one incredibly tense episode, Rick, a decent man, has no choice but to act like a zombie himself, ripping out the jugular of a dangerous marauder with his teeth. The characters constantly face brutal moral dilemmas, none more horrifying than in the season-four episode called “The Grove.” An 11-year-old girl, Lizzy, can’t accept that zombies are dangerous; she’s convinced that they’re just “different.” To prove her point, she kills her younger sister with a knife and tells everyone to wait and see—Mika will be fine, only different, when she rises as a zombie. What can you do with a child like that in the postapocalyptic world? You can’t send her to therapy or to a juvenile-detention facility; you can’t wait for her to outgrow her madness—she is dangerous. “She can’t be around other people,” says Carol, who has cared for Lizzy after the death of her parents. Carol makes a gut-wrenching decision to shoot the girl, but the viewer is left wondering: Did she go too far?
Indeed, if you do veer too far and too frequently into ruthlessness—if you don’t master it—you’ll become one of the predatory survivors whom the decent can justifiably take off the board. Many characters fail to find the right balance. The Governor, played by David Morrissey, is shown to have a moral and heroic side in a remarkable two-episode sequence in season four. Until that point—and after it—we see a man willing to go to any extreme, including mass murder, to rule. Rick’s best friend, Shane, does unspeakable things to stay alive. He hates himself for it, at first, but once he becomes desensitized to despicable acts, he starts committing them even when survival isn’t at stake. Rick comes close to failure himself. He becomes tougher and colder, slumps into a deep depression after his wife’s death, refuses to lead for a time—and then snaps out of it, with a new forcefulness and sense of mission as season five opens.
Some rise to true greatness. An elderly veterinarian, Hershel, is a naive pacifist when we first meet him. He won’t allow guns on his farm—during a zombie apocalypse!—but he toughens up out of necessity and becomes a realist and Rick’s sage advisor until the Governor executes him. Darryl (Reedus, the show’s other breakout star) begins as a loose-cannon redneck, but over time he becomes Rick’s intrepid deputy—precisely the sort of man you’d want to cover your back.
Angst about the end of civilization has pervaded popular culture before. When I was growing up during the Cold War, I believed—deep in my teenage bones—that I might never graduate from high school because the Earth might first be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. Novels like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and movies like WarGames and The Day After terrified me because they seemed plausible—though, since they were fiction, they also offered a way to overcome that fear. With the end of the Cold War, however, the threat of total destruction eased. Political theorists talked about the triumph of liberal democracy and the opening of a new age of peace and prosperity. Postapocalyptic scenarios on film and television were rarer and tended to be set in the future, as in 1999’s The Matrix. Zombies weren’t really part of the picture.
It’s probably no coincidence that the zombie craze began barely a year after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with Danny Boyle’s hit film 28 Days Later. Boyle’s zombies weren’t the shuffling “walkers” of The Walking Dead but living people, made rabid with a virus called Rage, who ran—fast—making them especially terrifying. The film’s depiction of a London transformed into a postapocalyptic horror show resonated with a public recently shocked by images of the World Trade Center’s destruction and the abrupt realization that Islamic terrorists posed a serious threat to the modern world’s prosperity and order. The fascination with the zombie apocalypse, I believe, is a cultural reflection of the new age of anxiety that opened on 9/11, with its fear of social collapse. As Penn State professor Peter Dendle puts it, the zombie is a “barometer of social anxiety”—and we’re plenty anxious. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that anxiety disorders are now the most common mental illnesses in the country, affecting more than 40 million people.
Anxiety disorders are by definition neurotic, and it’s true that the world is, in many ways, better than it has ever been. “The average Botswanan,” science writer and columnist Matt Ridley points out in The Rational Optimist, “earns more than the average Finn did in 1955.” Americans in 2014 can afford luxuries unthinkable even for the rich in the 1950s. We’re safer, too—less likely to die violently than at any time in history, Harvard professor Steven Pinker observes in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Still, the world is providing a lot to trouble the sleep of even the non-neurotic—Islamic terrorists beheading innocent captives, debt bombs, financial meltdowns, mass shootings in schools—all of it trumpeted by round-the-clock media. The omnipresent media regularly remind us that natural calamity remains a possibility, too, even in the developed world. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed local, state, and federal governments and almost destroyed New Orleans. The massive 2011 tsunami in Japan, triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, wiped out whole towns and caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A huge solar storm missed Earth by a week’s rotation back in 2012, which, had it hit the planet, could have crashed communications and electronics globally, taking us all back temporarily to the seventeenth century. “Drug resistant pandemics have been a staple of local news hysteria since the H1N1 virus swept the globe in 2009,” notes political scientist Daniel Drezner, author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the zombie craze. The worst outbreak of Ebola in history is ravaging West Africa as I write, killing thousands and spreading fast, including the first cases identified in Europe and the United States.
With such cataclysms, man-made or natural, comes the risk of social breakdown that makes us so apprehensive. Shortly after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, residents in parts of New York City armed up with booby traps, baseball bats, and bows and arrows to protect themselves from potential looters. “Bow and arrow,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. “Think about that for a minute. In New York City. This is exactly the appeal of The Walking Dead. . . . A zombie invasion is simply a metaphor for any situation in which the government cannot protect its citizens.” World War Z author Brooks agrees: “Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst in the end is fictional.” As it turned out, New Yorkers managed the aftermath of that storm, which tested the cohesion of some neighborhoods, with patience and lots of community spirit—but New Orleans during and immediately after Katrina was nearly up for grabs.
Perhaps another reason that zombies haunt our cultural imagination these days is that, for more and more of us, the neighbors are everywhere. “For the first time in human history,” Mogk observes, “more of the world’s population lives in crowded urban centers than rural environments, and in most industrialized nations, that number is quickly approaching 90 percent.” Hardly anyone fears healthy, prosperous, and orderly cities, but when urban areas break down—New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina or, more dramatically, Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein—nothing is more anxiety-producing than other people. And a zombie contagion is the ultimate urban-disaster scenario. The trailer for 2013’s The Dead 2, a hit film in rapidly urbanizing India, evokes the country’s crowded cities: “1.2 billion people,” it warns, “and one infection.” George Romero made the point explicit in an interview with NPR. “I took [zombies] out of ‘exotica’ and I made them the neighbors,” he said. “There’s nothing scarier than the neighbors.” In August, CNN interviewed members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority, who were fleeing from ISIS terrorists—Islamist killers so psychopathic that al-Qaida disowned them. “They join them,” one of the Yezidis said, “and they kill us.” “People you know?,” asked CNN. “Yes, people,” the man responded—“our neighbors!”
Yet we also fear life without the neighbors. Humans prosper economically today, Ridley argues, because we have become so interdependent and outsource almost everything in a global web of exchange. We exchange our income for other people’s expertise every day. I write for a living, but I have no idea how to make a pencil and paper, let alone the laptop computer and wireless router I use to publish my work. Other people raise my food and deliver it to neighborhood grocery stores. The municipality pumps water into my house. A mechanic fixes my car. I couldn’t raise enough food to sustain me, solve a serious engine problem, or get water to my house, except by bucket from a stream or river. Nor can I set broken bones, put out large house fires, or build a refrigerator to keep my produce from rotting. If we had to do everything ourselves, most of us would be miserable and dirt-poor. Ironically, people who lived 200 years ago were better prepared to survive in a postapocalyptic environment, and, on some level, we all know it.
It’s thus unsurprising that how to prepare ourselves for disaster became a more popular topic just as zombies began their cultural ascent. Brooks first made a name for himself with his 2003 bestseller, The Zombie Survival Guide, a parody that nevertheless contained an exhaustive set of survival tips. The steps outlined in the Centers for Disease Control’s Zombie Preparedness webpage are no different from what you should do to survive any disaster that might prevent emergency services from reaching you soon. Amazon now devotes whole categories to survival gear and kits. The most striking example of the trend is science writer Lewis Dartnell’s new bestseller, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, covering the basics of agriculture, mining, chemistry, communications, and medicine—a how-to manual for things most of us don’t know how to do. The hardback of Dartnell’s book is selling better on Amazon than the electronic version, despite being almost twice as expensive. That’s understandable, though, since many purchasing the book think that they might need it at a time when they won’t be able to recharge their Kindles or iPads. “People living in developed nations have become disconnected from the everyday processes of civilization that support them,” Dartnell writes. Post- apocalyptic survivors “would find themselves surrounded by a wealth of resources there for the taking: a bountiful Garden of Eden. But the Garden is rotting.” We would need survival skills of some sort if a cataclysm strikes, and books like Dartnell’s, if studied and taken seriously, reduce our general incompetence.
Most of the world may be richer, healthier, freer, and less violent than at any time in history, but the anxiety about social collapse that has made The Walking Dead and other post- apocalyptic stories so popular isn’t absurd. Our unprecedented prosperity is disturbingly vulnerable to systemic shocks. On an increasingly urbanized planet, global pandemics are terrifying. And as my work as a journalist has often shown me, residents of cities like Baghdad and Damascus can relate all too well to the predicaments that characters face in The Walking Dead. Even Beirut, an advanced city where I once enjoyed living, sees spasms of violence during which neighbors wake up one morning and start shooting at one another. Sometimes, in other words, breakdown is more than just a dark fantasy. Learning how one can survive and—just as important—remain a decent human being in such a crisis might be worth thinking about, even if it never happens.