The Walking Dead and the American Apocalyptic Tradition

walking dead

By Colin Woodward

The Walking Dead is regarded as one of the best shows on television. It’s certainly the most violent and disturbing. I  have watched it from the beginning, and it is not a show that leaves you feeling indifferent. At its best, it is an inspired and timeless comment on human nature. At its worst, it is sadistic torture-porn.

To read the show politically, one could see it is a fantasy for all the government-hating survivalists out there. At a religious and historical level, it speaks very much to the American apocalyptic tradition.

Americans’ fascination with the apocalypse is as old as America itself. Recently, I reviewed a book on the Civil War and the apocalypse: Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era. Every generation must deal with the notion of the end of the world. My parents remember the Cuban missile crisis and “duck and cover.”

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the Soviet Union, with its many, many bombs, was still seen as an existential threat. A TV movie like The Day After examined nuclear obliteration. The 1984 film Ghostbusters satirized our obsession with Armageddon by showing the undead driving cabs in New York City.

day after

On the one hand, The Walking Dead is a horrifying exploration of the collapse of civilization. Flesh-eating zombies roam the land. People survive based on their wits and their aim with a bow or a gun. But even the toughest of them aren’t always lucky. The show can be extremely dark and bleak.

On the other hand, the show portrays how well humans can react well in a crisis, and how they cling to decency and humanity even when the End of Days seem upon us.

The United States is a country founded on Enlightenment principles, best expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But the earliest settlers of what became the United States were arriving on our shores in the late 1500s and early 1600s: essentially at the tail end of the middle ages. They were post-Renaissance people. But they were also pre-Enlightenment. The armor and weapons the men of Jamestown or Plymouth carried around looked downright medieval.

The ethos of the Walking Dead, really, is truer to the 17th century than it is the 21st. A plague is decimating humanity. Cars don’t run. Infrastructure has collapsed. Commerce is non-existent. There is no government to help. Whenever our heroes Rick, Darryl, and Maggie find refuge at a building, house, or community, the place turns out to be a trap. Whatever exists behind walls seems more sinister than what is in the natural world. Our travelers stick to the road, but it is leading nowhere.

Much of the shows design and props are a throwback to the Middle Ages–an era when towns were surrounded by walls and forts. Once an enemy breached the walls, all hell broke loose. The same holds true in The Walking Dead. The characters often try to hide behind walls, whether it be an abandoned prison or a “Utopian” community run by the sadistic “Governor.” The walls may protect, but they also obscure and become traps. Empty cities are perilous mazes. Hospitals are sinister. The price to defend the walls is often a high body count. Far more characters get slaughtered behind walls than they do in the open field and the woods.

The weapons of the show are also throwbacks to the pre-gunpowder days. Take Darryl’s bow. Yes, it’s symbolic of the man’s backwoods, cracker roots. It is also a nod to the middle ages and the pre-gunpowder days. The show also features many uses of the sword and the knife. One character is like a black samurai–another nod to the middle ages. And when guns fail, knives save characters who would’ve otherwise been dead. Guns are a modern invention. They are powerful, but often fail. They jam. They run out of bullets. In The Walking Dead, the gun is a symbol of the failure of modern society.

At its core, the show is far more Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who wrote of the “war against all,” than it is Thomas Jefferson and his belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Hobbes famously said that life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The folks in The Walking Dead live in a true “war against all” situation. Violence and killing is constant. In a grotesque parody of Christian theology, the dead rise but not in the way Lazarus did. They are not miracles, but insatiable monsters. The show is Biblical in its obsession with the end of the world. And though past zombie sagas, like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, had a healthy dose of good ol’ American satire, The Walking Dead rarely seeks out humor.

Nor does it seek out much pleasure. The violence is pornographic. But sex is never shown. The only character with seemingly any hint of the libertine is the fiery-haired Abraham, who doesn’t mind sipping on a whiskey bottle or going to bed with the woman with the pigtails.

Usually, though, The Walking Dead holds to the grim aesthetic of the pioneers and the Wild West: people move through the wilderness, but there are dangers at every tun. Every week, the show is like an updated version of the Donner Party. It also employs many of the tropes of the Wild West. But The Walking Dead is a world even more chaotic than the Wild West, which, as brutal as it could be, was a step the country needed to take in order to “civilize” the West. And one wonders: are the humans of the Walking Dead the pioneers or are they the Indians?

The popularity of The Walking Dead may be read as statement on contemporary American society in many ways. Unlike the apocalyptic vision of the Cold War, things do not end in a big bang. Rather, the world ends with the relentless attack of slow-moving zombies. Perhaps the show taps into our post-911 fears of Islamic extremism, which is a low-tech, but no less terrifying threat to western civilization than the Soviet Union was.

In today’s political climate, we hear a lot–too much, really–of religious rhetoric. Just a few years back, I heard people say they thought Obama literally was the anti-Christ. And that his presence was a harbinger of the End Times. It’s easy to dismiss such talk as crackpot. But it was serious, and it suggests that those that cling the language of Armageddon don’t fear the Rapture. Rather, they welcome it.

By depicting the harshest realities of a post-apocalyptic world, the show forces us to become virtual survivalists. We think: how would I do in this situation? Sure, Rick looks tired, but he also is tan and is in good shape and is a natural leader. By setting characters in a Hobbesian world, The Walking Dead is terrifying. It is also appeals to a grim but stoic ideal. In The Walking Dead world, Americans’ love of guns, hunting, and rugged individualism are advantages. Long wars–Hobbesian or not–are exhausting, but they can also tests us in ways no other human experience can.

The Walking Dead is not just superior entertainment. In a way, it is the exact opposite. It wants us not to escape, but confront the harshest types of human behavior. It places us in an apocalyptic situation and asks: how would you fare?

America’s interest in The Walking Dead can be read many ways. But it clearly is a history lesson in how the apocalypse continues to fascinate our society.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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