The Psychology of The Walking Dead—The Appeal of Post-Apocalyptic Stories

by Dr. Donna Roberts


The Story

I’m not a Walking Dead fan, which is surprising because I love binging on TV series and I loved horror movies as a teenager. Or maybe, more accurately I loved watching a horror movie with my girlfriends. I was in high school at the time when the Friday the 13th and Halloween series came out and we frequently headed to the theater in a group, where we huddled together in our seats and clutched each other frantically as we screamed at all the shocking surprises. Good times. But I can’t say that my love for the genre persisted into adulthood.

When I saw that some Facebook friends from high school and current colleagues were TWD fans, I knew I had to give it a try. It just didn’t gel with me at the time. Maybe it still will. Timing is everything.

Though I wasn’t compelled to keep watching the series, I am fascinated enough with dissecting the human condition and the psychology of popular culture to know when I have a gem of some sort in my midst. I am a believer that life imitates art imitates life in a chicken-and-egg circularity. Beginning with its third season, The Walking Dead attracted the most 18- to 49-year-old viewers of any cable or broadcast television series. That’s a pretty wide range of viewers that no marketing segmentation plan would usually put together. It was even well received by critics.

So, the popularity of TWD is enough to make me want to put in on the proverbial couch and see what it has to say.


Psych Pstuff’s Summary

Turns out that since the beginning of humanity, or at least since we’ve been writing about it, we’ve been contemplating the end of humanity. From Bible stories to campfire stories, we revel in envisioning the ultimate destruction of the world as we know it, and what ensues in the aftermath.

In 2012, the Daily Mail published results of a survey that polled 16,262 people in more than 20 countries. The results indicated that 22% of Americans believed world would end in their lifetime with 10% thinking the apocalypse was coming in that very year. Certainly, if this is your mindset, then it is only logical to be a wee bit obsessed with what might be in store for you.

Actually, skipping only a few years here and there, predictions of the end of the world have occurred for almost every year since 1910 and there are plenty more scheduled for the future. Historically, even various scientists have weighed in with estimates of cataclysmic destruction that would endanger human existence, though their dates typically range from a comfortable 300,000 to 22 billion years from now. However, given the instability of both climate and the political landscape, more do seem to be cropping up with sooner best-before dates.

The media, including broadcast journalism, popular talk shows, documentaries and fictionalized productions have always played a role in our apocalyptic obsession. Adding a twist to the usual plot of following the experiences of survivors, beginning in 2009 the History Channel aired a two-season (20 episode) series where experts speculated on how the earth would evolve after the demise of humans. With the ominous opening, Welcome to Earth … Population: Zero, it captured the morbid fascination of 5.4 million viewers, making it the most watched program in the history of the History Channel.

From 2011 to 2014 the National Geographic channel ran a reality show, Doomsday Preppers, that profiled real survivalists preparing for various scenarios of the end of civilization. While some critics called it absurd and exploitative, it was the most watched and highest rated show in the history of the network.

Typically, there are only a few oft-repeated variations on the theme—the deadly virus, the meteor strike, nuclear devastation and, the newest kid on the block, the “gray goo” scenario where nanotechnology runs amok and robots commit ecophagy. The WD in particular, and the zombie craze in general, seems to be the latest, and rather enduring, fascination with all things apocalyptic. Now in its 8th season, the show seems as strong as ever. The review site Rotten Tomatoes concludes, “Blood-spattered, emotionally resonant, and white-knuckle intense, The Walking Dead puts an intelligent spin on the overcrowded zombie subgenre.”

But just why do we engage in so much pursuit of these devastating what-ifs?

In one respect, the contemplation of ever-increasing disaster scenarios is just a gradual slippery slope from very functional, and necessary, learned behavior. From the time we are children, through both direct experience and the hypothetical, we learn cause-effect relationships, and thus how to avoid unpleasant and dangerous consequences. We learn not to touch the hot stove or play in traffic. We learn to think ahead and anticipate possible consequences. But in learning these, we also come to understand that there are some things that happen that you can’t anticipate. Sometimes life turns on a dime. Sometimes disasters happen. Sometimes the world runs amok and all you can do is deal with the aftermath.

Enter the captivating world of the post-apocalypse.

Another cognitive construct that leads to our fascination with these doomsday scenarios is to combat the feelings of powerlessness and mistrust of those with power. There’s nothing like all-out devastation to level the proverbial playing field.

Taking us back to the basics of human survival releases us from the complex entanglements and overbearing demands of the modern world, if only for that short time of suspended disbelief.

There is also a surreal romanticizing of the post-apocalyptic world. Taking us back to the basics of human survival releases us from the complex entanglements and overbearing demands of the modern world, if only for that short time of suspended disbelief.

Child psychologist and author of Zombie Autopsies, Steven Schlozman, M.D., notes, “All of this uncertainty and all of this fear comes together and people think maybe life would be better after a disaster. I talk to kids in my practice and they see it as a good thing. They say, ‘life would be so simple—I’d shoot some zombies and wouldn’t have to go to school.’ Similarly, he recounts the following statement from another teenager, “Dude—a zombie apocalypse would be so cool. No homework, no girls, no SATs. Just make it through the night, man … make it through the night.”

While in reality we might not share the exuberance of these kids or long for a disaster to avoid another work deadline, we can sometimes fantasize about a simpler world where our true strengths are utilized and appreciated. Our brains are always seeking a solution to what is plaguing us (pun intended) and causing anxiety. When no plausible solution is readily available we can resort to more fantastical scenarios. Projecting ourselves into future worlds, where life can be better and we can be better, is akin to reverse nostalgia.

The power and endurance of TWD lies not in its clichéd deadly virus plotline, but instead in the development of characters who touch us on a deeper level. While the circumstances are surreal, the resilience of the characters in the face of total devastation and imminent threat to survival, can reflect something much more real, and more universal. As John Russo, co-creator of the WD predecessor Night of the Living Dead, noted, “It has important things to say about the human condition, which is one of frailty and nobility, weakness and courage, fear and hope, good and evil. These are the enduring puzzles and enigmas of our existence, and we can delve into them and learn from them vicariously when we sit down to watch The Walking Dead.”

What more could you ask for from any form of entertainment?

I think I just might give Season 2 a try.