Undead ends

With the third season of “The Walking Dead“ nigh, A&E spoke to a sci-fi expert about why we love zombie stories so much.

Joseph Kleinschmidt

Zombies no longer occupy a distant fringe of pop culture, with continual examples of the obsession with reanimated corpses cropping up every year. AMC’s television series “The Walking Dead” even drew an audience of more than nine million for its second season finale, making the show the most-watched cable drama in television history.

What “The Walking Dead” and other popular post-apocalyptic stories suggest may be a natural response to the current cultural trends, as associate professor of comparative literature at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peter Paik speculates. Paik, the author of “From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe” sees narratives like Robert Kirkman’s ever popular TV and comic book series, “The Walking Dead,” as avenues for open political discussion.

“[Apocalyptic stories] enable us to map out the kind of changes that take place if someone were to change our lives at a collective and inescapable level,” Paik said.

With the extreme pulp conventions of the gory zombie genre, “The Walking Dead” allows for moral discussions otherwise taboo. Throughout the show, the protagonist Rick Grimes must make decisions constantly leading to violent ends — unavoidable reminders of the blood spread virus causing so much uncertainty.

“I think the popularity of ‘The Walking Dead’ has a lot to do with the feeling of loss of control over our ability to determine the future,” Paik said.

Applying his ideas to shows like “The Walking Dead” reveal more about the increasing detachment the modern life poses; denial of human suffering in affluent societies may lead to the natural interest in extreme forms of narrative, as Paik suggests.

“I think there’s a psychological price that we pay for freeing us of these kinds of mental burdens,” Paik said. “This feeling that we’re missing something comes to us in forms of apocalyptic catastrophe.”

The everyman and working-class heroes bludgeoning zombies on “The Walking Dead” suggest the audience’s dissatisfaction with modern means of living.

“Our society has achieved all manner of comforts,” Paik said. “We’re the most affluent and perhaps the most entertained society that has ever existed in human history.”

At its best, the show confronts heady psychological issues as characters who continually decapitate zombies. The character Hershel Greene struggles with his own Christian ideology when he cannot bear to kill his zombie wife. When Hershel must give up these moral codes to save the people around him, “The Walking Dead” reminds the viewer of the difficulty in adapting to a new social order — often a grim and horrific prospect.

“I think we secretly believe we live in the best of all possible worlds,” Paik said. “Any kind of small attempt to change it I think strikes us as very burdensome and perhaps even brutal.”

 

The third season of “The Walking Dead” premieres at 8 p.m. Oct. 14 on AMC.