12 April 2011

The Problem with Zompocalypse Television

So the husband and I have just finished watching The Walking Dead.  For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a (thus far) six-episode-long AMC show about the zompocalypse. 

It was… it was good.  Parts of it were stellar.  Parts of it made me want to claw my eyes out.  And all of it made me wonder what we’re doing as a society, running this show on a cable channel.  I’ll give you a flavor of what I mean.  Keep in mind there are only six episodes of this show out so far.

Things I saw and/or heard in The Walking Dead

-        A small child being shot in the head.
-        Lots of people being shot in the head with various instruments.  We’re talking close-ups.  Lots of blood.  Slow-mo.
-        A half-eaten festering corpse crawling on the ground.
-        Obviously, lots of walking corpses in various states of putrefied decay.
-        A close-up of rotted, dessicated eyelids covered in flies.
-        The gruesome remains of a suicide-by-rifle.
-        Multiple beheadings.
-        A bloody sawed-off hand.
-        A crowd of people disemboweling and eating a live, struggling horse.
-        A decaying body being hacked apart with an axe (complete with squish sounds).
-        A man beating his wife and then getting royally beaten himself.
-        That same man’s head repeatedly bludgeoned with a pickaxe (complete with even grosser squish sounds).
-        People having passionate sex (under covers).
-        A crowd of terrified people massacred in the hallway of a hospital.

Things I did not see and/or hear in The Walking Dead

-        A breast or any other genitalia.
-        A cuss word.

(NOTE: I might be wrong about the cussing.  I’ve a sailor’s mouth and I often miss that stuff.)

(EDIT: Husband has reminded me they definitely say the N-word.  If you can say the N-word you can certainly get away with all the other words.  I don't know why AMC is allowed to say the N-word.)

Yes, this argument has been made before.  Yes, I was watching a zombie show and it’s a cable network and I should expect most of that.  Yes, yes, yes.  I got it.  But give me just a minute to plead my case.

Even though The Walking Dead is a zombie show, most of the violence in it was egregious.  Husband and I were comparing The Walking Dead to 28 Days Later and came to the conclusion that 28 Days Later managed to terrify us plenty, and with a lot less gore.  The Walking Dead thrives on gore for the sake of gore.

As a neuroscientist I have a major problem with this being shown on television.  The makers of The Walking Dead are trying their damndest to make this stuff look real, and they did a very good job.  Do I want to have these images in my head?  Should I?  Go ahead, make your argument about me being a pansy and a sad-sack pacifist, I can take it.  What I can’t take is you getting a big hard-on for gory violent massacres all the time.  I get it - it’s arousing, it’s a thrill, you get over-stimulated watching people get eaten and shot and beheaded and such.  Why do you have to get your arousal fix via exploding eyeballs and crap like that?  What the hell is wrong with you?

This brings me to a very important point about arousal.  It’s pretty easy to mis-wire arousal in our brains.  The act of getting all hot and bothered triggers a distinct set of neural circuitry, almost regardless of the stimulus.  So what I’m saying is that getting aroused by violence shares some neural features with getting aroused by sex.  Also, I said that The Walking Dead has sex in it.  It has a whole damn love triangle in it.  And then they go and intersperse all the sex with chunks and bits of people.  It’s gross.  I don’t need all of that wiring into one big arousal-stimulus in my head.

You think this sounds crazy and weird and of course your brain’s not doing that, and maybe that’s true.  That you’re not doing it, I mean.  But I worry about all the people.  Some people are getting some very disturbed notions in their heads watching these things.

And The Walking Dead isn’t the best example of this anyway.  How about Rolling Stone magazine, which in a recent issue had delicious pictures of that red-headed temptress Rihanna just pages away from graphic (and, importantly, real) images of some of the Iraq Kill Team’s scores?  How about the multitude of internet sites which host all sorts of porn right alongside hangings and explosions and beheadings?  Regardless of your opinion about those media, they’re out there and a whole lot of people are watching them and it’d behoove you to take that into account the next time you get a weird feeling about that creepy guy sitting next to you in the library.

But all this talk about sex and violence brings me to another point.  How on Earth does a man shooting a child in the head get past our censoring system but a bare nipple does not? 

If I had to make a bet, if I was to ask my sweet, innocent grandmother whether she’d rather see a blood-spurting violent beheading or a woman’s nether region, she’d choose the latter.  If I asked her whether she’d be more offended by a man cussing a blue streak or hacking up a dead body, well, I think the answer’s obvious.

Ooh! and and and – keep in mind that The Walking Dead had plenty of sex in it!  Yes, there was a blanket involved but that was definitely, definitely sex and there was no mistaking at all what was going on.  People were having heated sex and we were watching it.  We just couldn’t see the boobies. 

If there were any breasts shown in this show at all, they were rotting off of walking corpses.  Wow.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  What’s wrong with us?

I also want to say that The Walking Dead’s depiction of the CDC was an absolute joke and those writers and directors should be ashamed of themselves.  They bend over backward to accurately render every single detail of a half-eaten face, but they can’t get a single damn thing right about scientists and their instruments and lab spaces and capabilities and the state of the art in their respective fields?  WHY EVEN BOTHER to scientifically explain the zompocalypse if your explanation makes so pathetically little sense that all you’re doing is humiliating yourself??

To give The Walking Dead some credit, they did a fantastic job with most of the humanitarian aspects of the survivors’ various plights.  I quite liked all the moral dilemmas.  Some were sillier than others, and some of the characters’ moves were utterly ridiculous (if the zombies are attracted to noise, why are you always yelling?!), but there were many scenes that made me cry.  The story of Morgan and his wife was heart-wrenching.  I can’t stop thinking about it.

So for all my reservations, I guess it’s best to keep in mind that all my love-hate vacillations with this show had a binary decision output – I could watch it or not.  Even with all the ooey gooey nasty over-the-top unnecessary grossness, I didn’t stop watching.  It’s pretty addicting.


  1. Actually if ive learned anything from reading the walking dead comics (which i recommend you check out) is that this series scariest parts arent the zombies themselves, but how much society collapses so quickly. How about that nice old man across the street who used to sell fishing equipment? well now since its the end of the world he feels he has nothing to lose so watch out for your children. how about those people who are hunting you? theyre only trying to find food for their families from a society that cant afford to be nice. Infact in the comic book series the zombies actually take a backseat to living, breathing human beings. in a world of black and white seen in so many books and tv shows the walking dead revels in all its grayness lol. really are the "good" guys really the good guys anymore? I agree with the whole scientist part as well. with the transition from comic book to TV you know hollywood would have to "hollywoodize" it. In the books the story isnt about the main characters trying to figure out the "cure" or find out what happened. its about people just trying to survive. And yes theres going to be violence. lots of it. the book REALLY doesnt shy away from that. its actually worse than the tv series. so ... maybe you shouldnt watch it >.< lol but atleast check it out. i agree ... even though i love the comic books far far more than the tv series .... its still addicting to watch ^_^

  2. You're absolutely right - the interactions among the survivors were all poignant and thoughtfully executed. That was the real strength of the show (and I'm sorry, I haven't read the comics!).