‘The Walking Dead’ Psychological Antidote For Death

Paul Cantz

Paul Cantz

Neo-liberal scholars, such as Stuart McPhail Hall (2011) have chosen to interpret the zombie genre in particular as a metaphor for the seemingly unavoidable political, economic, and cultural breakdown of Western capitalistic society, for which Stuart McPhail Hall compares to an epidemic, not unlike that of a viral zombie outbreak, and as such capitalism, “relentlessly expands, and it will collapse once there is no one else to infect.” Films such as ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (2004) and the ‘Resident Evil’ franchise are of this type. Similarly, Paul A. Cantor has suggested zombies have often been used to symbolise “the force of globalisation.” Other scholars have likewise identified racism, class warfare, deindustrialization, the spectre of nuclear warfare, genetic modifications, and even space exploration as subtexts for the upsurge of zombie media, several of which have been portrayed in George Andrew Romero’s iconic series of zombie films.

Indeed, I find many of these explanations compelling insomuch as there have obviously been deliberate efforts made on the production side to co-opt zombie folklore in the service of illuminating sociological dynamics. Kaleidoscopic in function as well as in the expression, the zombie genre really is not at all a “genre” in the conventional sense, but rather it functions as an ever-evolving metaphorical vehicle that promotes a mythopoeic frame for artists to address any myriad of cultural anxieties.

‘The Walking Dead,’ employs the dystopian backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, though this show pivots this genre from focusing solely on constructing meta-commentary on the social, political, and economic domains of culture to one that functions on a more individual plane of foundational myth identification, namely addressing the psycho-moral dualities of good and evil, tyranny and freedom, and mortality and immortality. It is this latter domain that I wish to focus on since I think it represents both the symptom of a growing cultural anxiety around ageing and death as well as potentially offering a psychological antidote for such death anxiety. The dualities expressed in ‘The Walking Dead’ naturally resonate with the elemental dualities that paradoxically gel to form our experience of self, and therefore we can discern a process of dual identification linked with competing for mythopoeic impulses, in varying ratios in accordance with one’s degree of psychological maturity.

When we focus our explanation away from the perspective of the standard group or collectivistic psychological analyses and the corresponding identificatory processes that these films facilitate, I believe that we can uncover psychologically compelling dynamics that also operate on the individual level. To this end, the eminent mythologist William G. Doty considered one of the functions of myth to be as, “the primal, foundational accounts of aspects of the real, experienced world and humankind’s roles and relative statuses within it,” which in turn illuminates, “the political and moral values of culture and provides systems of interpreting individual experience within a universal perspective. The dystopian, post-apocalyptic mythscape, with its necessarily fantastical elements, seems to provide a fertile space to explore and perhaps even play with concepts that are unconsciously unpalatable in their pure state, namely the reality of death. As Otto Rank in 1936 reminds us, “the idea of death appears so much more clearly in religion, mythology and folklore than in the individual who apparently can bear the idea of death only collectively.”

It is important to analyse these cinematic dynamics with the understanding that “death” often serves as a metaphor that can hold multiple meanings depending on the manner in which three consumers of these contemporary expressions of myths identify. “Death” is the common designation for the absence of something that had once been alive; it is a privileged idea of non-being — a special label for posthumous categorization that can only be conceptualised by a living being who necessarily three projects their phantasies of being dead onto the unfathomability of no longer being. In a way, this is a motivated confabulation to explain the unexplainable. Therefore, to psychically accommodate for zombies, and perhaps more aptly their moniker: the “un-dead,” facilitates the creation of an artificial third category of a being that personifies death. This absurd third category allows for a socially sanctioned expression of our fears of death and of losing our sense of self. The manner in which individuals identify with these zombie characters will either lead to an emboldening of existing neurotic defences or, more ambitiously, assuage death anxiety in the service of living a fulfilling life.

Consumers of these dystopian myths happily allow themselves to be transported by the illusion of surviving improbable “what if” apocalyptic scenarios, whilst being able to concurrently psychically accommodate for the demise of the majority of humanity. This produces, or perhaps uncovers, an important psychic space where contradictory forms of myth identifications can co-exist in a manner that is emotionally tolerable; a psychic field where one can engage with the terror of alterity by proxy.

Otto Rank’s (1926-1971) theoretical elaboration on the theme of the ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (which translates to: ‘The Double’) may be instructive in conceptualizing the living characters in ‘The Walking Dead’ more so than in previous zombie films since, distinctive to this series, the audience quickly learns that regardless of whether one becomes “zombified” by an actual zombie (which is the conventional method by which zombie transformation occurs), one inevitably transitions into a zombie upon death, natural or otherwise. Rank contended that the “double” originally functioned as a type of psychic defence, serving to insure against the destruction of their ego, or, as he put it, the double functioned as an “energetic denial of the power of death.” It is likely that the “immortal” soul acted as the first “double” of the body, facilitating a sense of immortalised otherness that was simultaneously experienced as similar to oneself as it was distinctive. It is worth noting that this concept continues to carry theological currency in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as for example: “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

In an elaboration of Rank’s ideas on the double, Freud (1919) observed that once, “this stage [of primary narcissism] has been surmounted, the ‘double’ reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death… The ‘double’ has become a thing of terror” (p. 234-235). Following this line of thought, it is tempting to understand zombies as representing a materialistic approximation to the mythopoeic desire of possessing an immortal soul, though heavily accented by the conscious awareness of death.

It is, therefore, striking that in ‘The Walking Dead,’ the mythopoeic duality between mortality and immortality is dealt with in an inverted manner from which we customarily find it — the cultural preoccupation around anxieties connected to the prospect of aging and dying makes primarily identifying with our “immortal,” shadow selves — our “soul selves,” as it were, psychologically appealing, though not necessarily comforting. The zombies in ‘The Walking Dead’ potentially then serve as a projection of our mortal selves — a visually gruesome reminder of our corporeality, which in turn mobilizes death anxiety by compelling us to externalize and escape the grips of aging and death in our fantasy lives, lest it overcomes us first; the moral charge becomes: “vitiate death before death vitiates me.” This type of myth identification, however, becomes activated with viewers who maintain an elevated measure of death anxiety, and therefore it functions to reinforce the comforting illusion of immortality — survival against all odds —, which also aligns with increasingly socially acceptable trends based on the scientific fetishisation of “curing” aging and “solving the “problem” of death. The mortal characters — those who are not zombies — then function as a projection of the viewer’s wish to remain immortal.

Thus we can discern two main modes of myth identification as it relates to ‘The Walking Dead.’ The first being the externalised type, where the double is represented by a zombie and psychically corresponds to the mythopoeic impulse to alienate the concept of death from our sense of selves in order to maintain the illusion of immortality. The internalised type, being the second mode, transcends death denial and links with the decidedly more psychological mature way of metabolising death anxiety through the psychic integration of the eventuality of our non-being into our core sense of self.

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