Psychology behind ‘Walking Dead’ phenomenon

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Psychology behind ‘Walking Dead’ phenomenon

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The Walking Dead season five finale was seen by 15.8 million viewers on Sunday, March 29. This was the most watched episode of the entire series, just beating out last season’s record holding finale of 15.7 million viewers.


What is it that keeps bringing people back to this and other shows like it? Is it the complex drama? Is it the unique rush that a horror show gives them? Is it just simply morbid curiosity?


There does seem to be more to this show than just zombies feasting on human brains. The show has taken viewers on a rollercoaster of feelings throughout the past five seasons. The characters have been on a long journey physically, mentally and spiritually.


Season five has also been the most popular amongst the critics since Season one. Before the season ended, The Walking Dead was in direct competition with CBS show giants like NCIS and Big Bang Theory not to mention going up against live events like Sunday Night Football and various award shows.


However, the rabid fandom doesn’t end on the small screen. Huge appearances at San Diego Comic-Con last summer and New York Comic-Con only reinforce how big The Walking Dead is. There is also the Walker Stalker Con that was started in Atlanta by a couple of super fans and has now exploded into an extremely popular convention that tours around the United States.


Despite this popularity the question remains, how does The Walking Dead and programs similar to it keep bringing the viewers back week after week?


The answer to that, according to West Texas A&M University Psychology Instructor Kenneth Denton, is much more complex, not to mention a whole lot darker, than one might think on the surface level.


“We wonder what would happen if this is what we had to live with,” Denton said. “Everyone thinks that they will be the one. They think that they will be the one who will live, who will escape somehow and that their world will continue.”


There can be many benefits to watching shows like The Walking Dead according to Dr. Travis Langley, Henderson University professor and author of The Walking Dead Psychology. It allows for viewers to learn empathy for unlikeable characters and show the psychological process of finding hope when there seems to be none. The show also offers a way to level out sexual and racial politics.


“There were some traditional roles [in earlier seasons], but those fell apart over time,” Langley said in an article by MTV News. “Everybody has to be involved in survival, everybody has to have all these different skills… You don’t even necessarily think about race [anymore]. Daryl went on a mission looking for medicine, and all three other people in the car were African-American. The fans didn’t even think about race in that situation. It had become a non-issue; a common humanity was pulling them together. We’ve got a big, scary undead ‘them’ out there; we need to stop thinking about the superficial sorts of ‘them’ that used to worry us.”


The Walking Dead also makes viewers ask questions that are much more complex and deal with an analytical side of a TV series that many other shows don’t offer. Dr. Maxine Debutte, Assistant Professor of Psychology at WT, believes that people may be attracted to the questions the show asks.


“There is no cure. How is life different? How do you adapt? How does human nature change and how do personalities change? What effect is it having on individuals? What are individuals willing to do or not do in regards to their conscience? And what about resources?” Dubutte asks. “We get to see the dark side of nature. People steal resources from each other, resort to cannibalism.”


It’s shows like The Walking Dead that offer viewers an escape from the world but also as a mechanism for dealing with real life terror, ISIS for instance.


“It can be an escape, by facing your mortality and struggles in a fantastical way,” Debutte said. “Culturally, we think we have a handle on death. But there seem to be a lack of respect for death and rituals and how we deal with our own mortality.”


“A lot of people think it’s a release,” Denton said. “If I see the awesome, I feel more awesome.”


Seeing these characters make decisions based on their experiences make viewers ask themselves if they would do the same thing in that situation.


“This season is darker,” Debutte said. “The transformation of the characters from good moral individuals to simply stating that they will just take things if they have to is something they probably wouldn’t have done before these circumstances.”


From an actor’s point of view, a level of catharsis is also attractive to the viewers. It’s these actors that portray a layer of reality that begs the audience to face darker aspects of society. Stephen Crandall, Assistant Professor of Theatre said these types of shows speak to something inside of us.


“It’s like escaping into your imagination,” Crandall said. “Post-apocalyptic stories like that are almost beyond belief and there is a sort of human interest of feeling fear through the eyes of someone else. While these shows are certainly created to entertain, they help us face deep, dark fears of what some might say is an inevitably. We are fascinated by this ‘End of the World’ existence and then you throw zombies in the mix.”


With genre television programs like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow taking a step in a more dramatic direction, The Walking Dead is another example of what can happen when comic books are treated seriously.   A campy, throwback zombie show may have been decent and perhaps would have kept an audience, but it is doubtful it would have achieved the numbers this particular incarnation has done.


Regardless of why the show remains the phenomenon it is, it remains strong as ever. With merchandise such as t-shirts, video games, action figures and even a spinoff Walking Dead show set to debut this summer, it appears that there truly is life after death. The show’s slogan says it all, “Fight the dead. Fear the living.”