I’m going to spare you the requisite proof of how popular zombies are in movies, in video games, and on television. I suspect you already know, especially if you’re one of the more than 12 million people who tuned in to the midseason finale of The Walking Dead this weekend. But the interesting question is: why have they suddenly become so popular.
Fiction is an attempt to perform some kind of cultural and psychological work, even if it’s just to scratch that one particular “itch” the author has. The popularity of a work depends on how common that itch is. The more people a text speaks to, the more it resonates with, the more popular it will be. And no medium is more of a gauge of this than television, because people don’t just plunk down money for a ticket once–they tune in week after week (or, these days, binge watch dozens of episodes in a row), experiencing a virtual reality that is the equivalent of dozens of movies. So, what is the itch that The Walking Dead helps us scratch? Why are so many of us tuning in week after week to view a zombie-infested world where a few desperate survivors struggle against a ceaseless tide of horrors?
(Spoiler Alert: This blog contains information from the first three seasons of The Walking Dead, but nothing from the current season, so if you haven’t had a chance to watch the harrowing mid-season finale, don’t worry.)
We’re All Infected = Universal Coverage
The Walking Dead premiered in 2010, about six months after a watershed political event in this country: the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, also just ACA or, informally, “Obamacare”). Sure, maybe it’s a coincidence, but there seems to be a very real resonance between the two issues.
Consider the first season’s emphasis on failing social structures: a hospital deserted but for the barricaded zombies in a few places, the army overwhelmed, the streets of Atlanta largely deserted, with the elderly needing care after they’ve been abandoned, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) deserted but for a single man long driven mad by the futility of his mission.
And from the CDC comes only one piece of wisdom: “We’re all infected.” What a chilling turn on the Individual Mandate provision of the ACA.
The Walking Dead also foregrounds important issues of the relationship between the individual and society, with a healthy debate about how much people can go it alone and how much we depend on one another. The show often emphasizes the role of choice, and shows our protagonists agonizing over their options, something zombies can’t do, and something some people feel is threatened by the ACA.
But the Comic Predated the ACA
Sure, but the comics are different, and they didn’t resonate with us the same way the TV series did, especially in 2003. At its best, the comics sold only about 350,000 copies per issue (about 3% of the viewership of this week’s episode), and that was after crossover popularity from the TV show. On their own, the first few numbers sold only a few thousand copies each. Remakes and adaptations succeed based on the relevance of their new context, not their original context, and I think the ACA prepared us to be receptive to this idea. Whether you’re a supporter or a detractor, there’s no doubt that this law has created a lot of anxiety in this country.
What about “Biters”?
Originally, our heroes called the zombies “walkers,” but in season 3 they meet up with the town of Woodbury, where the zombies have a different name: “biters.” Ironically, this season focuses extensively on the zombies’ teeth, starting at the end of season 2 with Michonne’s jawless mules. We see not just images of the zombies using their teeth to rend human flesh, but we see the zombies’ teeth being brutally extracted to make them safe.
Realistically, a toothless zombie could probably bite down hard enough to break your skin, but the teeth become the complete source of infection. I mean, it’s probably just a coincidence that American adults are going through a dental health crisis right now.
And it’s worth noting that in our age of cosmetic dentistry if you are looking for a line to divide “us” from “them” or the “haves” from the “have-nots,” you don’t have to look any further than our teeth.
Other Possible Meanings
I fully admit that this reading of the popularity of The Walking Dead is only one possible interpretation. A few others are zombies represent technology anxiety, spiritual emptiness, the worldwide network of laborers that feed our insatiable appetite for goods, or the people with that insatiable appetite.
We don’t claim to have piercing insight into the symbolic troubles that cause us to crave zombies, but we do have a solution if you have real dental problems. For an appointment, please contact Smile Columbia Dentistry or call