zombies

This past weekend, AMC’s The Walking Dead returned to television to finish up the second-half of its seventh season, and with a Republican in the White House, we are expecting the shows popularity to soar once again. Now, we are not saying this because it is very likely that Donald Trump is the American President who will lead us to some hellish zombie strewn wasteland, -but we aren’t not saying it either. No, what we really mean to point out is the correlation between movie/TV monsters and the party that holds in power in our government. You see, over the years some people have noticed a trend in our entertainment. When there is a Democrat sitting in the White House, vampires tend to be more popular, and when there is a Republican then zombies surge in popularity, like some sort of viral media plague. So, how does our current Tangerine-in-Chief lead us to a resurgence of zombie love? Let us explain…

28 Years Later
Now, unfortunately, the correlation is not always exact, especially in the past couple years where sustained success by AMC zombie shows and YA vampire movies have distorted the formula, but for the most part it appears that when a Republican sits in the Oval Office we get more zombie movies/TV shows, and when a Democrat sits in the Oval office we get more vampire-related media. This is not a new phenomena either. It goes all the way back to the 1960’s when Night of the Living Dead premiered during the Nixon era. There were several adaptations of Dracula during the Carter administration. Ronald Reagan gave us a Night of the Living Dead remake, a sequel, and two Return of the Living Dead movies. Bill Clinton bequeathed us Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview With a Vampire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, From Dusk to Dawn, Blade, and many more. George W. Bush gave us the start of the Resident Evil series, 28 Days Later, and even Shawn of the Dead.  President Obama’s term started with the release of Twilight and True Blood, and though AMC did not premiere The Walking Dead, until 2010, the comics go back to 2003 and George W. Bush.

No, as we stated before, this correlation is not one to one. After all Christopher “Saruman” Lee’s classic portrayal of Dracula happened during the Eisenhower administration, of course it was also a British movie, so it might be harder to fit it into the chart. -It is also worth noting that during the movie’s release in 1958, the Democratic party regains control of both the House and the Senate– Regardless, there have been plenty of good and bad zombie or vampire movies released in years opposite their associated political party, but this theory tends to focus on the sheer number and popularity of these mediums as they correlate with the man sitting in the White House. The real question is, why does this happen? What is it about the public psyche that embraces zombies during the days of Republicans and vampires when the country is ruled by blue states? Well, it could be a combination of a lot of things.

Interview with a Republican
The first theory is that when vampires take hold of our pop culture imagination it is because of what they represent and what we are afraid of, which correlates to why we vote. Republicans fear the concept of vampires. After all, if Dracula bites a good conservative girl on the neck then she becomes a sexual and liberated being. She does not need her father to protect her and she cannot be stopped from biting and sucking -if you know what we mean- with whomever or whatever she wants. That is very antithetical to good conservative values, which preach that everything must be prim and proper. For a political party that makes their claim on keeping everything traditional, the lifestyle of a vampire is pure terror. It is also how some Republicans may see a Democratic President, a person infecting the youth non-traditional ideas and values. Thus, the fear of vampires rise when a Democrat sits in the White House. It is a rational fear manifesting as an irrational scenario.

However, there is more to it than that. After all, Republicans share some traits with vampires too. Please excuse us if this gets a little cynical, but in the latter half of the 20th century the Republican party became the party of the rich and powerful. That can also describe vampires. Unlike zombies, which are broke shambling masses, vampires are usually portrayed as cultured and rich. They are sometimes lords or even royalty. Modern depictions, such as those in the Underworld, series show them as the aristocracy. They control things behind the scenes to ensure that their human cattle remains unaware of their machinations and remain as a steady and pliable source of nutrition. They literally suck the blood from the working class, the homeless, and the destitute.

So, perhaps the fascination of vampires in the Democratic era can also be explained by the way people vote. When the country leans toward liberalism people are more willing to embrace the progressive vampire, while also fearing the the oligarchic bent of the Republican party. This second theory basically states that instead of fearing what we voted for, the people vote against what they fear. Maybe the masses -who consume pop culture- voted for a more liberal leader because they associate Republicans with powerful blood-suckers. Our movies then reflect the fears of “what could have been.” A story about all powerful vampires lets us view our fears -through a fantastical lens- making the genre more about escapism than horror.

Night of the Living Democrat
However, we cannot let the Democrats off the hook either. Conventional wisdom about the subject says that Democrats fear zombies, because they are everything that the Republican party loves in voters: mindless -flag-waving- unquestioning masses. Zombies make the most prominent appearances in Republican eras because the progressive liberal voters most acutely fear the idea that the unreasonable and mindless have overthrown their civilization, dismantled their federal government, destroyed diversity, and returned power to small concentrated groups… of survivors. Zombies legitimately try to eat people’s brains in order to turn a thinking and feeling person into the same sort of unquestioning creature as themselves.

Yet, similair to the example of vampires, there is more going on here. After all, to claim that only one political party has the monopoly on the mindless masses would be disingenuous. The Democratic party has shifted in the latter part of the past century, and to many conservative voters it appears as if they are the party now trying to tear down the old world and disrupt the old systems. Remember George Romero made Night of the Living Dead, not only as a horror movie, but as a critique against American consumer culture -basically the idea of capitalism. So, when a Republican rules the White House and when zombies rule the airwaves, maybe we are again partaking in a sort of dissociative fantasy where we all revel in “what could have been.”  Thus, those who voted for Bush or Reagan or Nixon, could just as easily fear the progressive horde coming to ruin of their traditional American way of life; and that translates into zombies.

Then again, maybe it is both theories, or neither… After all, and regardless of how you vote, or how you feel, it is important to remember that these are just monster movies. The most effective of them channels our already predisposed fears and prejudices to give us something that is a familiar reflection combined with a foreign image. Horror movies don’t work unless we can find something of ourselves in the unknown, and that is what vampires and zombies have been doing since the Kennedy era. So maybe zombies are a little red and blue, and maybe vampires are a little conservative and liberal. That just means we are all diverse people with different thoughts, opinions, and even fears.

The popularity of these two undead monsters do statistically shift along with the political opinions of the country, but whether you want to put stock in this odd correlation or not it is still worth remembering that we all have fears. We are all afraid of something, whether that be the vampires, zombies, or even the real undead, politicians. We fear monsters because we see them as stereotypes who are both the same and not the same as ourselves, in much the same way we have come to view those of opposing political view points. Thus, maybe instead of judging each other as monsters it is time that we all sit together, grab some popcorn, and remember that the world is not the horror movie we sometimes make it out to be.

This Sunday marks the start of the sixth season of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Rick and the group have come a long way over the past five seasons and this one promises to be no different. The wolves are not far. However, as much as we may sometimes simplify our favorite zombie series, there is a lot more going on in the world of the The Walking Dead than questions like, “What is the best way to kill a walker.”-Hint: It’s not fire. If you set a zombie on fire than all you have is a flaming zombie.- After all, surviving in the apocalyptic wasteland requires a lot of things, but sometimes you have to wonder, “Is morality one of them?”

Universal Sheriffism
Moral universalism  is the idea that there exists a right and a wrong outside of our own judgements and decisions. Basically, it means that the universe has a static right and wrong to it independent of human thought and circumstance. As the show opens, way back in season 1, this was Rick’s view of the world. To a young and beardless Sheriff Grimes there was a right and wrong, and he walked that line as best as he could. There is even a moment in that first episode when he apologizes to a zombie for what has happened to her. He then wastes a bullet from his gun to “kill” her out of “mercy.” These are the actions of a moral man. Rick also goes back for Merle after he was abandoned on the roof, and in season 2 he pleads and negotiates with Hershel to let them stay on the farm. The idea is that the ends could never justify the means.

Rick’s foil throughout the first two seasons is Shane, his best friend. Shane could be said to represent a sort of moral relativism. Shane’s morals are guided by the situation, the environment, and by his own need to survive. There are several types of relativisms and in the beginning we see Shane acting more in accordance with what you might call contractarianism, or social relativism. He bases his decisions and actions on what is right for the group, and what is dictated by the society he inhabits. It’s why he demands that they storm Hershel’s farm instead of asking to use it. The ends justified the means. However, as Shane becomes more isolated from the group he slides toward ethical egoism. Right and wrong become about what is best for him. It’s why he kills Otis and why eventually he plots to kill Rick.

You need to remember that both Rick and Shane were sheriffs, but maybe for different reason. As uniformed officers they were expected to uphold the law and to Rick that made sense. His universalism was reinforced by being and agent of justice. Shane, however, upheld the law because it gave him a position of power in a world of social relativism. As he saw it, the law dictated the morals of civilized society and he helped execute those rules. When the civilizations and its laws collapsed he abandoned his sheriff persona, as he believed those rights and wrongs no longer applied. Even physically he opted for more practical and comfortable clothing. On the other hand, Rick’s first action in the new world was to put on the uniform that he believed represented law and order, because his morals were universal. Civilization or no civilization he saw the uniform as representing something more. The Walking Dead has since taught us that law and the uniform do not represent morality, as demonstrated in the first half of season 5 by the rulers of the Atlanta hospital, but it is a lesson our favorite sheriff had to learn after many hard decisions.

Relative Beardism
Rick killed Shane because he had to. Morally right or wrong, the situation necessitated that Shane die and Rick live. There was a significance in that action. Rick changed forever after being forced to run a knife through his friend. It was not the first human he killed on the series but it was a threshold of sorts. In essence, he kill the character but the moral relativism of Shane endured, infecting Rick as sure as any zombie virus. Over the next three seasons we then watch as Rick’s actions change. He claimed dictatorship of the group, he turned away Tyreese’s group, and never hesitated to kill any cannibal or threat that came along. People were no longer someone he had to help. They were either part of his family, -not just Judith and Carl, but the whole group- or a threat to that family. You are with us or against us.

It is not a coincidence that as Rick’s actions became more extreme so did his look. He shed his sheriff’s uniform piece by piece, literally losing parts of himself as the series progressed. He did give his hat to Carl as if trying to bequeath his son his last bit of morality, and as he lost those ideas of law and order he also let his facial hair grow. It started as a dark stubble before becoming a respectable and even attractive beard. Yet, by the mid point of season 5 the beard and Rick’s actions had taken on a life of their own, obscuring the truth of what lay beneath. The thing about morality and beards is that if you let either of them become extreme you sometimes just come off looking like a crazy person, as Rick did when confronted by Aaron and his offer of haven in Alexandria. Michonne was right when she pointed out that they had been in the wild too long. Rick’s facial hair certainly seemed to agree.

Maybe that is why it was so shocking and so interesting when The Walking Dead once again presented us with a clean shaven and clipped Rick Grimes. Even better he was put back in a uniform and given back the responsibility of upholding law and order. Except this time, it was not the same. Those words meant different things in the new world. This time the dichotomy of the two law enforcement officers was not Shane and Rick, but Rick and Michonne. In that grouping Rick becomes the extreme one. There was no hesitation when he was finally let off the leash to kill Pete, Alexandria’s doctor and resident wife beater. The show was giving us a very stark symbol of how far Rick had come. Visually and even responsibility wise he appeared as the same person as he did from episode 1, but personality-wise he was still the survivor and the killer his experiences had made him. Yet, is he really a different person?

The Dilemma of Moral Compasses
The Walking Dead never gives us bad characters, not really. -The Governor had a small shred of humanity, the cannibals had their reasons- but we do get very good characters, Dale, Hershel, Tyreese, and even Noah and Beth. In some way they represented moral compasses or an innocence. They also did not last long. The argument can be made that Rick is the group’s ultimate moral compass, not  because he does immoral things to survive but because he still recognizes the immorality of them. Rick’s journey has been long and hard, but maybe he has not come as far as one might think. The difference between him and people like the Governor, Shane, or Gareth is that they have embraced their new ethical standing. They no longer feel the guilt that comes with the acts they commit, but most of Rick’s struggle comes from his unwillingness to do so. In essence, he is sacrificing his morality, and a part of him recognizes that, because to fully relinquish those old ideals would be to become something else.

In the world of The Walking Dead, it is not the zombies who are the monsters. Becoming a zombie means becoming a creature without thought. You have no desire, no honor code, no drive other than basic hunger. No, it is the people like Rick and the group who are left to worry about ideas of morality, heroes and monsters, and that is the point. It is no coincidence that every writer on AMC’s The Walking Dead is required to read psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a narrative about a true-life account of a concentration camp survivor and how he must reconcile civilized morality with an uncivilized situation. How do we stay human in a dehumanizing world? What even is morality in a world without civilization?

In truth, all the characters follow some form of morality. Carol may be more on the “ends justify means” spectrum but she still feels for Jessie and her kids when they are faced with a problem she can personally relate too. Glenn finds it in himself to forgive a man who shot him and got Noah killed. Even Sasha with all her PTSD refuses to pull the trigger on Gabriel. We tend to label some characters as “moral compasses” because they embody a morality closer to what our modern society considers ethical, but maybe that says more about us than about Rick and the gang. Our concerns about what action is just or right are not always the same as the show’s characters. They do what they need to in order to survive. That means the real judgment of morality is purposely left for us to judge, because what would any of us do in their situation?