The Walking Dead has become a cultural phenomenon since it first aired on AMC in 2010. Based off of the best-selling comic by Robert Kirkman, the show has redefined the expectations for genre television, and with its eighth season coming up at the end of October, it shows no signs of slowing down.
The show’s popularity is the subject of a new book from Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Vigna, Guts: The Anatomy of The Walking Dead, which is out next week. The book not only acts as a good way to read up on the show, but it’s also an examination of its fans and just why a depressing, nihilistic show has become so popular.
I spoke with Vigna about his new book and why he thinks The Walking Dead and Star Trek have a couple of crucial similarities that help explain their enduring popularity.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
The cover says that you're The Wall Street Journal's resident zombie expert. So tell me a little bit about that.
Officially, I’m The Wall Street Journal’s Bitcoin / Blockchain / cryptocurrency reporter. The last several years, I was a markets reporter. I also love zombies, and I’m a huge Walking Dead fan. I didn’t read the comics, but I started watching the show when it premiered, and I loved it. I was really into it and watched it every week. But I wasn’t part of the Arts team. There was someone doing the recaps. Then that person left, and they just tried to tag-team the recaps, but they just weren’t getting the show right. At the time, I was really the only person in the newsroom who was watching it, so they asked me to do it.
So that’s how I started doing it. I sort of fell into it, and then it became kind of a thing: the show was popular, and the recaps were getting read a lot and getting comments. I really liked doing it, and for a while, I was writing almost as much stuff about the show as I was about the markets. So I became the Journal’s resident zombie expert.
What about the show appeals to you?
There are several things. It’s definitely true of me, and probably true of a lot of fans. I think for a show that’s this popular, I don’t think you can narrow it down to a single element. There’s a number of things about the show that work really well. I’ll acknowledge that the show isn’t always perfect, but I think, in general, the writing is very good, the direction is almost always excellent, and the zombie special effects are tremendous, especially for a TV show. They don’t go light on the zombie effects because it’s a TV show. It’s bloody and horrifying, and as bone-crunching as you might expect from a movie, and I think that was a big part of the appeal: it’s basically a zombie movie each week.
I think the acting is excellent, the writing is good, and the special effects are great. Those elements are the first thing you have to talk about with its appeal. For some people, that’s enough: they’re horror fans and they like the genre and want to be scared and enjoy it for that. I think if that was it, it would still be popular, but I don’t think it would be as popular as it is. I think there are deeper levels to its popularity, which I explore in the book.
One thing, I think, that is an interesting dynamic is that you’ve never really had a show that takes its characters, really stereotypical characters — you’ve got the small-town cop, battered house wife, backwoods redneck, pizza delivery boy, the farmer’s daughter — they’re very average. They’re not superheroes, trained SEALs, mob bosses. There’s nothing distinctive about these characters, and most of us are like that. You take these very average characters and put them in life-or-death situations every single week, week after week, for the entire 60 minutes. They live in a world where they’re in constant peril. There are no safe havens, nowhere for them to hide, and any moment could be their last. I don’t think that there’s been a dynamic like this before.
Do you think that The Walking Dead is particularly popular because of cultural anxiety over political divisions or climate change or major diseases, and because people can recognize the world and draw a line between our lives and this one?
Absolutely. To me, that is a key one. There are two elements of it: one, it’s pretty well understood that zombies are a handy metaphor for anything that is stalking you. In other words, they’re good stand-ins for political or economic turmoil, or anxiety in your personal life. Zombies have no motivations besides eating brains. They have no goals or aspirations. With vampires, you can layer on some complex emotions, which you can’t with zombies. They’re a blank slate of death that won’t stop chasing you, and that’s definitely a huge part of the show.
But what I think the show does is something that we haven’t seen before: most zombie stories really are movies. You have a 90-minute or two-hour movie where people are put into a terrible situation and are put into harm’s way, and they either escape or all die.
The show is different in that this is a weekly serial that comes back year after year and that dynamic and metaphor is repeated. To me, that is much more like real life. The things that are dogging us don’t go away after 90 minutes. They stay or keep coming back, and you end up with a show that is really portraying that in a realistic way, and what ends up happening is that the characters constantly have to figure out to fight and figure out why they need to keep going on. The Walking Dead ends up giving you a level of extreme stoicism that you need to face something that is absolutely unconquerable, whether it’s economic turmoil, or something else.
Do you think that there’s a point where there’s just too much, and where people say “that’s enough.”
Probably. No show runs forever, and probably shouldn’t run forever. But as long as the ratings are there, and people want to keep doing it, the show will keep going on. It’s in the unique position where it could kill off every character on the show and continue to go. I do think right now, even with a strong cast, they could kill off anyone, even Andrew Lincoln.
I don’t think that it’ll go off anytime soon. But yeah, it’s at season 8 now, and could it get to a season 12 or 13 and get stale? That could happen. I think a television show is very hard to maintain that sort of creativity week after week, and the history of television bears that out.
I don’t think people understand what a monster — no pun intended — this is for AMC. They have three shows that are top-rated cable shows, and in a lot of instances, the repeat episode later that night is also a top-10 show.
What do you think is driving this passion for the show?
I think it’s that people come to feel intensely about these characters and the situations that they’re in, and that 60 minutes just isn’t enough for them. They want more of it. I think what drives the passion is what we were talking about — it’s a really ironic thing — because it’s a dark, gory, bloody show. It’s the kind of show that you see the Parent’s Council hating, and arbiters of ethics can’t stand it because it’s bloody and violent.
But the message of the show is completely different from that. That wasn’t clear to me until I went to one of the Walker Stalker conventions, and just got a feel for the vibe of all these fans together. It’s one thing to interview a fan, but when you get a lot of fans together, the vibe that came out of that was extremely positive. It’s kind of incongruous, right? It’s a zombie / horror show, something that’s scary and dark. But the feeling from the fans was extremely positive and uplifting. They take hope from the show.
What surprised me at the convention was how many families there were. There were parents taking their kids, and couples. It was almost Disney-like. You’d think it was a lot of black, hooded sweatshirt / goth types, but it was really family-oriented. What this show gives people is a way to cope with whatever is going on in their lives. It’s not an easy path and all sunshine, but our lives aren’t all sunshine. I think people get that, and are really passionate about the show because of that.
Before this interview, you told me that you saw some parallels between the Star Trek fan community and The Walking Dead community. What similarities are you seeing?
What is the same about these shows isn’t all that obvious. Star Trek has a clean, futuristic universe where everything has been worked out and where everyone works together. These shows are portraying two different sides of the same thing. Star Trek came out of a time of significant social anxiety and it addressed that in a way. What people forget about Star Trek is that the whole reason Roddenberry wanted to show this world where people are working together for the common good is because it was a commentary on the Cold War, where there was the very real possibility in the ‘60s that we could blow ourselves to smithereens. That happened in the mythology of the show, and the world rebuilt itself along much better guiding principles.
The Walking Dead is showing the ground zero of the same thing: the world is blown up. It’s not a nuclear war, but it’s essentially the same thing: society collapses, and society has to be rebuilt. In The Walking Dead, we have to come up with a new philosophy for survival. In Star Trek, we’re seeing the end result of that. They figured out how to operate in order to survive as a species.
I think people absolutely get that about these two shows, and that’s why they have these incredibly passionate and dedicated fan bases. Even though they’re very different shows, they understand that there is a real template for how to build society that is being shown in them.