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Deep Background: The Walking Dead

A proposition: one strategy or function of the Gothic genre is to disrupt a stable, received sense of figure and ground.  I mean this in the most gestalt-psychology kind of way: the Gothic messes with our idea of what we should pay attention to and what it’s safe to ignore, what counts as positive and negative space, what’s signal and what’s noise, what’s animate and what’s inanimate.  Think of the setting-which-is-a-character—as in the apparently animate castle in eighteenth-century everything, the raping tree in Evil Dead, the ghost ship in Ghost Ship.  Or the character-which-is-only-really-an-object-or-a-piece-of-the-set—as in the Final Destination movies, where most of the actors are simply meat-sacks at the terminus of Rube Goldberg style death-machines.  Or of the narrative prominence of the chainsaw, the butcher knife, the axe, the hockey mask, the roque mallet, etc.: they figure in horror stories because they are also tools, because they suggest the terrifying potential energy in the everyday object.  If we understand the Gothic as itself a testing or subversion of those modalities of differentiation (like ‘character’ and ‘setting’ or ‘weapon’ and ‘tool’) that we use to organize the world—as wholesale disruption of the grounds of stable intellection and as exploration of what happens next—we can see more clearly the high stakes of its best and its dippiest examples.

Which brings us to Frank Darabont’s AMC version of The Walking Dead.  Everybody who cares about the show knows that it’s actually kind of terrible.  As the A.V. Club’s Todd Van Der Werff put it a few months ago in an essay (much like this one) designed to pinpoint the appeal of a text with so many narrative flaws and so many one-dimensional characters[1]: “I love The Walking Dead in spite of myself.”[2]  That makes two of us.  For Van Der Werff, the reason to keep coming back is that the show does “an endlessly oppressive mood of dread” better than “just about anything else on TV.”   Pace The Bachelor/Bachelorette, that’s probably true: the imminent threat of zombie attack infuses every round of pointless dialogue with a last-kind-words significance; in the face of mortal danger, creaky pacing comes to have something of a slow-burn effect.[3]   But I also want to push on it a little harder—to move beyond the dull events of the story and think more about the way that the story gets told.  For me, the things most interesting about The Walking Dead are the cinematography and the set-decoration: its character interactions and zombie-puncturing events couldn’t be more rote and slow and silly, but its visual sensibility is exceedingly sophisticated.  It also may be the only thing that’s actually scary about the show.

Like nothing else on television, The Walking Dead brings the ground forward—its depth-of-field (which is to say its sense of what’s in focus and what’s out of focus) is to my eye strikingly large.  This is partly a function of technology—the show is shot on 16mm film, and is broadcast in HD—and partly a function of the show’s commitment to the scariness of verisimilitude.   The sets are cluttered and mismatched and broken down in such a way that they really don’t look like sets—the woods are scrubby and un-scenic, people’s cars look like actual people’s scummy cars, farmhouses are just regular-old filled-with-knicknacks farmhouses.  The set-decorators and the cinematographers keep the visual field as noisy and incoherent as our everyday—which means that it’s harder to read what’s happening in that field as allegory, or even as all that far from our accepted reality.  Which is, technically, thrilling or scary: zombie apocalypse just around the corner! It could happen to me! Etc.  But it’s more than that, too.

Take the opening credits of the first two seasons, for example, which shift back and forth between heavily filtered shots of empty/desolate environments and images of the characters as elements of those environments.

huntting1 Still from The Walking Dead, season 1 & 2 opening credits.

Presented as framed photographs behind broken glass, or newsprint images scattered on the floor (the ground!) of ravaged houses, the main characters are rendered as part of the landscape—singled out by the full-frame shot, but mediated beyond humanity.  That the actor names fade in and out of the background merely literalizes the situation: in this text it is hard to tell the difference between subject and object. (In the season three credits, a central shot of a darting walker-eyeball suggests that these filters are a function of the Other’s sensorium: the washed out, flickering world is what They perceive.)

And then there are the pillowcases. In the first season of The Walking Dead there are several scenes where powerful male characters (Rick Grimes, Daryl Dixon) appear in close-up shots framed against flower-patterned pillowcases.


Still from The Walking Dead, season 1, episode 1.


huntting3 Still from The Walking Dead, season 2, episode 6.

 Again, partly the terror of verisimilitude: “My grandmother had pillowcases like this! They are not like the other ones on TV, which means that this whole zombie-apocalypse business could happen in the world I inhabit!” [4]   And super-clear narrative purposes: lying down, vulnerable, feminized by floweriness, these shots represent men-in-crisis. The shots shorthand the depths to which they’ve fallen and the state they must overcome in order to reclaim something like heroism.  But in presenting real visual interest in a tight shot—a focal point outside the character but immediately proximate—the pillowcases also represent an intrusion of ground upon figure, suggesting a greater existential problem.  Those material artifacts that by convention exist to complement the actor—to set off his face, confirm his importance to the shot—become in these moments an argument for his diminishment. It’s still possible to tell the difference between subject and object, of course, but the distance between them—in terms of organic patterning in the visual field—is much closer than convention says it ought to be. These shots serve, then, as a kind of formal or technical or filmic recapitulation of the organizing trope of the zombie narrative: that the bright line between alive and not-alive is not always that bright.

It’s possible to multiply examples of this dynamic.  In Season Three, for instance, there’s an episode that centers on Rick’s return to his old workplace looking for guns and ammunition.  Rick finds instead his old acquaintance, Morgan—to whom he owes his life—occupying a house that looks like this:


Still from The Walking Dead Season 3, Episode 12


Again: achingly clear narrative purposes—Morgan’s cluttered house/visual field index his post-apocalyptic mania; he obsessively accumulates things—weapons, boxes, talismanic phrases—as a way to make up for the loss of his old life.  As chalkmarks on the wall and as boxes full of junk, Morgan’s thoughts are made disconcertingly material; the man disappears into his stuff, or maybe the shored-up stuff is revealed to be the essence of the man.

It becomes more complicated, though, at the moment where Morgan tells Rick about how his wife (lately turned into a zombie) killed their son and how he then killed her.

“We was always lookin for food.  You know it always came down to food.  And I was…I was checkin out a cellar.  And I didn’t want Duane to come down there with me and then when I came up….she was standing there right in front of him.  And he had his gun up.  And he couldn’t do it.  So I called to him.  And he turned.  And then she was just…just on him. And I see red…I see red everything is red everything I see is red and I do it.  Finally. Finally it was too late.  I was supposed to. I was selfish.  I was weak.”

It’s a devastating scene—one of the few believable expressions of remorse or regret in the show—but the way that it’s framed makes it even more so.  In the background, a little out of focus but distractingly legible, a scavenged box with a stenciled sentence:  “THIS CONTAINER HAS A RE-USE VALUE.”  While Morgan talks, it’s mostly visible as “THIS CONTAINER HAS VALUE” (as in the still below).


Still from The Walking Dead Season 3, Episode 12

 The man lays bare his guilt, his rage, and his sorrow about the things he has seen and done—those things which make him most a subject—but the background refuses to recede.  THIS CONTAINER HAS A VALUE.  And it must be accounted for and attended to, even in the face of overwhelming human emotion.  No matter how figure-y the figure becomes, the ground won’t let it go.

Another version of this dynamic emerges in that icky scene in Season One where Shane and Lori have sex in the grass.  It ends like this just before the opening credits roll:

huntting6 Still from The Walking Dead, Season 1 Episode 2

As above, the traditional narrative purpose here is extra-clear: the judgmental camera foregrounds the discarded wedding band, and pushes the pleasures of sex into the background.  Lori and Shane may be having fun, but they are bad because they have violated those vows that the ring is supposed to instantiate.   For shame!  More interesting, though, is the visual suggestion that this sort of bad behavior isn’t simply immoral, but that it’s punishable by a loss of characterological integrity.  When the grass is more appealing to the camera (and better defined) than the people fucking, you know you’re in trouble; as Shane and Lori dissolve into the ground, they necessarily stop being anything like selves.[5]

What’s interesting to me: we’re accustomed to this sort of thing happening with zombies—they are, after all, always already both figure and ground—a part of the landscape that is nevertheless animate and hostile, gruesomely individuated but instantiating perfectly a mass or class of objects.  The constant existential threat that the human protagonists face in conventional zombie texts is precisely that: once you get bitten, you become one of Them—no more unique character, just another in an infinite series of grasping hands and tearing jaws.[6]  (In Season Three, the show makes the case explicitly: Milton’s singing-bowl and phonograph experiments confirm that the recently deceased retain nothing of their previous existence.)  Here, though, in the scenes that I’ve described, it’s the people—not the zombies—already merging with or emerging from the scenery.  The philosophically Bad Thing held out as threat in conventional zombie narratives has happened to the remaining characters already, even though they’re not yet zombies.  (This is a point that Robert Kirkman’s comic book makes explicit: the survivors, not the zombies, are the Walking Dead.)  And because those people are our people, our surrogates, that means that it’s us on the hook too: more convincingly than in the characterization or in the plotting, the formal operations in The Walking Dead suggest that the categories of discrimination we use to imagine ourselves are as unstable or meaningless as the ones we use to imagine our Others.  And that has the potential to be legitimately scary: insofar as these categories form the moorings and lashings of acculturated subjectivity, coming free of them doesn’t just push us into the unknown but into a place where knowledge is impossible.  In the right light—or against the right ground—we cannot see to see.


W. H. Howell: Plays Pinball Every Chance He Gets.


[1] With only the most obvious exceptions (Daryl, Carol, Michonne, Tyreese), I’m with America in rooting for the goddamn zombies every time.

[2] http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-walking-dead-succeeds-by-making-death-a-charac,94196/

[3] Of course, put The Walking Dead up against something that actually does slow-burn horror really well—like Ti West’s House of the Devil (2009)—and the claim doesn’t exactly track.

[4] Cf. that episode of Moonlighting where Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis finally get it on.  Nothing but crisp white sheets and the actors themselves; http://www.davidandmaddie.com/doit.htm

[5] I’m thinking here of Jason Salavon’s wondrous “amalgamations”—especially 76 Blowjobs and Fig. 1: Every Playboy Centerfold, 1988-1997—that use algorithms I can’t begin to explain to average the color-values of digital images and reveal the spectral abstraction inherent in pornographic representation (or in our putatively intimate relations).  See http://www.salavon.com/work/category/amalgamations/

[6] In his review essay of recent zombie novels in n + 1, Mark McGurl: “As a kind of character, then, the zombie is a pure negation of the concept of character at the heart of Austen’s realism.”  The zombie is a “flat” character, and stands for the principles of flatness (appetite, irrationality, conventionality); the zombie-fighter is supposed to be “round,” and to stand for the principles of roundness (consciousness, reflection, complexity, individuation).  Later, beautifully, McGurl positions the zombie as the “lumpenproletariat” foil to the vampire’s “celebrity.”



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