"The Walking Dead" as Mass Shock Therapy

Curator's Note

There is a psycho-genealogical need for The Walking Dead to be located in Atlanta. Atlanta is a zombie town. Resurgens, the City's motto, is a normative framework. The phoenix, Atlanta's totem, is a zombie bird. According to Ovid, the phoenix flies with the nest in which he was born, it carries with him the sepulcher of his father that is his cradle. Following Laurence Rickels' analysis of the “Psycho effect,” we note the nativity of the slasher genre—of which the zombie thriller is a descendant—is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, whose opening scene is Phoenix, Arizona.

What happened to Atlanta that grips the imaginations of our contemporaries and shifts the City from being a “Noplace,” as the recent survey of Atlanta's visual arts states, to an Everyplace?

The 2010 Census shows the South has become a rapidly diversifying and developing region. A significant change for Atlanta has been so-called “Bright Flight,” the inverse movement of White populations from the suburbs into the urban centers. With these demographic shifts come the anxieties associated with exposure to unknown people and folkways.

Watching the third episode of the first season, “Tell it to the Frogs,” we see the last of humanity huddled on the northwestern perimeter of the City, at Bellwood Quarry, arranging a pillaging raid on the urban core. There are no people in Atlanta, only faceless, threatening bodies between the suburbanites and what they want. This is a metaphor for the relationships between Atlanta and their suburban neighbors.

Were one to continue northwest from Bellwood Quarry along nearby Interstate 75, one arrives at Cobb County, long a conservative force in regional politics, formerly Newt Gingrich's Congressional district. It is one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. and historically has looked to the City of Atlanta as a menacing vision on its horizon. Cobb politics has been dominated by a fear of an imaginary criminal Atlanta denizen. This hysterical vision manifests in the constant refusal to allow the MARTA transit system to enter their borders for fear of a rise in crime. But the future of Atlanta requires more closely-linked infrastructure and there will continue to be waves of demographic shifts.

We understand The Walking Dead as a form of traumatic shock therapy: regularly scheduled intensive trauma sessions shifting the audience from the victims of their traumatic pasts to survivors of their future lived traumas. Atlanta prepares its future.


What a great reading. 

As a fan of the American New Sincerist movement, I have often puzzled why zombie narratives and increasingly localized art seem to be corresponding phenomena. In both reading TWD and watching the show, I have wondered at the location which, after years of the New York/LA locale monopoly, felt both more "authentic" and more alientting.  Finally, something that always bothered me about S1E4 was that the standoff was decided by the presence of an elderly woman.  And here you've resolved all of the queries on one tidy little bundle.  Bravo.

What I find notworthy is the fact that the very next episode is entitled "Vatos" and features a racialized gang-like organizaiton. The Atlanta elder-care community in that episode uses racial stereotypes to thier advantage because they recognize that not only are the walkers themselves a threat, but in such dire situations, so are other communities of survivors.

Rather than disprove your point, this emphasizes the significance of traditional values in determining what is to be feared about the city. This community in Atlanta establishes a symoblic vocabulary for distinguishing between those (of a different ethnicity or race) who retain traditional values and the dread of the city. The threat is still very present despite the domestication of this enclave of urban space. Hence what we have is a fear that was once simply projected onto racialized bodies now having infected a wide range of bodies. Conservative fear-mongering need not be limited to racialized bodies because anyone can be "them," not unlike that fancy new floating signifyer "terrorist" which seems to often be applied to anyone living an alternate lifestyle even if they are in no way seeking to spread that lifestyle to others.  (Kirkman's graphic novel distinguishes between walkers and lurkers - another riddle explained!)

This is a very interesting take on Atlanta’s situation within the symbolic space of TWD and the racialized imaginary of wealthy white suburbia. In reading your entry, Paul, and Adryan’s response, the importance of mobility is really thrust to the forefront of my thoughts; not only in terms of the zombie narrative (i.e. the competing mobilities of the living and the undead that often seem to drive the narrative tension—survivors are always trying to go where zombies cannot or to prevent zombies from going somewhere), but also more specifically in terms of the mobility enabled by privilege. The “bright flight” into the city that Paul identifies in the “real” world finds a rather seamless analogue in the survivor’s ability to enter and exit the diegetic Atlanta at their relative leisure. Such ventures are routinely coded as “dangerous,” much like their real world counterparts that Paul astutely notes in the resistance to the supposedly urban infiltration posed by the MARTA system. This contrasts rather profoundly with the relative immobility of the elderly and communities of color in the “Vatos” episode that Adryan smartly identifies. Aside from the show’s somewhat shallow platitudes about the ills of racial profiling, Travis, the elderly, and their caretakers are seemingly confined to the city with little hope of leaving (that such communities are particularly immobilized and bound within an urban space evokes comparisons—on a vastly different scale of course—with Hurricane Katrina), while Rick and his followers move between the urban, suburban, and rural in the event of disaster. I do wonder, though, what the representation (and racialization I think) of the zombies does for the paranoia that can no longer be confined to the city/suburb dialectic?

 While the first season of Walking Dead is brutal, brilliant and gut wrenching at times in its depiction of the harsh realities of living within a world where order no longer exists, what is striking is how the second season seems to be arguing that order can be restored in the safety of rural America. The importance of rural landscapes for American politics, and especially in the South cannot be overlooked because it was often the rural landowners who dictated the politics and laws of the various societies.
  The second season in its usage of Hershel's farm as a place of refuge and training ground for Carl's masculinity seems to be arguing that the only way forward for the group (which can be read as a metaphor for America itself) is to adopt brutal tactics such as torture, murder, and injustice to reclaim a sense of order. In many ways the second season seems to calling for a return to the era of Bush and the 'war on terror' because during that period conservative Americans had no trouble identifying the "Other" which threatened the nation. In the case of the group that "Other" is no longer racialized but instead signified by the danger of all outsiders, most especially those who have lived in urban environments. In setting up the idea that the threats come from cities the series seems to be replaying the "Southern strategy" of the Republican party which not only helped them take control of Southern politics using the spectre of race and crime, but also the American consciousness.
 It still remains to be seen what the series going forward offers in terms of thinking about the representation of the zombie. Still, I am left to wonder at a time when we have discussions of "zombie capitalism" and zombie banks how the series could use the metaphor of the "zombie" in a more productive and progressive manner when much of the show seems to revolve around a need to argue for the reclaiming of a lost America where men found worth and comfort in rural landscapes and farms rather than cities.  

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