Illustration by Amy Curkendall

Illustration by Amy Curkendall

March 2013

Publisher's View: Zombies

Steven J. Moss

Recently I engaged in an accidental experiment. 

I got drawn into watching AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” a ghastly television program that revolves around a zombie apocalypse. The show is so full of stomach-twisting mutilations — bloody decapitations, disembowelments, and amputations — that while viewing it I had to set aside my usual habit of TV snacking. Once the season ended I ordered the compilation of comic books on which is was based — almost five inches of death pornography — and topped that off with a 330 page prequel-like novel. Over the course of a few weeks, I became a reading zombie, gorging on dark depictions of depravity, torture, and killings.

I can’t easily explain why I was attracted to this gloomy entertainment. But I do know that the gory consumption binge impacted me emotionally. Like the fictional characters I was following on pages and screens, I became more fearful, distrustful, and morose. I worried that the rustling of the wind indicated an unpleasant surprise in the attic, or that a door was closed for a morbid reason. Three inches into the zombie compilation I felt like I was changing my brain chemistry, with a heightened sense of paranoia that mimicked what might happen after too many hits of the wrong kind of marijuana. Even as I recognized what the zombies were doing to me I kept at until, until, my mind bloated, I finished the last comic book.

I’m recovering from all that now, but the episode got me wondering how what we watch or read impacts us. We’ve long attached warning labels to shows and movies that have violent or sexual scenes. We used to censor or ban provocative books. Recent attempts have been made to regulate rap music and video games, lest they incite youth to aggressive acts. Liberals, libertarians, and secular intellectuals have typically dismissed such efforts as liberty-stifling government over-reach. Up until now I’d have agreed with them. But my immersion into the zombie milieu has prompted me to reconsider.

Occasionally viewing or reading a brutal or sexual scene seems largely harmless, at least for grown-ups. But saturating ourselves with any set of images seems likely to mold our minds along particular channels. Billboards, magazines, books, and videos that feature ubiquitous skinny, large-breasted or chested models, fatty foods, and unrelenting acts of gun-related violence would seem to create a society obsessed with thin, well-appointed bodies, fattening fodder, and weapons. Did I just describe us?

What surrounds us, visually and otherwise, shapes who we are. Even our geography has its influences. In the 1970s Rodriguez, the newly rediscovered rock star, was recorded as saying Detroit’s problems stem, in part, from the fact that it’s the only city in American that doesn’t have any views. While we can’t always choose where we live, we can determine what we look at, and how we see it. Otherwise, we’re just walking around like zombies. 

A version of this column was aired as part of KQED-FM’s Perspective series.  

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