Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Apocalyptic Absurdity: Dale Horvath, Raisonneur of the Walking Dead

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Apocalyptic Absurdity: Dale Horvath, Raisonneur of the Walking Dead

Article excerpt

One need look no further than the local Cineplex or Books-a-Million to see that the zombie apocalypse has been going on for quite some time now. Novels like Brian Keene's The Rising (2003), and Colson Whitehead's Zone One (2012), and classic films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and 28 Days Later (2002) attest to the continuing popularity of the zombie as a figure Gerry Canavan posits within "the very center of global mass culture" (431). More than simply a horrific monster, the zombie has become a flexible cultural signifier with a seemingly limitless range of significance. Within critical discourse associated with such cultural anxieties as rampant consumerism, comparative political economy, the spread of AIDS, the abjection of the female body, and the general absurdity of the human condition, the zombie is a convenient catch-all for representing the "other," regardless of what group is identified within the category of "self." As Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry point out, the zombie "has morphed into a convenient boogeyman representing various social concerns" (87).

The enduring ubiquity of the zombie as both a pop culture figure and a component of a highly malleable linguistic sign is due, in large part, to its function as a "grotesque metaphor for humanity itself' (Bishop 201). Audiences know when they watch the latest zombie film or television show that this monstrous figure "stands" for something beyond being just a shambling corpse with a taste for human flesh. It is an undead manifestation of our darkest personal demons and deepest collective fears. But the metaphoric quality of the zombie is only realized outside the context of the individual zombie narrative by an external agent or audience. The medium in which the zombie narrative is presented acts as a liminal buffer allowing the audience to enjoy the horror of the zombies and recognize their symbolic potential within the safety of the theater or living room. However, within the zombie novel or film, the characters are afforded no such luxury; instead, they are trapped within an existentialist "narrative of awakening" where they must overcome their "initial rejection of threatening and repelling circumstances, replacing them with a form of acceptance that crucially requires a shift in their sense of identity in the direction of the monstrous" (Hanscomb 2). To survive the real and uncanny threat of the zombies, the characters must not only physically destroy the undead, they must adjust psychologically to the realities of a world where the demarcation between "living" and "dead" is no longer fixed. How characters deal with this new existential paradigm points to a fundamental tension within the zombie narrative, one that is played out weekly in AMCs long-running television series, The Walking Dead.

Based on the series of graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, AMCs The Walking Dead imagines an apocalyptic world where hordes of the undead ("walkers") roam freely, preying upon the flesh of the ever-dwindling population of live humans. Governments, organized religions, and every other social institution has either collapsed or devolved into some grotesque parody of its former self, leaving humanity without the constructs that had provided order and, in many ways, meaning, to human existence. The Walking Dead offers precious few moments of respite for the humans from the despair and hopelessness of a life in which survival has become the only standard by which significance is measured. Foregrounding the tenuous nature of humanity's continued existence in a world where humans no longer top the food chain makes discussions of "the meaning of life" or "virtue versus value" a long-passed luxury for the remaining survivors; there is precious little time to philosophize about existence when every moment is a violent struggle to exist.

And yet the survivors in The Walking Dead do find themselves engaged in an ongoing existential quandary about the meaning and value of life, the moral ramifications of their actions, and the most important question of all; is life even worth living? …

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