Despite its chilling effects, the commercial viability of fear implies a demand to be scared. There is no better evidence than the record setting premiere of Season 5 of The Walking Dead. But why do we desire fear? What purpose does fictional horror fill for us?
Philosopher Hans Blumenberg says the purpose of horror stories, like all myths, is to reduce the unknown into something tangible—thereby ameliorating the anxiety caused by the unknown. If you accept Blumenberg’s argument, though, there is an apparent contradiction present within our love of horror. Stories are supposed to relieve our fear, yet horror stories cause fear.
From Blumenberg’s perspective, that inconsistency is superficial. Horror stories swap one fear for another by making an intangible threat tangible. They name an unknown menace and through that simple process, reduce its power. That is not to say, though, that the threat is eliminated. On The Walking Dead we have heard zombies called walkers, biters, and geeks, but we are still afraid. And even though we know it is only a TV show (there are no walkers in the street), we still experience fear. A simple explanation for why we fear monsters on a TV show is the fact that the characters show us how to act. But we can react emotionally, following the characters’ portrayed emotions in every genre; it is hardly unique to horror. Moreover, if that were the full explanation, we would stop feeling fear when the show ends. Sometimes, though, the fear sticks around. The question, then, is if not the monsters, what are we still scared of?
The Walking Dead shows how the zombie apocalypse brings out the monstrousness in the survivors.
One response is that there is an ethical horror in scary movies—there are a handful of tropes we see again and again that present the horrific antagonist as a way of revealing the monstrousness of ourselves. As in many previous zombie stories, The Walking Dead shows how the zombie apocalypse brings out the monstrousness in the survivors. The television series began as the comics did: comatose Deputy Rick Grimes awakens to discover the dead meandering the halls outside his hospital room. Meanwhile, his fellow officer and loyal friend, Shane, saves Rick’s family and leads a small band of survivors camped outside Atlanta. But with Rick’s arrival at the camp, we begin to witness a different Shane emerge: a would-be rapist, a murderer and foil for Rick’s attempts to preserve humanity after the dead rise.
Seasons 1 and 2 are structured around this conflict. Rick endeavors to secure as much of a pre-apocalyptic life as possible for his family. His efforts show a cautious optimism that he can restore order to their lives and find a way to recreate a world where zombies are not a constant threat. Ostensibly, Shane is working towards the same goal. But for Shane, the ends justify atrocious means. It becomes obvious, well before the conflict between Rick and Shane resolves, that the zombies are no longer what we should fear the most.
Shane represents a challenge to our value system, but this challenge is only one source of horror. Ethical horror does not explain the horror instilled by the zombies. The walkers retain nothing of their humanity, so we cannot really say they have values of any sort with which to challenge. Eugene Thacker’s book, In the Dust of This Planet, helps us understand why the walkers are horrifying— identifying how this horror challenges our being-in-the-world.
Humans take being, our existence, for granted more than anything else, perhaps because our fundamental mode of being is familiarity with the world. Maggie explains this best reminiscing with her sister about life on the farm before the walkers. As children, they approached the world of their farm as a playground. As adults they invest meaning into the small part of the world where they grew up. But in whatever way we as human beings relate to the world, it is a process of taking the world-in-itself and transforming it into the world we are used to (or the “world-for-us” to borrow Thacker’s term). Certain works of horror, Thacker argues, attempt to reconsider the world outside our typical, anthropocentric view—what he calls the “world-without-us.”
The world-without-us is not necessarily unpopulated by people. If people are still there, they are not center stage—or on stage at all. Thacker points out that the “world-without-us” is not opposed to humans either, writing, “to say that the world-without-us is antagonistic to the human is to attempt to put things in human terms, in terms of the world-for-us.” The world-without-us, then, is the world indifferent to us; a world where all our beliefs are irrelevant and our projects do not actually matter.
Before the apocalypse, the world was under control as far as the survivors in The Walking Dead were concerned. They went about their days in the world-for-us living relatively comfortable lives without worrying about survival every day. But the dead rising disrupts that relationship with the world and presents the survivors an existential threat. The herds of walkers force the survivors to constantly move. Every potential safe harbor fails eventually and it is back to running just to survive a little more.
The persistence the walkers show in pursuing survivors might create the perception the world is out to get humanity. But Thacker anticipates that kind of impression:
“But even this is too anthropocentric a view, as if the world harbored some misanthropic vendetta against humanity. It would be more accurate – and more horrific, in a sense – to say that the world is indifferent to us as human beings.
To say otherwise would imply the walkers have a purpose in mind and are acting toward that end, when in fact they are no more goal-oriented than a hurricane or a pandemic. The walkers might be said then to represent the existential horror. To Rick’s group, the zombies are a constant reminder of a cold, uncaring world and to the home audience they reveal the world-without-us—they are nihilism made manifest.
To Rick’s group, the zombies are a constant reminder of a cold, uncaring world and to the home audience they reveal the world-without-us—they are nihilism made manifest.
The walkers’ likeness to a natural disaster is significant because not all flesh eaters on the show upset our worldview—some bring explicitly ethical challenges. For most of Season 4, the survivors followed signs advertising refuge in the township of Terminus. But like the walkers, the residents of Terminus consume survivors too. Rather than hunting and gathering like Rick’s group, the Terminants choose to lure other survivors to Terminus for dinner. For the walkers and Terminants both, eating people is a way to survive. But the horror we feel at each is distinct. The walkers might appear to share the Terminants’ enthusiasm for consuming humans, but they derive no pleasure from devouring the living. Instead of challenging our value system, the walkers horrify by challenging our being-in-the-world.
As a taxonomy of horror fiction, the existential and the ethical covers a lot of ground and conveniently overlap at The Walking Dead. There are other examples too that horrify through both existential and ethical scares: Aliens, Carrie, and The Cabin in the Woods. There are other examples, of course, that fall mostly or wholly into one category or the other: The Wicker Man in the ethical category and The Exorcist in the existential. These two categories are useful to broadly understand the horror genre. But more importantly than how they might apply classifying works in horror fiction, the categories of existential and ethical horror reflect what we are scared of when we turn off the television and account for why we seek out the scares in the first place.