Ginger Nuts of Horror
So there are these two shows about zombies. I'm sure you've heard of at least one of them. The elder, more popular of the two, launched with tremendous pedigree behind it – adapted from a long-running and beloved graphic novel series, developed by a hugely respected film-maker and broadcast on a highly respected network. The other, younger show was developed by the producers of such modern day classics as Transmorphers and Sharknado, broadcast on a network that can't even spell its own name properly and was presumably created when one executive (probably high) turned to another and said: “Hey, so that new zombie show seems pretty popular. We should make one of those.”
While the former has become one of the most watched, discussed and written about shows in the world, the latter has mostly flown under the radar, building a small and enthusiastic fan-base, but generally receiving only disdain (if not open hostility) from the wider world.
Yet of the two, it is Z Nation, the young upstart, that has grown from humble beginnings to become the more nuanced, heartfelt and dynamic show, crackling with creativity, while The Walking Dead (very quickly, I would argue) devolved into a miserable, aimless soap opera, capable of tapping into a shallow reserve of imagination only when it comes to trolling its audience.
I've watched both shows, but I consider myself a fan of only one them. Over two and a half seasons, Z Nation, ignored by most, has blossomed into something truly special. And though I've long considered it far superior to The Walking Dead, I've only recently realised that my entire argument can be summed up in one word.
Let's review. In The Walking Dead, a man called Rick wakes from a coma to find the world has been destroyed in a zombie apocalypse and sets out in search of his wife and son. That's a good mission, built on hope. Plenty of story potential in that. Only, he finds his wife and son just a couple of episodes later, at which point the mission becomes simply: survival. And here's the thing. The characters on The Walking Dead are terrible at survival. Instead of pulling together against the zombie hordes, they squabble, sabotage and murder each other. They mope around, cry, bitch and curse the fact they're still alive. And they die. A lot. Their plight is a hopeless one, with no end in sight, unless it's at the end of a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.
In Z Nation, another show in which the world has been ravaged by a zombie apocalypse, the characters we follow have quite a different mission: save the human race. A ragtag team of survivors going under the label Operation Bitemark are escorting Murphy, the only man to ever survive a zombie bite, to a team of scientists who will use his blood to create a cure for the zombie virus. At the current point in the series, this mission has been complicated by Murphy, now evolved into some kind of human-zombie hybrid, striking out with his own plan to create a new society. This involves biting people, which saves them from the virus, but means they have to give up a portion of their free will to him.
And while viewers will be sceptical about whether a man like Murphy (who has proven himself cowardly, conceited, selfish and downright villainous in previous episodes) can or should be the leader of the New World Order, the show itself has been surprisingly ambiguous about the subject. In a recent episode, a resident of the newly-established Murphytown told him:
“I just wanted to say thank you. I was going to end it all. I mean... why go on without hope?”
Why go on indeed? Why do the characters in The Walking Dead go on? Everyone in Z Nation has something to fight for. Whether it's saving humanity, Murphy's vision of a new kind of society with himself as benevolent dictator or even the shadowy organisation ZONA's plans to establish a genetically-superior elite, everyone has a clear goal in mind. They all have hopes of something better ahead.
And that's important, not just for the characters, but for viewers. Hope inspires. Hope keeps people going. It helps people to find humour and humanity in the darkness. It drives them to think creatively, to set aside petty differences, to plan, to do interesting things that have a calculable outcome on events. Hope is motivation. It's what drives plot and makes characters worth watching.
What do the characters on The Walking Dead have? What sustains them beyond their biological imperative? Near as I can tell, it is the deliberate creative choice of the people behind The Walking Dead that their should be no hope. It does not fit in with their world view. It would undermine the show's key message. Whether you think a show without it can still be entertaining is up to you, but to echo the thoughts of the character above... why go on without it?
For my own part, I believe horror only works when there is hope. It doesn't matter how bloody or brutal a scene is. Unless there's a hope the characters involved can escape it, I won't find it compelling. I don't care that the villain of a slasher movie is immortal, unstoppable and unquenchable in his thirst to eviscerate young co-eds. Unless he can somehow be defeated, why am I watching?
A horror movie might still end with everyone dead (and frequently has to) but it can't be a foregone conclusion from the start. Why would you care?
Hope is what separates good horror from pure sadism, from torture porn, from all the cheap, sleazy mean-spirited gore-fests that people who refuse to watch horror assume it is all like. Horror devoid of hope is the stuff that makes us horror fans look bad in the eyes of the wider world.
Take a look at the season seven premier of The Walking Dead. It wasn't just groups like the Parents Television Council that objected to the violence on show. Plenty of viewers, even hardened horror veterans, found themselves disgusted, left feeling shaken and degraded, without being able to articulate exactly why. Even professional TV reviewers announced they were walking away from the show, never to watch or review it again, so soured were they by the scenes on display.
“Are you kidding?” others cried. “Ever watch Game of Thrones? Hannibal? Hell, TWD didn't even have the goriest scene on TV this week! American Horror Story was even worse!”
And they're kind of right. So why does the violence in The Walking Dead upset people so much? I don't think it's hypocrisy. And I certainly don't think its because the characters in The Walking Dead are so brilliantly portrayed that their deaths are simply more upsetting (definitely not). The answer, I believe, comes back to hope.
In horror with hope, violence serves the story. Violence is part of the journey. Bodies may litter the floor, the walls may be awash with blood and gore, but if our characters are willing to fight through all that in search of some greater goal, then as viewers, so are we.
In The Walking Dead, violence is the story. Violence is the journey. And there's a term for that. We call it 'empty' violence. It is violence without any nutritional content to it. Violence that serves no greater function in the story because, beyond the question of 'who dies this week?', there is no story. In a show where the entire mission is 'survival', the only plot points from which any suspense can be wrung are:
1.Who dies next?
2.When do they die?
3.How gut-churningly horrible will be their death?
And remember: Anyone can die (except for Rick or Daryl), so make sure to keep tuning in to see if your favourite character (who's not Rick or Daryl) gets to live another week, another two weeks, another season finale, another season premier. Maybe they'll even survive another full season, but will they survive the season after that? Make sure to keep tuning in to find out, because our advertisers are relying on us and that's literally all we've got.
Consider this: How will Z Nation end? My own hope is that humanity (or some variation thereof) will be saved, that the zombie threat will be neutralised (thanks to the direct actions of Operaton Bitemark, Murphy or a combination of the two) and that our heroes will find some kind of peace and comfort in a new, better life. That may not be the way it works out, and if it does, not everyone will make it, but that hope sustains me as a viewer the same way it does the show's characters.
And that's why, whatever the show's occasional flaws (and there are some, I'll admit it), I'm compelled to keep tuning in every week.
Now ask yourself this: What is the endgame for The Walking Dead? Because if it's anything other than the handful of remaining characters meeting a violent, grisly death in the service of nothing at all then not only will I be very surprised, but it will be subverting and betraying the message that has been the show's core philosophy for more than six seasons, which is this: humanity is awful and not worth saving.
If that's a message you're happy being beaten about the head with for another seven seasons (or however long AMC can keep its misery train rolling) you're welcome to it.
For the rest of you? Hey, did you hear about this other zombie show? It's pretty good. You should check it out.
John McNee is the author of numerous strange and disturbing horror stories, published in a variety of anthologies, as well as the horror novel 'Prince of Nightmares'.
He is also creator of the dystopian bizarro sludge-city Grudgehaven and author of various stories detailing the lives and deaths of its gruesome inhabitants, including the books 'Grudge Punk' and 'Petroleum Precinct: Grudge Punk 2'.
He lives on the west coast of Scotland, where his day job is writing about biscuits.
John can be found haunting the following places
"Fantastically warped and wonderfully twisted, John McNee is a writer with a towering imagination, and he knows how to use it." ~Victor Gischler, Edgar Award-nominated author of GUN MONEYS and DEADPOOL: Merc with a Mouth. “McNee has taken the dream spectrum and contorted it into an unrelenting haven of fear.” ~ K. Trap Jones, author of The Charm Hunter
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