Despite inherent snobbery by commentators in regards popular horror, sci-fi and other fictional TV dramas, the ability of these genre to prompt reflections on historical phenomena and events is startling. For instance, a number of writers have already suggested, from a range of perspectives, links between the Holocaust and AMC’s The Walking Dead. Some of have seen the entire series as an holcaust allegory. Wax identifies 8 themes to the storyline of The Walking Dead that reveal and relate to the Holocaust:
- seeking for normalcy,
- the power of sound and silence,
- the search for hope,
- the potential for evil,
- flirting with the enemy,
- finding deeper meanings to survival and suffering,
- the importance of memory: never forgetting.
The show deserves critique in many regards, including some of its rather two-dimensional characters (while others work very well with carefully crafted back-stories) and lack of philosophical depth. Still, the gripping power and widespread connotations of the story cannot be denied, namely how the characters struggle with the breakdown of society, norms and face both a threat from the dead, but also a threat from other living people. I would agree with Bush in criticising its ‘rugged individualism’ and I would add to this the celebration of gun culture and violent male identities that play through the show. However, let’s put aside the latent dislike of any popular fiction derived from comic books to explore the Holocaust parallels/allusions in The Walking Dead.
To date, I haven’t identified anyone commenting on the treatment of the dead themsleves in TWD. While in previous posts I’ve discussed mortuary practice in TWD at length, I haven’t dedicated attention to how this might relate to the specific experiences of 20th-/early 21st-century disasters and atrocities, including, but not exclusive to, the Holocaust. In this regard, I’m interested in how the body, material culture, architectures and landscapes are deployed to negotiate the experience and create the conditions and affordances of societal breakdown, population displacement, forced containment, large-scale atrocities and mass-killing. I’m not suggesting some one-to-one link, and I don’t think we need to go so far as to suggest that The Walking Dead is primarily a Holocaust allegory. Instead, I want to focus on how the series plays off popular Western understandings and imaginings of the Holocaust, at least as represented through film and television, and to focus on the archaeology of the Holocausts – its materialities and corporealities.
Constructing Dystopias: Technologies of Evil
Previous commentators seem to have focused on Holocaust parallels for TWD from the perspective of the experience of Jews and others who were persecuted. While this case can be made, I would like to make two points to balance this. First, it is actually in the workings of power and violence by makeshift tryannical leaders in times of crisis and power vacuum – such as the Governor, Gareth and Negan – and the descent into evil and the atrocities they enact and facilitate – which have Holocaust parallels. This involves creating dystopian communities within specific architectures and landscapes – Woodbury, Terminus and Negan’s Sanctuary being the principle ones, contrasted with the Farm, the Correctional Facility, Alexandria and The Kingdom where attempts at utopia are created with different levels of success.
We also learn how important food and drink are in creating and facilitating these environments and personal charisma in retaining power, particularly for the Governor. Whereas the Governor maintains his power by manipulating the truth, Negan reveals his truth for all to see: different manifestations of the same form of personal masculine violent evil.
It is the experience of being and becoming evil, of how evil becomes ‘normal’, not only about suffering, that are at the forefront in TWD, and how this takes place through spaces and places. Like the very best of Holocaust dramas, TWD makes us reflect on who commits atrocities and why, and how built environments facilitate and construct these atrocities. It allows us to consider how power works and how both living people, and the walking dead, come to be used as de-humanised pawns of evil dictators, their henchmen, and those who let them retain power. The importance of loyal henchmen are repeatedly addresssed in this regard.
Killing People, Treating the Dead
Second, previous commentaries thus far focus on the lived experience of the Holocaust to find parallels from TWD. Yet I would contend that it is through the process of torture and mass-killing and the treatment of the dead, where Holocaust parallels might be also considered as pervasive.
All the main baddies in The Walking Dead not only torture enemies but also commit brutal public violence to execute people and maintain their power. This is typified by Negan’s ‘Lucille’ baseball bat and use of an open furnace to kill those who have failed him. They also utilise the walking dead as de-humanised tools. The Governor creates ‘pits’ to capture walkers, uses ‘biters’ to fight his battles as ‘soldiers’ against Rick’s group, as well as deploying them as intruments of torture for captives. Likewise, the Wolves use the walking dead as traps to kill the living and turn them on purpose! Indeed, the Terminus group seem almost civilized (I jest of course) in only eating living people and not using the undead in any active regard.
The undead are also used as entertainment, as when the Governor keeps them to perform in the grisly spectacle akin to the gladatorial combats in Ancient Rome for the amusement of the community at Woodbury. In Season 7, the people lurking in the refuse dump – the Scavengers – also have an armoured walker they feed their enemies to as a trial by combat with evident medieval tournament, as well as Roman gladatorial, allusions.
Negan binds and displays walkers to defend his compounds, and his henchmen let walkers into Hilltop to punish the community. Moreover, at the very end of Season 7, he mocks traditional funerary practice by delivering Sasha to Alexandria in a casket on the back of a truck, hoping to make the living act like the dead as tools for his purposes. Negan, more than even the Governor, is a showman for the living, and using the dead.
TWD makes us consider the struggle to retain human treatment for the living, but also respectful and ‘human’ treatment of the dead. Those that treat the dead as props, and the undead as slaves or tools, have truly lost their sense of humanity. TWD reflects on what it means to be ‘alive’ and treat the dead with respect, but uses how we treat the anonymous masses of the undead as a further litmus test of the human condition.
With these points of introduction, in a future blog I’ll explore some of the Holocaust parallels and allusions in TWD focusing on Terminus in Season 4/5 as a form of inverted concentration camp – drawing people in, rather than confining them, in order to kill them en masse.