In Season 5 of The Walking Dead, Beth is kidnapped by a group from Atlanta who operate from the high-rise Grady Memorial Hospital. Uncaring, this group of former cops are the antithesis of Rick: they still wear their uniform. Likewise, their doctor wears his white coat and their cleaners wear workers’ overalls.
Another hospital is a venue last encountered and central to Episdoe 1 in Season 1 as a locale where the utter breakdown of society is realised. Rick wakes in his hospital bed having been shot by criminals to find himself abandoned. He discovers zombies locked behind ward doors. Flashbacks in Season 2 show us how the army lost control and even slew living people at the hospital.
Hospitals are therefore portrayed as sites where the sickness fails to be cured, and hence where the stark violence of soietal destruction is realised. This is purposefully articulated when Rick reaches the outside and the bodies of the dead rot in lines; the onslaught leaves no-one alive to dispose of the corpses.
The initial impression of the Grady group is that they have not transformed from the values and order of Western civilization. Yet this portrayal normalcy we soon realise is a sinister allusion. Very soon it becomes apparent that, while they have escaped having to live in the post-apocalyptic world (although they of course have to regularly forage in the ‘wild’ like Ricks’ group), they have retained less of their values and morality in this seemingly benevolent environment. Hospitals reveal themselves for what they are at the apocalypse: as the ultimate Western venue for death, not as places of healing and recuperation.
The Grady community have created a new two-tier social order within their small community. Above, there is a hierarchy of henchmen surrounding a fragile and paranoid leader – Officer Dawn Lerner. Below, and serving them, are a group of indebted slaves whose lives depend on their labour as cleaners, cooks and enforced prostitutes. Resources are only expended to keep the slaves alive for as long as they are useful. Noah is the principal slave for whom we gain sympathy and who escapes to join Rick’s group. Hence, the hospital provides an uncanny architectural setting for dystopia. Holocaust allusions to this situation are tangible, especially given the pseudo-military character of the uniformed officers.
The sadistic and power-obsessed nature of Lerner and her cronies, yet equally the fragile character of their social structure based on fear and control rather than friendship and allience, is starkly articulated. Moreover, when they finally get a chance to escape, they refuse; the survivors of Grady prefer their crazy hierarchical hospital to the post-apocalyptic new ‘real world’ outside.
The Grady group’s moral and social character isn’t only revealed in how their architecture and material culture parody the retention of normalcy, it is most apparent in how they treat the dead. This is because the group, despite their uniforms and canteen, they exercise machines and DVD players, discard the dead down a lift-shaft and the undead, attracted presumably by the sound of the crashing corpse, consume their flesh. In other words, dystopia is materialised in the architecture of the hospital and the breakdown in mortuary practice. The lift shaft reveals not only the group’s inhumane treatment of the living, but the casual and disrespectful discard of the dead.
This has archaeological implications/allusions of course. Through the human past, shafts, caves and cliffs have been widely associated with the discovery of human remains. The lairs of animals, and victims of accidents in dangerous environments are among explanations we must explore when bodies are found in these locations. Also, suicides, sacrifices and executions might be performed by throwing/dropping bodies down cliffs and shafts. For example, in medieval Icelandic literature and in the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writings of the Venerable Bede, we learn that cliffs might be utilised as places of mass suicide when medieval families and communities faced starvation.
Yet funerary deposition and cultic practice are other options sometimes entertained to explain the choice of such locations for the deposition of the dead. For example, there is still debate about whether the H. naledi remains were deposited in the Rising Star cave by human agency and for funerary purposes. Indeed, there are occasional caves identified elsewhere and throughout later prehistory and early historic periods that may have been utilised to drop the dead and inter the dead. The best know English case is the deposit dated to c. 30 BC to AD 130 from a cave at Alveston, Gloucestershire, featured in Time Team.
Therefore, while dropping bodies might be seen as the antithesis of ‘respectful’ treatment for the dead, it can create the ultimate goodbye and afford distance from the decomposing corpse that the living required. Might it sometimes constitute a respectful and noble death in the human past – casting the body into an unretrievable void with eschatological associations to the downward and ultimate chtonic destination? Therefore, we shouldn’t always presume and transpose onto the past our negative associations with cliffs and shafts, caves and buildings related deaths.
Discerning between these options is often difficult for archaeologists, since the dropping of a body live or dead, in whatever circumstances can leave similar traces in the archaeological record. Still, TWD makes us reflect on the challenges of such interpretations.
Western Popular Imagination
The portrayal of a shaft in TWD as a disposal method for the dead has wider manifestations in popular culture. Popular anxieties over bodies dropping off buildings and down cliffs are replete in Western film and literature. Moreover, they have real-world manifestations in the horrors of terrorist attacks on the Two Towers and in manifold suicides from bridges and tower blocks.
In particular, the deathly character of lifts and lift-shafts are frequently played out in popular fiction, especially in action movies but also in thrillers. For me, it is Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) disappearing down the lift-shift in the 1948 film The Big Clock that always comes to mind. Falling is almost always a ‘bad death’, and commonly it is the choice of demise for the bad guy: one thinks of Robocop here or The Untouchables. Of course bad guys might also kill other bad guys in this fashion, as most recently the second series of The Man in the High Castle where Smith throws a Nazi rival from the building.
This ultimate unceremonious death is subverted in an humorous and yet deeply disturbing and unforgettable way in the portrayal of criminal execution in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Here a criminal choses his own manner of death and selecdts to be chased off a cliff by naked young women. He lands in his own grave with mourners waiting for him…
The mortuary and cthonic associations of cliffs and shafts are apparent, yet a ‘bad death’ needn’t always relate to a ‘bad person’. It is almost always a tragic death, but it can be the tragic death of a really good guy. An example of this is Dumbledore falling as he dies in the Harry Potter books and films.
Falling into a chasm or shaft doesn’t always resulting in a hero’s death either. Luke Skywalker’s suicidal jump in The Empire Strikes Back to escape the horror of realising Darth Vader is his own father articulates the ultimate loss of hope, yet he survives. This version of a noble jumping death miraculously saved has innumerable parallels in movies where superheroes and other characters save the falling person in the nick of time. Moreover, it can, especially in the case of Tolkein’s wizard Gandalf inThe Fellowship of the Ring, constitute the start of a cthonic journey. Like Christ harrowing hell, descending to battle demons and release the dead from their bonds, Gandalf defeats the balrog through his fall, subterranean contest and ascent, preceding his resurrection to rally the forces of Middle Earth against Saruman and Sauron.
Back to TWD
This discussion leads us back to Season 5 of TWD and the Grady community’s use of a lift shaft as a mortuary facility. The shaft embodies the inhumanity of the Grady community. Yet the same shaft develops other connotations and uses.
It is the mechanism by which Dawn and Beth kill officer O’Donnell and thus sparks the possiblity of hope for Lerner. Can she, through Beth’s loyalty and aid, rediscover her humanity. The shaft is the vehicle of this hope, ultimately a failure.
Before this, it serves as the means by which Beth and Noah attempt escape: for Noah successfully so. They descend, make their way through the dark, but Beth is caught while Noah escapes.
Therefore, the tragic, cthonic and mortuary associations of the lift-shaft and the fatal and ultimate allusions to the dropping of bodies down them, certainly reveal an unceremonious and untimely treatment of the dead as discarded rubbish and food for the undead. Yet this dangerous and downward route also alludes to the possiblity of both physical and spiritual freedom for those willing to navigate it.