The popular AMC series The Walking Dead, set initially in Georgia, USA, follows Rick and his group as they struggle to survive in a fictional post-apocalyptic world where the dead come back to eat the living, all living people are infected and will turn into the undead upon death, and where those that remain behind fight, torture and kill each other as they compete to survive, acquire resources, defend themselves and create communities. Central to the story is the descent into evil and the struggle to retain humanity in the face of an onslaught of starvation, disease, violence and death at the hands of the undead or the living.
My suggestion in an earlier post was that Holocaust parallels in TWD might not be so much in the show being fully a Holocaust allegory, and less on the experiences and behaviours, sufferings and resistance of victims to the onslaught of the dead and the evil acts of other people. Perhaps instead, we might look to how TWD reflects on the Holocaust in terms of materiality and corporeality. Specifically, I made 2 points. First, how TWD reflects on disturbing examples of how leaders, their associations and their henchmen establish walled dystopias through material cultures and architectures. Second, we could consider Holocaust allusions in how the zombie apocalypse prompts a struggle to retain and reinvent dialogues with the dead involving various inhumane treatments of the undead themselves.
The most striking Holocaust parallel that reflects on both these themes as well as the suffering of victims, can be found at the end of Season 4 and the start of Season 5 of TWD at ‘Terminus’. Here we encounter a band of cannibals who lure victims with radio messages and signs along railway tracks. Once they arrive, they are drawn into lowering their guard with a meal, they are captured, confined, slaughtered, stored, prepared and eaten. Justification this group’s actions come to the fore in the first half of Season 5, where we learn that their behaviour is a perversion of their earlier strategy of trying to welcome strangers that went wrong. The newcomes instead confined, raped and murdered members of their group before Gareth, Alex and their mother Mary fought back in some undisclosed manner to regain control of Terminus.
These past atrocities inspired not only the cannibalism of the Terminus occupants, but their own memorial programme to legitimate and enforce distinctions of the group (‘us’) from others as simply food (‘them’), as discussed in a previous post here.
There are Holocaust dimensions to many of the landscapes, architectures and materials of TWD, from the itinerancy of hiding in refuges and woodland to the attempts to create utopias/dystopias by Rick’s group and others. However, here I want to focus on the ‘archaeology’ of Terminus: the corporeality, materiality, architectures and landscapes, in which tangible Holocaust parallels might be found both in the treatment of victims, but also the architectures and material cultures of power, and the treatment of the dead. I’d like to propose that Terminus operates as a small-scale version of a concentration camp, but with key elements inverted, focusing on drawing in people rather than simply confining them through starvation and labour towards execution.
Terminus as Concentration Camp
Before we proceed, it must be acknowledged that there are manifold differences from typical Holocaust portrayals and I wouldn’t like to pretend the parallels are straightforward. Indeed, many elements are inversions of the Holocaust experience. Terminus may be a fenced community and place of slaughter, but it is not part of a grander plan or organisation. There is no plan to treat victims as labourers or slaves in any lasting regard. Instead of using surveillance upon those interred within, the Terminus community surveil those approaching and stage their ‘welcome’. Their aim is not to enslave or exterminate inmates, but to process those drawn to the place for consumption. While well-armed and organised, the Terminus community appears relatively egalitarian and non-military, dominated by a trio from the same family. Despite these differences, key themes linked to the Holocaust include the following material dimensions.
Material Cultures of Remembrance
As discussed in a previous blog, the Terminus group legitimise their treatment of outsiders through a strong focus on formal remembrance and ceremony. We never see any of these rituals take place, but we encounter on multiple occasions their room dedicated to the memory of their number killed by intruders. “We first always” is the ultimate in distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’, and thus de-humanising those who have been ‘on the road’.
Alex replies to Michonne’s question about why they let people in: “people become a part of us, we get stronger”. This is ambiguous and might imply little more than the use of honestly to hide the horrid truth that they eat people. Yet it might imply a pseudo-spiritual cannibalistic belief. This is never explored further, but it hints at a possible ritualised set of beliefs deploy to legitimse the Terminus group’s inhuman behaviours.
In this regard, there are no precise parallels between Nazi ideology and those of the Terminus community, but the link is in collective rituals to underpin hideous acts.
Transporting Material Cultures
Mirroring the large-scale transportation of people by rail to concentration camps, the survivors heading for Terminus do so via railway lines. Tracks are a metaphor for fate, but mirror the deadly experience of enforced movement to slaughter. When they arrive and are captured, Gareth admits they usually greet arrivers ‘where the tracks meet’. Rails are therefore more than a connecting point, but a theatrical stage in the deception and capture of the dead.
While they don’t arrive by train, subsequent to their capture Rick and his group are placed within a railway closed van. As Rick’s group run past freight containers, they hear people shouting for help. During their breakout, it becomes clear that other groups have been similarly incarcerated. Railways therefore link concentration camps and Terminus in both the journey of victims and the horrors of the respective destinations.
Material Cultures of Deception
The Terminus community draw in victims by means of deception and surveillance as much as by force. “Sanctuary for all, community for all. Those that arrive, survive”. This is the mantra repeated by radio and on signs to draw in victims to Terminus. Persuasion to escape adversity was also a tool of the Holocaust, with various examples which might be cited of deception deployed to manage and manipulate victims into thinking there is a safe destination beyond their current enforced confinement.
The language of deceit utilised by Terminus mirrors the many perverse twists employed in concentration camps, typified most infamously by ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ above the gates of Auchwitz-Birkenau.
The radio messages and maps set along railway lines draw survivors unwittingly to their doom. Also, Tyresse and Carol capture one of the group in an outbuilding, persumably one of a series of perimeter stations used to monitor the movements of approaching victims, with walkie-talkies used to communicate between Terminus group-members. There is clearly a network of observation points on key approaches.
Upon arrival, a sign welcomes visitors encouraging them to lower their weapons and crops provide a seemingly idyllic setting in which the inhabitants live. They deploy a seemingly unguarded garden/communal space and food is prepared to give the allusion of welcome and community. Only after they move further in are the shot-up cars and buildings apparent: evidence of previous fire-fights that underpin the story of Terminus.
The language of deception laps around every sentence Gareth and Alex utter: “we shouldn’t have any problems, only solutions”, seems to overtly echo the Holocaust.
Finally, Gareth instructs the executioners that they have a set time to butcher the corpses of captured victims before ‘they go back to public face’, presumably suggesting that they reset the trap as quickly as possible after capturing a group and/or processing a set of victims for consumption. The regular, militarised nature of their operation is therefore another Holocaust parallel for mass slaughter.
Strategies of Capture, Slaughter and Processing Corpses
The Terminus community appear to have multiple stages of capture, from surveillance far before the perimeter is reached, the staged greeting of newcomers, through to either their peaceful or violent capture. This gives them the power to manage all eventualities, rather than presuming the ruse will work at the first instance. Like the concentration camp, a mechanical, factory-like system is deployed to deal with the captured.
Then, the processing of the dead takes place in a systematic way, akin to slaughtered animals. This has broad parallels to the de-humanised slaying of Holocaust victims. The executioners proceed with jaded monotony in their hideous task, clearly well-versed in their art. Bound and gagged prisoners are knelt down, hit with a baseball bat on the back of the head, and then their throat slit, allowing blood from the victim to flow into a trough. I’m not suggesting any specific Holocaust parallel here, but the gruesome systematic butchery is sinister enough and routinised.
In Episode 16 of Season 4, Rick et al. run past a compound full of bits of human bodies, presumably the residues from the butchery process left to rot out of the sight of new potential victims. Here we perhaps see the closest parallel to the Holocaust, in that the remnants of people are simply discarded. Yet here also are the Holocaust contrasts, since there is no attempt to conceal the crimes, no attempt to hide the horrors as long as the ‘public face’ is left intact.
Together, this provides enough indication of how human remains are systematically processed for consumption within the community. It is left to the imagination whether there are further rituals or practices associated with the actual consumption, but it is evident that humans are reduced to ‘cattle’ and treated accordingly. Again, no single parallel but the scale and systematic process of controlling, killing and disposing of the bodies of victims does offer a series of Holocaust allusions.
Typologising and Redistributing Material Cultures
We find a powerful allusion to the Holocaust and familiar to any visitor to concentration camps is the treatment of material cultures. Victims would have their personal possessions removed and sorted by typology: everything from shoes and suitcases to wigs and dental fillings. Likewise, at Terminus we see the separation out and distribution of the personal possessions of those captured. Rick cottons on to the trap by this very means. He notices items of clothing belonging to Glen, Maggie and others being used by the Terminus inhabitants.
In Episode 1 of Season 5, Carol breaks in to Terminus and stumbles upon a room where personal items have been sorted. Clothes, hats, and personal effects lie on tables. She notices one: Hershel’s watch, and retrieves it. Around it are a range of other items including a masonic medal. She then notices Daryl’s bow and retrieves it. Significantly, she glances at and then rapidly pushes past the prominent foreground collection of teddy bears, presumably alluding to the slaughter and consumption of children as well as adults.
Carol is powerful in her role here, as liberator and executioner of those within. Meanwhile Rick and his group also battle to escape with her help. Yet Gareth’s mother Mary’s final words to Carol are the most sinister: that Carol ‘could have been one of’ the Terminus group and ‘listened to what the world is telling’ her. Here is a departure from the Holocaust model: for while inmates might have attained a special position to assist with the slaughter, they could never become members of the captor group. Thankfully Carol breaks this sick experiment in post-apocalyptic cannibalism once and for all…
So we end our exploration of an ‘archaeology of Terminus’. In considering these parallels and allusions, but also the inversions and differences, we see the key importance of creating an ‘us/them’ dichotomy, allusions to mass conveyance by rail, employing the language and practices of deception, controlling and disagregating bodies, and separating and redistributing things in the collective breaking down of the identities of victims. In this way, we can discern the key deployments of material culture and architectures as ways in which genocides operate through TWD. In this regard, rather than a Holocaust allegory, TWD gives us an utterly fictional yet disturbingly tangible sense of how mass-killing might be conducted and legitimised. In the end, however, the undead have the last laugh…