The Walking Dead, Gun Control, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis: Linking Zombies to Current Events

To quote Zach Handlen of the A.V. Club on the kind of world zombie TV show The Walking Dead has created for itself: "At heart, The Walking Dead is really only interested in one theme: What do you have to become to survive in a world like this one? It's an issue that's come up again and again and again over the years, and the inherent limitation of that theme is the one thing, at least for me, that keeps the show from achieving true greatness"

In Handlen's estimation the show is limited in its range because there is only so much you can do with a plot where everyone is continually forced into the extremes of human behavior. I mostly agree with him and perhaps the answer to this is to set an end date for a serial television show of this kind. There is only so much explicating on the questions "Should I or should I not kill this person, and how!?" a television show can do before it becomes grievously redundant.

At the same time, one pushback I would give Handlen's criticism is to ask: Has the world ever been any different? Have we ever NOT been in a zombie apocalypse? Ever since the first tribes of civilization came into formation we have been asking ourselves "Who gets into the group, who is not allowed in, and who are our greatest threats?" Ever since, land, shelter, natural resources, food, and water have been an issues between people groups we have been in some variation of a perpetually fluctuating disaster/crises/war mode. And thus, the "zombie apocalypse" is an ongoing fact of history, at least metaphorically speaking.

This is the great trick of the horror and fantasy genres. Due to the default artifice of a film or novel we tend to think the horribly grotesque or magically fantastic aspects of these stories would never happen in the "real" world, when in reality they are happening all the time all around us. Zombie hordes are already among us, devouring us, threatening every aspect of our existence. The key question though is "Who are the Zombies?" 

In other words, if fantasy stories act as parables, parallels, or allegories for our own world, where might we find zombies in the present day? Where are zombies showing up on the news and in current events? Again, please understand I am asking "Where are the zombies?" as a metaphor. We may not have actual soulless flesh eating armies of un-dead people attacking us just yet (fingers crossed!), but you can be sure "zombies" are alive and well in our world, enacting heavy-duty carnage and destruction.

For me, the epiphany linking zombies to actual events in our world came during "JSS", episode 2 of season 6 of The Walking Dead, in a scene having to do with guns and to what extent the community should take up arms to defend itself. Now, gathering lots of munitions as a means of defense against both the alive and the undead is nothing new for The Walking Dead or any other zombie franchise, but during a year when the "gun control" issue keeps rearing its ugly head, the inclusion of the scene I have in mind appeared to be a blatant argument for full gun rights, which to me seemed an ill-planned move given the absolute barrage of mass killings in 2015.  When the character Morgan, who has just returned to the show after only being on a few scattered episodes during the first 5 seasons, was with Carol in Alexandria's armory (the gated community Rick Grimes' band of refugees is currently trying to live within) there is a moment of hesitation. The "Wolves" band is attacking Alexandria and Carol arms herself as much as she can but Morgan quips, "We don't need guns." The rest of the episode demonstrates the necessity of Carol's side of the argument: they most definitely need guns because they need to kill as many of the Wolves as quickly as possible without mercy. Morgan stands in as the voice of mercy, desiring not to kill unless absolutely necessary.

The way the episode and the show itself continually pans out would leave us to believe Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead's creator, is completely pro-gun, his principle being "We need to do whatever is necessary to survive." This principle is most worked out through Carol and now Rick. And yet, characters like Morgan, Michonne, and Tyresse continue to pop up as well, arguing for the side of preserving life and offering a chance of redemption. Granted, those on the "redemptive" side never seem to live for long, and yet they keep cropping up. What this should do is leave us confused not about the ideologies of the show's creators, but instead confused about the actual issue of gun control. What The Walking Dead demonstrates is that both sides are right in the gun debate. Both sides are making a point that needs to be heard. That is, The Walking Dead is just as confused as real life.

In terms of the parallels of the gun control debate in The Walking Dead the question remains: Who are the "zombies" in our world? Here is my brief argument: America is currently debating to what extent, if any, we should regulate people's ownership of firearms, and to what extent mental illness, racism, or far-rightwing ideologies play into the killings, and yet we remain in a kind of perpetual state of alarm about the next evil attack. Like a zombie attack, we do not know where and when the next massacre will occur, and yet we accept the next massacre as an uncontrollable inevitability, a foregone conclusion. This leaves us, strangely so, in a simultaneously nervous and numb state. In this sense then, the "zombies" here are not the killers themselves, nor the mental illnesses or harmful ideologies that claim them. Instead the "zombie" in this issue is something much more anomalous and amorphous. In my mind, the "zombie" is Violence itself. It is America's sickness of violence, our nature to destroy ourselves, a phenomenon not relegated to America alone but instead to all the human race. We know the "zombie" of gun violence is always out there and could attack at any moment. For this reason people like myself are more prone to be against any means of allowing people to turn into a zombie and thus we pretty much want to get rid of guns altogether. And yet the people on the other side of the issue continually warn against not being ready to defend ourselves once the "zombies" come. On and on the debate goes.

The next zombie apocalypse currently playing out in real time on the world stage is the Syrian refugee crises, where the "zombie hordes" of refugees fleeing the civil war and the Assad regime in Syria are attempting to "invade" Europe and other more stable countries across the world. But wait. Are the refugees the actual zombies in this situation? I would argue not. In my mind the Syrian refugees are those families and groups still alive in The Walking Dead world who are seeking asylum in Woodbury, the prison, Terminus, or Alexandria. The "zombies" are instead the Syrian civil war itself, or to put a face on it the Assad regime that is displacing and slaying its own people. These are just good "normal" people who are fleeing for their lives and need a safe place to call home. They have no idea what to do but run away from the crises, from the "zombies" that have invaded their country. To add another layer, some people are even concerned ISIS could be infiltrating Europe, posing as needy refugees. If this is true it would be a zombie horde unlike anything we've seen before, a fast moving utterly fateful horde more like the frenetic zombies in World War Z. That, for now, is all speculation though.

Here is a general rule when it comes to turning zombies into metaphors for real life: zombies should always represent a soulless, faceless movement of some kind, a kind of blind anomalous force. The minute zombies take the place of individuals in a metaphor the metaphor breaks down. So, for example, zombies can represent The Syrian government in general, but not Assad himself. Assad is responsible for his own actions and decisions and will always have a chance to make a personal change, but his government's regime, depending on how we look at it, can be viewed as this surging unstoppable force. In zombie metaphors people always need to stay people while zombies can represent either a general societal issue, an idea, or an organization at the faceless, bureaucratic level. In this way, over the years zombies have come to represent racism and consumerism and war (as in the Romero films), a pervading cultural ennui (as in Shaun of the Dead), the evil of sin, institutional, governmental, or economic failure, the fear of immigration, and the fear of change of any kind.

Therefore, much more could be said and many more parallels could be made (as this article does as well as this article), both to the present and the past, but my point is firm: we have always had "zombies" among us, but just who or what exactly the zombies are is an evershifting topic of discussion. Also up for discussion is how exactly we might go about eradicating the zombies of our world, but that is a topic for another time, though you can read some of my thoughts on that subject here.  

One thing is for sure: whatever is happening in the world we sure do not want to ever be the zombies. Anything but that. Even being on the side of evil is preferable because at least there is still time to change, but once you are a zombie that is something you cannot come back from. In fact, if you ever see me start to turn into one, why don't you do everyone a favor and just plunge a knife into my brain stem and put me out of my misery.

Related Articles:
10 Ways Zombie Stories Cause Us to Think About Our Lives
"We Know How the Story Ends": An Exploration of Narrative in Film
Let's Go On An Anti-Hero Television Cleanse!

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