"The Walking Dead" – Brains Required

**This article originally appeared on the Yahoo Voices content network on March 20, 2014. It has been republished here due to the shutdown of Voices and YCN.**

From an earlier age than most would approve of, I’ve been a fan of horror movies. Halloween was always my favorite. There’s just something about Michael Myers, am I right? I never really felt much enthusiasm for the zombie genre (yes, it legitimately is a genre of its own). As a kid, I did have a brief love affair with Return of the Living Dead , but I enjoyed it as comedy. Zombies never scared me, and they certainly never challenged me on a cerebral level. Truth be told, I firmly believe they seek to devour brains hoping to add a little intelligence to their “craft”. Epic fail, by the way!

So there’s confession number one:  I loathe zombies. Confession number two is much more difficult to throw out there. Don’t judge me!! I spent two seasons of “The Walking Dead” laughing at the entire idea, and waiting for it to flop. Just peachy – zombies are making a comeback; how cute! Although I welcome any show that has helped to loosen our grip on reality TV, I never had any intention of watching this one. Two seasons in, here comes my teenaged son, singing the praises of “The Walking Dead” , and practically begging me to watch. I agreed to share space with him while he watched it, but I never agreed to pay attention. It wasn’t long before I no longer had the choice. By episode three, I was fully entangled in the web of the modern-day zombies (now known as “walkers”). And this time, there was nothing comedic about it. This time, it was emotional, dramatic, thought-provoking, and even (dare I say it) believable!

Before I could say “Daryl Dixon”, I was beyond obsessed, and recruiting everyone I could find to help me theorize and strategize about what was yet to come for our band of apocalyptic survivors. Along the way, I came to a startling conclusion – this show is actually quite brilliant. By golly, they’ve found a better use for brains… let us think with them rather than decorate the buffet table! Now, for those of you who still haven’t jumped on board the walker train – humor me a moment. For those of you already embraced by the #TWDFamily, you may be surprised at how much you’re actually learning.

I’m a writer by nature, but I am completely enamored of human psychology. I find the human mind and instinct to be an incredibly fascinating and complex study, and as shocked as I am to find myself saying this, “The Walking Dead” is one of the most impressive sources of psychological research I have ever discovered.

There is a veritable cornucopia of psychoses to pluck through amidst the merry band of Walking Dead survivors, and it’s sincerely thought-provoking to watch the personalities unfold. The show poses the very real question – how would the average person handle an apocalyptic scenario? We’d like to think we’ve become old pros at handling emergency preparedness, but could we actually handle long term survival challenges? We all have personal baggage to lug around. How would that factor in to our survival skills, or our overall mental health? The core cast has been dwindling as of late. Naturally, some have fared better than others. Over the course of four seasons, we have seen some very serious issues tackled head-on, including: alcoholism and other addictions, marital infidelity, domestic abuse, maternal loss, social order, suicide, and racism; all compounded with unparalleled daily risks and survival threats. Our characters have ridden waves of grief, denial, moral challenge, and outright breaks from reality. The most alluring part is, just as in life, the good guys and the bad guys may surprise you. You’ll even begin to question exactly what distinguishes good from bad overall. We’ve seen some of the strongest characters crumble under the pressures of post-disaster survival. In fact, a couple of the seemingly more wholesome personalities (pre-apocalypse) have spiraled into vicious, devious brutes after a few harsh lessons in the new world they know. Can persistent threat provoke an inner evil in your everyday, good neighbor? Most recently, viewers were faced with a whole new possibility – how would this reality affect vulnerable, young minds?

“The Walking Dead” is actually not a show about the brain-devouring undead. It is a show about survival, human instinct, and who we are at our natural core. The thing that makes it so encompassing is the theme that those behind the hit series seem to live by – they make you feel so singularly in-tune with the personalities consistently revealing layers of depth, developing a sympathy and solidarity unknown in most modern-day dramas. The drawback – the more they make you care, the more gruesome the fate that awaits the character you feel for. (This should truly horrify Norman Reedus fans!)

We’ve watched as strong characters have fallen or cracked, and we’ve seen those near the edge rise up stronger than their implied potential wanted to allow. Such is life, after all – you never know what you’re capable of until it comes time to step up. With one episode left in the season, we are on the verge of what series creator Robert Kirkman promises to be a “savage” cliffhanger. Our main cast of survivors includes many damaged personalities, but they have outlasted many who were seemingly more stable and better equipped. As desperation mounts, who can hang on to their dwindling sanity, will, wits, and strength? “The Walking Dead” rule number one – just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, someone is waiting in the wings to surprise you. With no known safe haven, uncertain intentions, and questionable alliances, we’re all waiting to find out… Who will fall, and who will be the ‘last man standing’?

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