On Sunday night, over 16 million viewers rejoined the post-apocalyptic world of AMC’s The Walking Dead. That’s the biggest TV audience of the fall for any show: bigger than NFL games and MLB playoffs. The premiere also made a big, gory splash on social media: 88% of all TV-related tweets in the first minute of the show were about The Walking Dead.
A couple things explain the phenomenon: The AMC cable network is firing on all cylinders when it comes to turning well-done dramas like Breaking Bad into blockbusters. Every year, AMC has leveraged the natural creepiness of October to steadily increasing returns for premieres of The Walking Dead. And more generally, TV audiences show an increasing appetite for well-made dramas from Homeland to Game of Thrones to House of Cards.
But you can add something on top of those trends: We live in times when people are naturally attracted to the zombie genre. According to Sarah Lauro, a Clemson professor who has studied zombies in culture, "We are more interested in the zombie at times when as a culture we feel disempowered."
That sounds familiar, if you look at the daily headlines about shutdown and default. Everyone feels disempowered: from the conservatives, in shock after the president’s re-election and the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act; to the Democrats who are in shock that a party that just lost the race for the White House can still "hold the economy hostage," as they put it; to the everyday Americans who are feeling the fallout of the shutdown as it spreads across the economy.
But the shutdown is only the latest source of stress: Terrorism, climate change, and the country's increasing amount of debt hover in the minds of many Americans every day. Stanford’s Angela Becerra Viderga argues that a fascination with zombies is also about our fears for the future. "Traumatic events trigger discernible shifts in what we are able to imagine our future to be and how we should consequently act in the present to address those threats,” she writes.
Viderga sees a silver lining in the success of AMC's show: “Even if as a society we have lost a lot of our belief in a positive future and instead have more of an idea of a disaster to come, we still think that we are survivors, we still want to believe that we would survive."
Can you think of a scarier Halloween story than that? Let us know in a comment or a blog post.