The Walking Dead and Gothic Excess: The Decaying Social Structures of Contagion

Sarah Baker


The Walking Dead is an American post-apocalyptic horror drama television series based on the comic book series of the same name. In the opening episode, Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes awakens after months in a coma in an abandoned hospital to find a post-apocalyptic world dominated by flesh eating zombies. The cause of the apocalypse is unknown, and Grimes does not know what has happened to his family. The start of the programme is situated around his quest to find his family, and the encounters he has with the many other survivors along the way.  

The plot of The Walking Dead centres on the survivors of the apocalypse as they search for safe haven away from the “walkers”, or “biters”; the first series focuses on how they cope with the immediate realities of life in the post-apocalyptic world. From the outset, the programme finds its way through the upheaval and destruction of everyday American life. Decay is persistent and inevitable in the threat of death from the “walkers”; this familiar Gothic trope is ever-present throughout the series.This paper uses a Gothic focus to examine The Walking Dead and considers the disintegration of society and family after the zombie Apocalypse. It focuses primarily on the first series of The Walking Dead, and examines Gothic tropes through a discussion of the decay of the walkers, the decay of the family, and the decay of society.

Zombie Gothic

It is important to examine the zombie narrative within a Gothic framework. Kyle Bishop argues that “zombies and the narratives that surround them function as part of the larger Gothic literary tradition, even as they change that tradition as well” (31). In contrast to other Gothic traditions that began in literature, the zombie is unique as it began in folklore, cinema and drama. Similarities to other Gothic traditions exist, such as ghosts and vampires, and the zombie narrative serves as a vehicle to examine cultural anxieties and prevailing attitudes. In fact, Bishop suggests that the zombie narrative has now proven itself to be as interesting and complex as more established Gothic traditions (31). Just as earlier Gothic traditions allowed people to explore themselves in the mirror that Frankenstein (1818) or Dracula (1897) provided, the zombie allows for a more modern examination: a world that is increasingly complex with its technological and cybernetic advances yet a world where humanity has still not resolved the great differences that exist. Bishop argues that “during the latter half of the twentieth century, for example, zombie movies repeatedly reacted to social and political unrest, graphically representing the inescapable realities of an untimely death…” (11). The zombie narrative’s ability to adapt to cultural anxieties make it part of the Gothic tradition. 

Bishop also argues that, in a post–9/11 climate, the zombie film works as an important example of:

the contemporary Gothic, readdressing “the central concerns of the classical Gothic,” such as “the dynamics of family, the limits of rationality and passion, the definition of statehood and citizenship, the cultural effects of technology.” In addition to exposing such repressed cultural anxieties, Fred Botting emphasizes how Gothic narratives “retain a double function in simultaneously assuaging and intensifying the anxieties with which they engage.” (26)

 The Gothic situates itself from the 18th century as writing of excess and this tendency permeates much of the genre’s narratives, characters and settings. The mutability in Gothic texts provides a platform for many social issues and anxieties to be addressed; its ability to shift and adapt in order to reflect contemporaneous social trends is partly what has enabled it to remain popular (Botting Gothic). The zombie forces a confrontation with the fears of life and death, freedom and enslavement, and the destruction of modern society. These include “the exploitation of the masses in capitalist society, the soullessness of modern-day life, our fear of global apocalypse, our revulsion at the reality of war, and the inevitability of death” (Graves 9). The rise of the zombie narrative plays on humanity’s fear for the future: that modern civilisation has many fundamental weaknesses that may ultimately collapse through one form of global disaster or another.  

The Gothic situates itself from the 18th century as writing of excess and this tendency permeates much of the genre’s narratives, characters and settings. The mutability in Gothic texts provides a platform for many social issues and anxieties to be addressed; its ability to shift and adapt in order to reflect contemporaneous social trends is partly what has enabled it to remain popular (Botting Gothic). The zombie forces a confrontation with the fears of life and death, freedom and enslavement, and the destruction of modern society. These include “the exploitation of the masses in capitalist society, the soullessness of modern-day life, our fear of global apocalypse, our revulsion at the reality of war, and the inevitability of death” (Graves 9). The rise of the zombie narrative plays on humanity’s fear for the future: that modern civilisation has many fundamental weaknesses that may ultimately collapse through one form of global disaster or another.  

I argue that the zombie is part of a new kind of Gothic with a new monster for a new age. This new monster facilitates the Gothic’s ability to remain relevant in a post-industrial, cyberspace era. Unnatural death is now more horrific, pervasive, and far-reaching than Walpole ever could have imagined when he wrote the now canonical Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), and the zombie works as a dramatic manifestation of this ever-present anxiety. The Gothic narratives of the zombie now represent a more modern reaction to the threats posed in the 21st-century, post-9/11 world which is potentially more traumatic than the threats posed in earlier Gothic novels of the 19th and 20th century. Global pandemics may manifest as a zombie apocalypse or disease that threaten complete annihilation of civilisation.

Teresa Goddu emphasises how “the Gothic is not a trans-historical, static category but a dynamic mode that undergoes historical changes when specific agents adopt and transform its conventions” (32). Zombie narratives have updated Gothic conventions to then reflect modern day anxieties and fears. As Botting argues, “Gothic figures” represent anxieties associated with turning points in cultural historical progress (2002). Zombie narratives, then, serve to allow a confrontation with more modern terrors and threats that exist; the zombie narrative, it can be argued, confronts Gothic tropes and places them in a contemporary context. Cultural anxieties have been nurtured about the rise in terrorist activity around the world, witnessed with the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers, and the threats of pandemics that might eviscerate the human race in the form of SARS. The zombie narrative then represents a logical growth in Gothic monsters that have been used to explore modern day cultural anxieties.

Post-Apocalyptic America and Gothic Zombies

Apocalypse and zombie narratives represent the worst case scenario for both the people of USA and the world. Zombies, vampires and other apocalyptic monsters are used as faceless creatures to present either an unknown threat or pose them as social critique (Bo). The first signs of the Gothic are present from the start of The Walking Dead, where the familiar American suburban scene has altered into a mutilated disintegrating version of society.  In the series, threat comes not just from the “walkers” but also from the fellow survivors who no longer obey the pre-apocalypse laws and way of life.

Pre-apocalypse, Rick Grimes was a sheriff, and an upholder of the law. The series starts with Grimes in a police car having lunch with his best friend Shane Walsh while they discuss the differences between men and women. In a police shoot-out, Grimes is shot and awakens to find society as he knew it destroyed. After waking from his coma,  he returns to his family home and meets two other survivors, Morgan Jones and his son Duane, who explain the implications of the zombie apocalypse to him.

Grimes searches for his family and returns to the police station. He puts on his uniform which appears as a symbol of the normality he thinks he can return to. However, as he goes to get petrol, Grimes looks under a car and sees a young girl’s pink slippers. He calls to her saying “don’t worry little girl”, as the girl drags a pink rabbit. She turns around to face Grimes and runs at him: it is revealed she is a zombie. She is a grotesque parody of a little girl with her distorted and mutilated face; as Grimes draws out his gun and shoots her in the face, she is an uncanny reminder that humanity has permanently altered. The narrative of adults and police officers protecting innocent children is quickly subverted from the start of the series. From this moment, Rick Grimes is permanently fighting his own loss of morality and humanity in a society that has become a distortion of what it once was.

The term “liminality” is employed by critics and theorists of the Gothic to refer to spaces or bodies situated:

either on or at the recognized borders or boundaries of subjective existence. In eighteenth-century Gothic writing, these thresholds were mainly encountered through liminal spaces. These were often mountain ranges, secret rooms, and hidden passages. From the nineteenth century onward, the human body has increasingly become a liminal site where normative boundaries are challenged; the monster, vampire, and werewolf, are all liminal beings. (Hughes, Punter and Smith)

The zombies continues the Gothic tradition of liminality and is perhaps more frightening as they represent the dissolution of death, yet are still in some form “alive”. In The Walking Dead, the survivors are also neither completely alive nor dead, as they are on the edge of losing life as they know it and becoming consumed by the undead. The “walkers” operate as terrifying prompts that what was once considered an incontrovertible fact—the difference between life and death—is not as final in the post-apocalyptic world of the series.

The “walkers”, therefore, are walking manifestations of decay and liminality, a reminder that the fear of death has been transmuted into the fear if an even more dangerous entity, neither living nor dead. Gothic, Misha Kavka argues, is often about fear, localised in the shape of something monstrous that electrifies the collective mind (Kavka). In this case, the zombies are tangible displays of how a pandemic or global outbreak could alter humanity forever. Gothic is also about the paranoia around body manipulation, defined as a projection of the self on to the outside world where the boundaries blur between self and other (Kavka). In the zombie narrative of The Walking Dead, the boundaries between the living and dead collapse when decay reanimates into the liminal form of the “walkers”.  

Decay of the Family

The death of the family unit as a recurring trope is raised early on in the series, and the initial problem for Rick Grimes is locating his missing family. Grimes teams up with Morgan Jones and his son Duane. Morgan has his own dilemma when faced with the thought of killing his wife who has turned into a “walker”. She returns to their family house, and seems caught between life and death as if she has some memory of the life she had before.  Rick Grimes’s family dilemma is further exacerbated when he finds his wife and son with other survivors who have formed a group. Thinking that her husband Rick was dead, Lori Grimes has started a relationship with Grimes’ best friend, fellow police officer Shane Walsh; a growing tension grows between the two men as the series continues. Ultimately this leads to a fight between the two men as the jealousy grows and each have different ideas on how to best keep the survivors safe. Where the men were once allies and friends, the apocalypse has turned them into enemies.

Though the zombies are the most manifest threat to the survivors, there are other threats that come to the fore in The Walking Dead. These threats are in the form of the changes that occur between the characters (Bo).  What were once everyday events turns into dangerous events: getting water, petrol and food, for example, become life-threatening activities, and the survivors must trust people who they meet up with on their travels.

Rick Grimes’ pre-apocalypse ethics and humanity are tested by the new society. For example, he allows his son Carl Grimes to carry a handgun which Carl later uses to save Rick’s life. In contrast to the Grimes family that is at the centre of the narrative, another group of survivors live at a farm and are led by Hershel Greene, a farmer and religious leader. Their treatment of the “walkers” represents a different approach to the zombie apocalypse.  Hershel keeps zombies in a barn and sees them as sick people, while Rick sees them as monsters. Many in the barn are Hershel’s family members; it is only later in the series that Hershel comes to see the zombie family as monsters intent on killing all human survivors. With the connections to family and love, the zombies act as a mirror to the human survivors of what they may potentially become.

Societal Decay

From the start The Walking Dead Rick Grimes needs to grapple with a world profoundly altered by the zombie apocalypse. The hospital is abandoned except for stray zombie corpses, and it is clear that the once secure place of the hospital is no longer a haven for the sick. One of the most obvious signs of decay is the streets littered with abandoned vehicles, and there are outward markers of chaos and apocalypse. 

There is much that is Gothic and uncanny in The Walking Dead, where cognitive dissonance is opened up when the familiar becomes strange. The world ostensibly looks the same but will never be normal again for Rick Grimes and the survivors. Here the “true horror lies in that which is most immediately at hand that the most proximal bears the capacity to contain the utterly unfamiliar” (Chopra). The decay of society is made both manifest and melancholic as it evokes the anxiety of being simultaneously normal and abnormal. The once known, or normal, world has become strange and unfamiliar. For example, in the first series of The Walking Dead  there is a reference to the classic zombie horror film Dawn of the Dead (1978), where the survivors find themselves trapped in a department store, a famous scene commented upon by Bishop:

This instinctual “drive to shop,” as it were, is repeatedly emphasized by Romero, who shows the mindless creatures pressed up against glass doors and windows, clamouring to get inside the shops, in a gross parody of early-morning-sale shoppers, to resume their earthly activities of gluttonous consumption—indeed, as Kim Paffenroth points out, their addiction for the place exists beyond death. (Bishop 41)

 As the maniacal governor in The Walking Dead later observes about the zombies: “The thing you have to realize is that they’re just us—they’re no different. They want what they want, they take what they want and after they get what they want—they’re only content for the briefest span of time. Then they want more” (Bishop 140). The zombies then serve as a mirror for the worst of humanity. Zombies further mirror other aspects of humanity that are hidden and ignored.  Barbara Creed suggests that the popular horror film brings about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, and the monstrous-feminine), and by doing so re-draws the boundaries between the human and non-human (Creed). She argues:

Firstly, the horror film abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, tears and putrefying flesh. (Creed 253)

The zombies/”walkers” in The Walking Dead are abject, mutilated walking corpses. Creed argues that the blurred boundaries between life and death, and the antinomies that humans like to ignore or pretend do not exist, are seen in creatures like zombies. Abjection is usually represented by bodily fluids such as pus or blood or a kind of in-betweenness, such as the zombies’ state between life and death.

Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint argue that apocalyptic fiction uses the scenario of the end of the world as a way to rebuild and reorganise society (23). The very question of possible futures and society in a post-apocalyptic world is raised and questioned in The Walking Dead when everyday survival is at stake. This alters, however, when Rick Grimes has to focus on the long-term survival of the group and his family when his wife becomes pregnant. Lori Grimes argues that the world they find themselves in is no place to raise a child and to establish new lives.  Rick does not agree with Lori and her pessimistic view of society as it stands. In an uncanny twist, the survivors do not know what has caused the apocalypse, but they later learn that everyone is infected and will re-animate when dead: they are the “walking dead”.


The Walking Dead is a modern Gothic text that uses many of the tropes of the Gothic to explore cultural anxieties present today. One such area is that of decay, chaos and lawlessness in the post-apocalyptic world of the zombie. This is a key area of the Gothic tradition played out in the modern afflicted world. At the start of The Walking Dead, society is seen as “normal”,  two police officers are eating lunch in their vehicle and talking about life. After Rick Grimes awakens after his coma what was once “normal” has transformed into a site of uncanny horror, suspense and terror. Much of the first series is spent with Grimes and his survivors trying to contain and combat the zombie threat. 

Botting argues that early Gothic fiction articulated a shift from a feudal economy to a capitalistic one (2008). In similar vein, in The Walking Dead the future is one where capitalist society has totally collapsed. This could be a critique of the 2008 financial crash, or a fear of what could happen if a pandemic were to occur that ended consumer life and society as it is known (Bishop 41).  It also demonstrates that what is seen as established norms quickly disintegrate in the new post-apocalyptic society.   

Social structures in the post-apocalyptic world no longer function as they once did. The normality of a pregnancy which should, under “normal” circumstances, herald hope for the future, sets off ambivalence in the Grimes family about the life circumstances the survivors find themselves in, and the future that is available to them or their offspring. Core institutions and structures have fallen; the hospital at the start of the series no longer functions and the police are no longer upholders of the law. 

Chaos and anarchy are now the everyday life that confronts the survivors. The survivors are frequently left with questions about what is the point is of their lives. At the centre of the chaos is the change in family and society. The structures of modern society are seen as flimsy and easily disturbed in the post-apocalyptic zombie future.  As Botting says, “uncertainties about the nature of power, law, society, family and sexuality dominate Gothic fiction” (Gothic 3).  The modern day Gothic then questions these key areas of society. The death in the Gothic post-apocalyptic zombie future is that of society as well as individuals.


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Walking Dead, Gothic, post-apocalypse

Copyright (c) 2014 Sarah Baker

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