Great horror stories tap into fears that were already rattling around in our brains. So what are we afraid of right now? Everything we love, need, and rely on disappearing in a flash.
On Dec. 2, AMC’s The Walking Dead will wrap up the winter half of its third season with an episode titled ”Made to Suffer” (which could pretty much serve as the title for any episode) — and also with a place in TV’s record book: It’s the No. 1 show among viewers 18-49. That’s a milestone no basic-cable show has ever achieved before. How has The Walking Dead done it? By doing what all effective horror stories do — tapping into a vein of fear that’s already lying dormant within all of us.
And the surprise is, it’s not about the undead. Sure, zombies make a handy metaphor for contagious fatal diseases, and so many of them are killed every week that we should all probably invest in corn-syrup and red-dye futures. But after you’ve seen your 482nd raspberry-jam brain splatter, it’s hard to muster more than a kind of numb, PlayStation-addled ”Good one.” What keeps us coming back, I think, is that the terror of The Walking Dead feels custom-fitted to our time: the fear of a total systemic collapse. What if nobody had a job anymore, or a place to live, or health care? What if you were so completely stripped of security that even a prison felt like a shelter? What if supermarkets and mail and laundry and Twitter and movie theaters and basic cable were all memories as distant as a safe night’s sleep? For all its special effects, what makes The Walking Dead compelling is that its most nightmarish qualities are so consistently low-tech.
What if it all went away? is the dread of our age. It’s being tapped into with reasonable effectiveness by NBC’s Revolution — a less visceral rip-off of/homage to The Walking Dead (and also Lost, The Event, and FlashForward) that suggests how quickly everything would disintegrate if one day there was no more electricity. The show, which concludes the first half of its season with a Nov. 26 cliff-hanger, is a mixed bag: As with The Walking Dead, the show isn’t at its strongest when the characters have to speak. But it has an accidental prescience on its side: If you live on the East Coast or have seen the news during the past month, you know that horror is not too strong a word for what happens when everything you take for granted is washed away.
There have been times when, for the pleasure of collective shudders, we looked to monsters from the outside — Alien, The Thing, The Blob — and other, overlapping eras when what pushed our buttons were the monsters within (The Exorcist, Carrie, The Silence of the Lambs). But there isn’t much of a marketplace for old-fashioned evil these days. Later this season, both NBC’s Hannibal and Fox’s Kevin Bacon thriller The Following will attempt to walk in the bloody footprints of Dexter, a show that hasn’t been scary for a long time (domesticating serial killers is an enterprise of rapidly diminishing returns). Meanwhile, ABC’s horror-in-the-high-rise drama 666 Park Avenue failed miserably because, in New York City, devils, phantoms, monsters in the walls, and satanic landlords don’t seem like that high a price to pay for a nice apartment. FX’s American Horror Story continues to use an ”I’ll take one of everything, please” approach to the horror catalog, but what’s making it work this season is right in the subtitle, Asylum. It’s all about the horror of feeling trapped within a malevolent, dysfunctional structure where either nobody’s in charge or somebody awful is.
The Walking Dead and Revolution aren’t political, but both are shrewd in a one-size-fits-all-ideologies way. They play as right-wing and/or doomsday-prepper worst-case scenarios about how only the strong will survive the apocalypse, and also as left-wing paranoia about how we’re just one step away from militias and fascist cadres. Those nightmares are well suited to a divisive age in which the horror we get — bloody, stripped-down, and elemental — is the horror we deserve.