[Warning: Spoilers from season five of "The Walking Dead" lie ahead!]
On Sunday, February 8, "The Walking Dead" fans returned from a brief (but seemingly eons long) hiatus, prepped to revisit its post-apocalyptic world without the soulful, comforting presence of Beth (Emily Kinney), who had been suddenly murdered at the end of the winter finale. We expected to mourn her; we expected that our rag-tag group of survivors would struggle to find ways to move on.
What we did not expect, however, was that the entire episode would be devoted to the death of another soulful, fan-favorite character, Tyreese (Chad Coleman). We also didn't expect that, one week later, things would get even worse, as the nearly suicidal group of survivors braved a 100-mile stretch of road without food, water, or a reason to keep going. It was the worst. And yet, we loved it -- all 15.6 million of us, according to Nielsen.
The question this all raises is simply, "Why?" Why do millions upon millions of people tune in to watch a group of characters they've grown to love go through all sorts of hell week after week, with no end or respite in sight? The answer to that, according to Henderson University professor (and author of the upcoming book "The Walking Dead Psychology") Dr. Travis Langley, is much more complex -- and a whole lot darker -- than you might think.
"Over this past decade, we’ve seen this boom in zombie stories," Langley told MTV News over the phone. "I asked ['Walking Dead' writer] Robert Kirkman that once, and he was commenting that some of the bleakness going on politically... none of us think it’s a coincidence that there’s a post 9/11 boom in zombie popularity. Kirkman was commenting that when some things in the world are that bad, the horror has to get worse, and what’s worse than zombies?"
Not much, that's what. But thinking about how to outrun zombies is a lot more "fun" to think about that outrunning, you know, ISIS.
"I teach some very real subjects," Langley continued. "I teach abnormal psychology about mental illness, I teach forensic psychology about crime... On some of those topics, the subject matter can be so unpleasant that some of the students will kind of turn off, and not be engaged. It’s hard for them to really think about it and process what I’m saying, because the brutality of the reality is distracting."
This is why Langley has turned to works of fiction like "Walking Dead" and "Star Wars" in certain classes and public appearances, since getting people to confront complex psychological issues can be a bit easier when they can remove themselves from the reality.
"If I go with this filter of fiction, I can talk about the worst things in the world, and they will think about it in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise," he said. "Likewise, with us viewing these things, we can think about, ‘What would we do in these horrible situations? What would we do if we were dealing with cannibals?'... In ways that would be really hard if we were thinking, ‘What would we really do if we were having a horrible gang in our neighborhood?'"
This semi-morbid obsession with indulging in the darkness of this world -- as well as exploring the fact that the human race will inevitably die out, which Langley says is another huge factor in this whole shebang -- without fully diving in is definitely understandable, but Langley also added that there can be clear benefits to tuning in to shows like "Walking Dead." Benefits like learning empathy for unlikable characters (he listed Merle and Lizzie as examples), and psychologically getting used to the feeling of finding hope in terrible situations.
... And of course, there's also the racial and gender equalizing that can happen onscreen once most of humanity has been wiped out. In "The Walking Dead" universe, characters like Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and T-Dog (remember him?) have had to deal with bouts of racism and sexual violence, but overall, sexual and racial politics are tossed aside when everybody is fighting together to preserve humanity.
"There were some traditional roles [in earlier seasons], but those fell apart over time," Langley explained. "Everybody has to be involved in survival, everybody has to have all these different skills... You don’t even necessarily think about race [anymore]. Daryl went on a mission looking for medicine, and all three other people in the car were African-American. The fans didn’t even think about race in that situation. It had become a non-issue; a common humanity was pulling them together. We’ve got a big, scary undead 'them' out there, we need to stop thinking about the superficial sorts of 'them' that used to worry us.
"There’s a thing we call in psychology a superordinate goal," he continued. "A higher order goal, a higher priority thing to work on, a greater need, that is able to pull people together who can be enemies in a lot of different situations."
... Which is a very interesting point, since the same can almost be said of "The Walking Dead" -- and even fandom in general -- itself. No matter what race, gender, or religion we may have, we're all just enthusiastic fans who have found something to love, even if the issues in said thing might sometimes depress us.
And if that's the case, we could always just use the issues we've seen on "The Walking Dead" when we talk to our therapists.
"I’ve got therapist friends who are talking about things they’ve seen [in fiction] with real clients," Langley concluded. "They’ve actually managed to talk with clients using fiction to get them to open up. By getting the client to talk about the trauma that this fictional character goes through, the client then feels comfortable talking with you about the fiction, connecting with you through this other thing, and then they feel better about the therapist in general, and are able to open up about their own trauma."
So in other words, keep watching "The Walking Dead," folks -- because in this case, the zombies might actually help your brains, not eat them.