End-of-Life Lessons from The Walking Dead

Call it a life hack. On February 11, as Montana lawmakers sat through pleas to keep aid in dying legal in their state, a number of local television stations had their regular programming hacked. A ticker scrolled across the top of KRTV’s broadcast of The Steve Wilkos Show in all caps, like an emergency weather alert. A dark and distorted voice announced:

Authorities in your area have reported that the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous.

The station hack and the hearings came less than 12 hours after the third season premiere of The Walking Dead, AMC’s blockbuster about the travails of a rag-tag pack of strangers in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

Local TV stations in California, Michigan, and New Mexico also had zombie hackers co-opt their emergency systems. Add to that list states where aid in dying legislation has recently been introduced (New Mexico, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, and Hawaii) and states where it is already legal (Oregon since 1994 and Washington since 2008) and you’re likely to conclude that dead isn’t what it used to be.

And you’d be right.

Dead used to mean three things: you weren’t breathing, your heart wasn’t beating, and your brain wasn’t working. But in the 1970s, respirators and defibrillators were widely introduced, solving two of the three problems. Could death be “cured”?

Of course, the brain turned out to be a much more complicated organ than anyone expected. Now, we’re forty-plus years into a medical, political, and ethical debate about who’s dead: your grandmother, who’s got Alzheimer’s and stopped recognizing you five years ago? Your cancer-stricken neighbor with two months to live, who’s asking for a lethal prescription? What about Tomas Young, a paralyzed war veteran who says he’s “ready to go?” Or Terri Schiavo, a young wife in a persistent vegetative state who the courts ordered removed from a feeding tube exactly eight years ago this month?

Even without zombies, we’ve got plenty of pre-apocalypse problems. We’re living longer and working longer, but we’re also dying longer. Chronic, disabling, and degenerative illness that we used to avoid—by dying—are now the hallmark of our last decades. Our social systems are unprepared for an expanded vulnerable population; already 50 million Americans are uninsured.

Add to this mix an epidemic of futile care—often painful but ineffective over-treatment, just one more chemo round, just one more experimental drug or hip replacement—and the costs of caring for the dying are about to overwhelm an already rationed system. More than anything, seniors who’ve benefitted from post-war wealth and status are asking how they can get out before too much pain and suffering set in. They’re clamoring for aid in dying, the legal right for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients, just in case. But we’re two or more generations into the great institutionalization of death—while more than 80% of us want to die at home, 80% die in institutions.

We have a better idea of what a zombie apocalypse will look like than our own death. So how do you life-hack death?

Torn Apart by Drooling Freaks

“We put down a walker.”

“You killed a person.”

“Well if you watched the same broadcasts I did, you saw walkers attack and kill. They’re dangerous.”

“Paranoid schizophrenia is dangerous too. We don’t shoot sick people.”

Welcome to just another bioethical debate cum daily conversation among The Walking Dead’s survivors of the zombie apocalypse. There are no institutions. Right and wrong are a hazy memory. Season one is a mad scramble of characters, thrown into unexpected and surreal chaos, sorting out their new roles in a constantly shifting group.

A conversation about death is a conversation about life, and because The Walking Dead takes place in contemporary Southern America, it’s also a conversation about choice. There’s not a character on the show who isn’t heavily weighed down with it: what weapon to carry, where to get the next meal, who to befriend—hell, where to sleep. In a land where the dead jostle with the living, even little decisions are now mortal ones. And the big decisions? They determine the fate of humanity.

Rick, a former cop and the default leader of the group, becomes a moral guide, playing protector and part-time ethicist. He weighs the opinions of the group against survival decisions. With a young son watching him, Rick is left to blunder through the big stuff without a guide himself. Sometimes nebulous hope trumps all, as when Rick convinces his wife Laurie to carry a pregnancy to term, even though the consequences are predictably deadly. It’s the promise of a new life that the group rallies around, risking life and limb for formula and baby supplies.

Sometimes the characters chafe against Rick’s authority. When the group makes its way, by knife and strife, to the Atlanta Center for Disease Control, looking for a cure, they instead find Jenner, the last surviving scientist in the world, now bitter and defeated. They have come upon him just in time to witness his suicide-by-explosion, an option he offers them as well:

“It’s better this way. No pain, an end to sorrow, grief, regret, everything. You know what’s out there. A short, brutal life and an agonizing death. There is no hope. Wouldn’t it be kinder, more compassionate to just hold your loved one and wait for the clock to run down?”

One of the group challenges Jenner: “My daughter doesn’t deserve to die like this.” Even in this new world, the young apparently deserve more than the adults. Some lives have different values than others.

Some in the group stay and wait for the building to explode. Most fight their way out. One character, Dale, resorts to a bluff to save a friend, Andrea; he tells her he’ll stay with her and sacrifice himself if she doesn’t leave with him. Their friendship is marked by this moment, and gives the characters the chance to discuss the ins and outs of suicide, both rational and irrational, at length.

When the (suicidal) Andrea wants to be able to carry a gun, Dale resists, “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’m doing this for you.”

“No Dale,” she says, “You’re doing this for you. And what do you think’s going to happen? I’m going to stick it in my mouth and pull the trigger the moment you hand it to me?”

“I know you’re angry at me. That much is clear. But if I hadn’t done what I did, you’d be dead now.”

“Jenner gave us an option. I chose to stay.”

“You chose suicide.”

“I saved your life.”

“No, no, Dale. I saved yours. You forced that on me. I didn’t want your blood on my hands. That is the only reason I left that building. What did you expect? I had some epiphany? Some life-affirming catharsis?”

“Maybe just a little gratitude.”

“Gratitude? I wanted to die my way. Not torn apart by drooling freaks. That was my choice. You took that away from me, Dale. All I wanted was to get out of this endless horrific nightmare we live every day. I wasn’t hurting anyone else. You took my choice away, Dale.”

Monsters Appear when Boundaries are Blurred

Zombies are a rich metaphor for a host of modern fears. An early 20th century product of Haitian voudou, zombies were first imported to the U.S. in 1932 in White Zombie, a horror film featuring both mind control and Bela Lugosi. The film’s tag line: “She was not alive… nor dead, but a ‘White Zombie’” evoked the fears of a colonial society.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead hit American screens 30 years later, and by the time 1978’s Dawn of the Dead appeared, zombies had come to represent new social ills—Dawn’s zombies shuffle through a mall, brainless.

So what purpose do our current zombies serve?

The Walking Dead and our current fascination with zombies, I propose, has something to do with the destabilization of “dead.” Terri Schiavo has shown us that death is no longer a bright line. The aid in dying movement has shown us that death is no longer to be feared; sometimes it can be eagerly welcomed.

While these liminal states—dying, mostly dead, undead—existed in real and rhetorical form in other eras, it’s just dawning on us that our great hope that science would sort them out for us has not come true. In fact, science has exacerbated and prolonged these states. And we don’t know what to do.

If zombies represent our fears, our fears are here to consume us, particularly our mysterious, inexplicable brains. “Monsters become a reflection of anxiety of a period,” Kelly J. Baker, a historian of American religion has written, “Monsters appear when boundaries are blurred.”

Baker further explains that, “popular culture helps to create the spaces in which we live, how we construct who is human and who is not, who is worth saving and not, and our ethical notions around violence, when is it redemptive, when not.”

And in 2012’s Gothicka, Victoria Nelson argues that

“the disreputable realm of popular culture, B movies, pulp fiction, and folk belief where, modernity or no, the line between belief and the imagination is often erased, [is] a shadowy territory where… a certain kind of low-level but potent theological rumination is constantly taking place.”

It is within what she calls this “sub-Zeitgeist” that new “religion building” is taking place, “particularly when the divine has been exiled from the table of serious art and intellectual discussion for well over a century.”

In a post-apocalyptic world where death too can be a blessing, and good-and-bad, life-and-death are no longer clearly demarcated, what can zombies really teach us? “What Death really looks and acts like, up close and personal. An apocalypse is first of all a revelation, a great discovery as well as a disaster.”

The living and the dead are sharing territory all the time, at Terri Schiavo’s bedside and in the post-apocalyptic South of The Walking Dead.

Culturally, we’ve exhausted all of death’s chaperones: God, Satan, Science. We’re back to Old Goth Death, in the form of zombies, resurrected to instruct us on how to die.

It’s fitting then that hackers should accompany Montana’s Senate Bill 220 with “extremely dangerous” zombies “rising from their graves and attacking the living.” The bill was defeated last month, but this week a new bill is being discussed before Montana legislators, House Bill 505, which would set mandatory ten-year sentences for doctors who participate in aid in dying practices.

The last episode of season three of The Walking Dead airs on Easter Sunday, and good thing. Our zombies have a lot more work to do.