Theory: People Love ‘The Walking Dead’ Because Their Jobs Make Them Feel Dead Inside

“A lot of modern life,” Chuck Klosterman mused in the New York Times in 2010, “is exactly like slaughtering zombies.” His theory was that “[z]ombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed.” Most people I know would find that interpretation too highbrow, and answer the question of why they like zombies with something akin to, “Because they eat brains.” But Klosterman’s theory has a certain self-serving appeal.

If life is just a process of cutting through dead weight, well, someone has to wield the scythe. And generally that makes you, the lover of zombies, the one agent in the story still in possession of, well, any faculties. You get to be the person who is picking off the mindless, one by one. You get to decide who has a life remaining that’s worth living. You are God, an omnipotent being sparing the rank and file from their colorless existences. In short, imagining oneself as a person of action among zombies is, well, an ego trip.

This, anyway, is the only way I can think of to explain what is looking like a blockbuster ratings season for AMC’s The Walking Dead. Speaking only for myself, I found the news depressing at first blush. Should you be ignoring all the idiocy going on around the government shutdown, there’s nothing like 16 million people tuning in to a television series which is among the worst-written shows in recent memory to make you lose faith in humanity. Even the alive in The Walking Dead are all walking clichés. Check out fan fora on Reddit and elsewhere and you’ll find people complaining about the implausibility of the plots, too. (Apparently people feel that a building collapse was more likely to be occasioned by a helicopter crash than the collapse of wine storage.)

And yet, whenever there’s just about anything with zombies in it, people tune in, eager to feel somehow powerful. I am not sure I join Klosterman in blaming the Internet and technology for this. Speaking as a former cubicle slave, my job made me feel more dead inside than any dumb cat-GIFs site or, yes, even the strange rah-rah culture of San Francisco tech. There was this great essay from David Graeber, recently, on the phenomenon of the “bullshit job.” By “bullshit job,” he meant the kind of job that has no real function in the world other than to exist as a job, and bore everyone and waste their human capacities until they retire and die:

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

I hereby posit that the “bullshit job” is the most likely thing to make people feel like they live in a sea of Walking Dead, and that it is what makes them long for and identify with the hamfisted heroics of Rick Grimes and company. At least these people are going out in the world and doing something vaguely meaningful. They are, additionally, fictionally putting friends and co-workers out of the misery that is the vast majority of people’s working lives. And they are draped in righteousness as they do so. Zombie-killing is win-win that way.

The weight of human suffering in present conditions of late capitalism, I’m saying, is what’s responsible for this crappy television show’s astonishing success. You can’t even blame the general populace for responding to this stuff when the alternative targets for their anger are bosses trapped in the same crappy existential situations and politicians who seem to take brainlessness to a horrifyingly literal level. In fact, if anything, come to think of it, a love of The Walking Dead might just be a sign that the heroic spirit still flickers in a dead culture. Now, all we need is for someone to fan that flame in a more productive direction.