Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead upset a lot of people. Fans of the show and parental watchdog groups were outraged at the horrific violence portrayed on their television sets. Many fans called this episode the last straw, their desire to watch finally overrun by being unable to withstand any more of the show’s savagery. The reaction to the shocking and gruesome deaths on the season seven premiere of The Walking Dead recalled reactions to the infamous Red Wedding on HBO’s Game of Thrones a few years back. Then, like now, fans were appalled at the lengths the writers would go to in order to get an emotional response from their audience.
WARNING: This article takes a hard look at shock value and the use of gore and brutality in entertainment. There will also be spoilers. Reader discretion is advised.
The History of Shock Value in Cinema
Using shock to generate a strong response isn’t anything new. The horror genre has done it for years. In the 1970s, exploitation cinema went well beyond the bounds of good taste in its representations of rape, murder, and sadism. Films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left depicted violent rape to make the gruesome deaths of the rapists feel cathartic. Italian exploitation films went a step further with films like Salo and Cannibal Holocaust. These video nasties did everything in their power to shock and titillate. They did this without offering much explanation or reason for the suffering shown on screen.
Things quieted down for a while after the height of exploitation. Horror movies moved toward slasher flicks, where violence was often cartoonish and the villains actual monsters. Instead of humans being cruel to one another, the horror films of the ’80s focused on monsters like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees attacking poor, mortal humans.
Why So Graphic?
Critics have theorized for years that the gruesomeness of 1970s horror films were a reaction to the Vietnam War. With violence being broadcast into everyone’s living rooms every night, they had to ratchet up the viciousness depicted in horror films. If that’s the case, then the horror films of the 2000s were a reaction to 9/11, beginning with the first Saw film in 2004. Eli Roth’s Hostel followed shortly after in 2005. Both films showed graphic violence without much purpose. Horror films from this era are intentionally shocking.
Even remakes of ’70s films, such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes remakes added new scenes to further exploit their audiences. This was all shock for shock’s sake, and people were quickly turned off. The term “torture porn” arose to describe these films, much to their creator’s ire.
“Torture Porn” Hits TV
Television became the medium of choice for creators in the 2010s. The kind of emotional manipulation used in cinema translated even better to TV, where commercial breaks could be cleverly used and the wait between scenes or episodes allowed for greater buildup. The two shows most guilty of this are HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s The Walking Dead. Both have used season finales to drag out important questions about the fates of main characters. With Game of Thrones, it was Jon Snow‘s death, stabbed by his brothers in the Night’s Watch. With The Walking Dead, we all waited to see who Negan killed. This kind of tactic has become a norm for TV — season finales almost always end in cliffhangers.
Why then, does The Walking Dead premiere feel like a sick joke? Fans of the comic know that Glenn‘s death is almost direct from the page, though he lingers longer on screen. There’s something much more visceral to the three-dimensional, moving version of Glenn’s death. We can hear him sputter, gagging on his own blood as he tries to speak to his pregnant wife. Instead of the black-and-white art on the page, we’re treated to Glenn’s demise in vivid color, and it’s gruesome. The entire rest of the episode revolves around Negan’s torture of Rick. Why would anyone watch six seasons of a television series and wait all summer to get taken on an emotional train ride to hell?
There have been plenty of awful moments on Game of Thrones, the most notable being the infamous Red Wedding. The effects of that shocking moment, however, completely changed the show’s political landscape. Almost every single character was affected in some way by the events of the Red Wedding. The show’s writers went a bit overboard, having Talisa repeatedly stabbed in her pregnant belly. Fans of the show have come to expect the GoT showrunners to go overboard, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
The sixth season’s finale was brilliant in depicting the horrific events with a bit of dignity. When Tommen steps out of a window to his death, we don’t see or hear his body hit the ground. The explosion that kills everyone at the sept isn’t as graphic as it could have been, instead focusing on Cersei’s face while she watches. The showrunners actually showed a bit of restraint, and that helped make it one fantastic hour of television. Subtlety was key, and The Walking Dead has about as much subtlety as a baseball bat to the head.
Where The Walking Dead Went Wrong
I pride myself on being a connoisseur of the disturbing. My old column on CHUD.com was an examination of all things disturbing in cinema. There isn’t much left that can shock me, but Glenn’s death did it. It wasn’t the gore (I’m well past that), but it was the fact that the way he died and the slow, drawn out suffering was a big ‘f you’ to fans. One of the series’ most beloved characters, someone who time and again had proven himself to be a good person, was killed mercilessly. It’s as if the creators are beating a nihilistic worldview into viewers. We all know the world can be a terrible place and that good people suffer, so why be reminded on a weekly basis? What’s the point?
Some claim the season premiere is a way to establish how evil Negan is so we can all hate him. That it will make his death that much sweeter. Again — who cares? His evil nature is one-dimensional, almost like Ramsay Bolton had started to be in Game of Thrones just before they had the good sense to kill him off. Evil characters with no motivations are blasé. All of it just feels like retreading old ground, with no emotional payoff. So, if revenge is the only good thing we get out of The Walking Dead, how healthy can it be for our psyches?
How Much Is Too Much Suffering?
The Walking Dead used to be a fantasy, a peek into what we might all become if the apocalypse happened. Characters drove the plot and posed questions of morality in a world without order. It has become nothing but suffering. It’s a no-win situation. Every time you connect to a character, it’s with the knowledge that they will die horribly. That, or they will watch their loved ones die horribly. No one ever seems to even have a happy moment. The Thanksgiving fantasy Rick dreams up is just icing on the cake, a reminder that things might have been okay, but they’re not. Used by better writers, the idyllic dream imagery could have worked. Instead, it just felt like another big middle finger to fans.
Hopefully, The Walking Dead will see its ratings drop drastically. It can serve as a reminder to other shows that this kind of grimdark nastiness doesn’t work as entertainment. Even for a show about zombies, there is such a thing as going too far. The Walking Dead didn’t just jump the shark — they beat its brains in with a spiked bat and made puns about it in the process.