The Walking Dead: A Modern Atrocity Exhibition

“Negan.” That’s something Facebook was prompting me with yesterday in one of those daft ‘stories you might like’ sidebar. These are, in my experience, usually stories I either dislike or have no interest in whatsoever. Frequently, with a weary ‘go on, I’ll bite’ air my interest is sufficiently piqued to take a look. It appeared that, in this case, Facebook was keen for me to watch a video of a pregnant woman getting her head bashed in with a razor-wire baseball bat. What larks.

This is, of course, the latest episode of The Walking Dead, yet another series that skilfully crafts empathetic and relatable characters then does something horrible to them. It’s emotional manipulation in the shape of entertainment and I tend to avoid it. From the popular zombie series to Game Of Thrones to Sons Of Anarchy (all programmes people tell me I should watch in a manner that suggests they’re not wholly in control of their own brains) I’ve decided I just can’t be bothered investing 400 hours of my time in watching talented British actors killing each other in inventive ways.

I watched the first series of The Walking Dead. It was OK. But The Walking Dead is just relentlessly grim. There’s no wit about it, it’s just a load of zombie tropes explored much more imaginatively by George Romero. So after one series that was it for me.

You can’t exist these days without absorbing some of what Game Of Thrones is about. Tits, goblins and decapitations seem to be about it for me. Every part of it I’ve ever seen has been Charles Dance looking solemn, a topless woman prancing around a fire or someone getting a limb lopped off. I’ll just watch Jewel In The Crown if that’s what I’m after.

Someone once told me I’d love Sons Of Anarchy and, because it had Ron Perlman in it, I dipped in and out of it. The bits I remember were various leather-jacketed men cocking guns, the guy from Queer As Folk staring into the distance and someone getting gang-raped. The homo-eroticism of the whole thing – not to mention how unintentionally ridiculous it was – was extraordinary but fundamentally it was unimaginative, grim, gang-warfare trash. I was bemused at how anyone could have imagined I’d like it.

I’m generally bemused by the supposed ‘unmissable’ nature of these programmes. I’m immune to their supposed delights. They’re glossy, expensive things designed to neutralise your mental powers for a few hours and they’re not even good as far as I’m concerned. And by and large I can ignore them and leave other people to slowly dissolve into their couches while their brains marinade in a diet of dull Hollywood sex and empty, brutal violence.

Except something that caught my eye today, barely 12 hours after I’d been reading about the resolution of the latest TWD cliffhanger, which involved various people getting their heads stoved in. Apparently fans have been on tenterhooks for six months pondering which of their beloved characters were going to get their brains pulverised. As TV goes it’s not exactly ‘Who shot JR?’ and apparently the naked manipulation this amounts to has led some fans to abandon the show. Still, millions tuned in, it seems to be almost illegal not to watch these shows in 2016.

Walking Dead season 7 advert

Anyway, today I looked up and saw this this billboard, showing a dozen or so people kneeling down in front of said baseball bat rather like they were the unwilling stars of an execution video. Which, I gather, they essentially were. The legend “WHO SURVIVES’ was emblazoned across it. It was an advert for explicit, hideous violence; an invitation to subject yourself to a traumatic punch to the gut; a vicarious thrill amid the drudgery of modern existence. Scenes I recall from The Walking Dead – and other comparable box-set shows – are pornographic in their loving explorations of sadism, cruelty and terror. In this regard The Walking Dead is an abusive partner, with the willing audience on the receiving end.

An article I read on the subject pointed out that the insane levels of explicit violence that are celebrated in these programmes were once the preserve of video nasties. But the famed X-rated material of the 80s was generally alt cinema: challenging, disruptive, funny, satirical, subversive or wilfully stupid.

The glossy production values, wall-to-wall promotion and top-level casting of The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones are a gateway drug – or a figleaf – for sustained amounts of graphic material to be beamed into our homes via our latest subscription. Increasingly I suspect the sex and violence is the point – the narrative twists, cinematography and high-calibre talent are mere window-dressing. In a world where real horrors are a few clicks away – and the news seems so unremittingly awful – it’s perhaps understandable that we seek fictional atrocities.

But as I gazed up at the vast billboard promising an exciting carnival of bloody, visceral gore I felt genuinely unsettled. Is it really so harmless? What makes us seek these things out and, in a world where personal choice is elevated beyond most other considerations, is it wise they’re so prevalent? In a world where we advertise such things, actually advertise violence whose very point is that it’s gratuitous.

In another atrocity exhibition, JG Ballard explored how the mass media invades and disrupts our minds. His later novels explore people for whom violence, rape and insanity are simply the next natural step for humans stifled and bored by real existence. If one illicit thrill loses its power are we driven to seek another? And what does it do for our capacities for empathy, humanity, if the news reports we see are matched by our leisure choices? Black Mirror is the forum of our age for these concerns, where we fret over what technology will do to our near future. But it’s not our near future; it’s now.

In our glum, passive reception of gory outrages – designed, let’s not forget, to make us watch sponsor messages – are we escaping the real world or finding ways to come to terms with it? Protecting ourselves against it. Perhaps it’s not even as noble as that. Maybe we just love violence and these shows are feeding it. Questions of taste, decency and restraint seem quaint suddenly and it’s hard to conceive of what would now be considered beyond the pale. I recall one friend on social media suddenly announcing that she’d quit Game Of Thrones after watching a young girl being burned to death. It seemed to be as if she’d had a chilling moment of clarity. The programme had shocked her, but it was the realisation of what the show had done to her; her complicity in the carnivals of casual violence the show had lured her towards.

We’re training our minds to receive these images without flinching; to absorb these terrors as everyday. Normalising them. And our on-demand subscriptions are keeping track of what we watch so they can feed us more. Watch violence; get more violence. Advertising, data, media and money in a disturbing confluence – feeding us fictionalised snuff videos. Upping the ante; raising the threshold.

I wonder what these nightly doses of sex and killing can be doing to us. If these box-set TV shows are doing something horrible to our own brains. Will it drive us all mad? And will we know when it has?