In 2012 I discovered a book called Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, by psychologist Travis Langley, which sought to elucidate concepts from the field of psychology through the lens of one of the most popular superheroes – if not the most popular one – in modern times. I was immediately drawn to the book because not only was I an enormous fan of Batman, this book was the latest in a cultural trend that I had been noticing since 2009 when a book called X-Men and Philosophy was published as part of the so-called Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, a series that has gone on to produce 46 books as of this writing. That trend has been the linking of various pop culture franchises with academic fields like philosophy, psychology, religion and the physical sciences by numerous scholars and writers.
Dr. Langley has an ongoing column on Psychology Today called “Beyond Heroes and Villains” where he regularly writes about pop culture from a psychologist’s perspective, but The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead is his first book-length project since Batman and Psychology. Whereas the latter was written entirely by him, this new volume is a collaborated project in which a team of psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors and psych professors have come together, under Langley’s editorial leadership, to write about what is without doubt one of the most phenomenally popular television shows and comic books in recent years. For various reasons it also happens to be one of my own favorite shows/comics, so when I was made aware of the book’s pending publication I immediately contacted both Dr. Langley and the publisher, Sterling Publishing, for a review copy.
I should start out by saying that if you are a fan of The Walking Dead show/comic then I’m confident you’ll find most of this book to be, at the very least, interesting. But if, like me, you are not just a rabid follower of both the show and the comic but also passionate about psychology (whether as student, practitioner or just lay reader) then this book is simply a must-buy.
The foreword is written by John Russo whom horror aficionados will recognize as the co-writer, along with director George Romero, of 1968’s seminal Night of the Living Dead and a pioneering independent filmmaker (Midnight, Heartstopper) who went on to share everything he had learned in his John Russo Movie Making Program and a book he wrote called Making Movies: The Inside Guide to Independent Movie Production which I actually read in high school and remember fondly (even non-filmmaking movie buffs would enjoy the interviews contained therein with directors like Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi and George Romero). In his foreword, Russo asks the question everyone is dying to know: just like zombies themselves (unless you shoot them in the head), why won’t the zombie genre ever die? And he suggests that the answers are contained in the essays to follow.
For the most part, I would agree that the selections in this book, divided into five sections – Waking, Responding, Dying, Walking, and Living – offer some compelling answers to the question of why we, as a culture, just can’t stop being fascinated by the zombie genre, something which has perhaps reached its apex with The Walking Dead.
While the overarching rubric here is psychology, the books’ contributors bring different focal points from the different branches of social psychology, cultural psychology, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, clinical psychology and neuropsychology, just to name a handful. While this doesn’t allow for the focus and depth with which Batman and Psychology probes the mind of its titular subject, it does allow for the benefit of perhaps appealing to a wider range of readers. You may not be so interested in the stages of a child’s development, for instance, but you might be very interested in the potential long-term effects of intense stress and trauma on your mental health. In this respect, The Walking Dead Psychology should have something to offer most readers.
Since I too am naturally more drawn to certain areas over others, the essays that I found myself most engaged by were the ones that examined themes like adversity, despair and the effects of chronic stress using the context of TWD to show readers how the experiences of the characters in the show/comic apply in very real ways to their own lives. Patrick O’Connor’s “Carl Grimes and Neglected Youth,” for instance, shows how the development of Rick’s son, Carl, over the course of the show and comic parallels the profound challenges faced by countless youth around the world today, none of whom are living in a zombie apocalypse but whose different life situations create constant fears about safety and abandonment.
Pieces like Janina Scarlet’s “The Walking Traumatized,” Dave Verhaagen’s “Shock and Dread: What Fear Does to Humans,” and William Blake Erickson & John Blanchar’s “Apocalyptic Stress: Causes and Consequences of Stress at the End of the World” do a terrific job of explaining the long term effects of constant anxiety, stress and trauma and how the oft-bizarre or just all out stupid choices that characters in the show sometimes make (and that viewers sometimes complain about) are actually quite in line with research and findings about what repeated trauma combined with prolonged anxiety can do to people’s perception and decision-making faculties.
Meanwhile, “Finding Your Purpose in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Clay Routledge, “What Would You Do? Finding Meaning in Tragic Circumstances” by Dana Klisanin, and the Joseph Campbell-influenced “Hillbilly to Hero: The Transformation of Daryl Dixon” by Stephen Kuniak and Megan Blink stress the importance of not just holding onto a sense of meaning in the face of great loss but also the feasibility of finding meaning even in the bleakest of circumstances. After all, if Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), can find meaning while staring death and horror in the face every day, so can we despite whatever it is we might be going through.
The times when some of the essays in this book were less successful for me were when they delved too deeply into imaginary details of The Walking Dead as if they were real. For example, while I do find physiological psychology to be immensely fascinating (enough to have taken a course in it in college), I’m not quite as gripped by the fictitious neurobiology of a zombie. Perhaps if zombies were actually real then it would indeed be that the abnormalities in their cerebral cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum are why then can only walk clumsily and not run (which still wouldn’t account for why they do run in Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead!). But they’re not real and therefore those are details I prefer not to linger over, personally. But that’s just me, and I readily acknowledge that there are many geeks out there who would hungrily eat these kinds of details up.
There’s also a caveat that I feel I should offer readers who are thinking about picking up a copy of The Walking Dead Psychology (which, as I’ve already said, you should definitely do if you’re a TWD fan). Since there is no way to illustrate some of these psychological concepts without spoilers, this book does contain spoilers and quite a lot of them. It’s also a very up-to-date volume, with a number of the essays discussing even Season 6 events in detail, so if you are not caught up then I would suggest getting caught up before reading. Also, if you haven’t been a reader of the comic but have been planning to read them at some point, know that there are spoilers for the comic as well.
Speaking of the comics, therein lies one other minor quibble I had with some of these pieces. Several of the authors go back and forth between events in the show and events in the comics (and sometimes even events from the game) without always clarifying which is which, so unless you’re up to date on both the show and comic, or check all the footnotes (which I do), then you may find yourself momentarily confused at times about some of the references.
Now that I’ve done the reviewer’s duty of sharing my balanced opinion, I want to reiterate that anyone who’s a fan of the show or comic and who’s at least slightly interested in psychology would find much to take away from this book. Not only will it enrich your appreciation of The Walking Dead, but the way it uses entertainment to explain the importance of psychological concepts, and to even get some young readers possibly interested in entering the field of psychology, is quite simply good for your braaaains!