I haven’t found the time to sink my teeth into the gritty charms of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” — but I do have friends who are hooked on the post-apocalyptic zombie franchise. In a recent episode titled “The Grove,” an acquaintance described to me the emotional violence that accompanied the mental instability of a little girl that drove her to kill her younger sister — a baby would have been the next to go if the adults didn’t arrive on the scene. Because of distrust an adult took little Lizzie outside, told her to look at the flower, and shot her in the back of the head.
Disturbing and graphic scenes are the norm on “The Walking Dead,” yet it’s the most popular television program for the in-demand 18-to-49-demographic. Its ratings per episode on average are comparable to the series finale of AMC’s other cultural hit “Breaking Bad.” With its season finale set to air this Sunday, “The Walking Dead” is leading the revitalization of the violent horror genre in mainstream television.
As summarized in a piece for The Los Angeles Times, the F.C.C. has no hard and fast rules for handling media violence, leaving networks to tango with boundaries and viewers dictating the proverbial thin line.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s “American Horry Story: Coven” on FX was the most watched season of the show to date. Although not as gruesome as its predecessor, “American Horror Story: Asylum,” the witch-themed, Stevie Nicks-inspired season still had gut-twisting sequences of gun violence, beheadings, and torture. Breakout hit “True Detective” on HBO created by Nic Pizzolatto, which wrapped up its first season earlier this month, received critical acclaim for its slow unravel of the capture of a Louisiana serial killer, following two detectives, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and a trail of drugs, ritual sacrifice, and prostitutes. Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal” on NBC is both a re-telling and homage to Thomas Harris’ most infamous villain. It began its second season on Feb. 28 with ratings that surpassed last season’s finale. Rarely does an episode go without the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, preparing an aesthetically cinematic meal out of human flesh.
In a phone conversation, Rebecca Housel, an editorial board member for the Journal of Popular Culture, said the history of horror on television began with the cult classic “Dark Shadows,” the ABC daytime serial that ran in the late 1960s. Programs like “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters” preceded “Dark Shadows,” but it was the first show, according to Housel, that did not present itself as a satire or sitcom, but as a more serious (and by modern day standards, cheesy) drama.
The evolution of crime thrillers like CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which debuted in 2000, changed the game of television violence with its decadent depiction of murder victims and autopsies. Today, we have a mix of HBO’s campy-graphic “True Blood,” heading into its finale season this summer, with Netflix’s bizarre, werewolf-lead “Hemlock Grove,” which premiered last year. Is this trend an exercise in healthy masochism?
Housel says the changing permissive attitudes toward violent horror and our entertainment is a worldwide, psychological phenomenon. She also says that 9/11 was a pivotal moment in the 21st century where people became the horrific.
She added: “We’re reexamining our humanity through things like zombies that really represent us, the masses.”
Image: Gene Page/AMC