AMC’s The Walking Dead devours 19.1 million viewers nearly every episode. Robert Kirkman and the writers of the TWD have built a formula which draws in viewers and explains the show’s success. We are unconscious of the formula, but the equation explains why so many rabid fans follow the show. To know why we watch The Walking Dead, you need some math.
The Equation: (Violence) + (Intimacy – Technology) = FANS!
1) We want the simplicity of decluttered lives with a clear and present danger. Walkers are tangible stressors we can kill. Deadlines and taxes are mental walkers we cannot kill.
2) We are wired to violence. Social Psychologist, Jeffrey Goldstein, in his exhaustive review of violent media, suggests we gain cathartic emotional experiences when we view violence. He also suggests we enjoy the spectacle because of our need to identify with others who are experiencing trauma and stress. And as a society, we are stressed!
3) Have we pushed our brains past the point at which we can process all the data in our lives? As the human species goes, we are working harder, under greater stress, and demonstrating the highest levels of anxiety in our known history. 40 percent more people reported panic attacks in 1996 as compared to 1957. College kids and children are more stressed and anxious than ever. One study determined college students in the ‘90s were more anxious than 85 percent of college students in the ‘50s.Also, children in the ‘80s reported levels of anxiety that exceeded the anxiety levels of child psychiatric patients in the ‘50s!
With all of this stress, we have become more isolated. We are also living false lives through social media which increases our sense of failure and inadequacy. People are missing deep human connections. We know we are missing something, and The Walking Dead reminds us of our loss each week. The Walking Dead strips away the Nothing to reveal the Everything. The viewership formula includes violence and gore for sure. But within the “why we watch equation,” are deep, powerful relationships and characters for whom we can cheer and with whom we can identify. Viewing a world in which the stressors and superficiality of modern society are stripped away leaves us longing.
We watch TWD to get excited by who we are now, to feel deeply, and to reimagine who we would like to become.
Follow Dr. Frank Gaskill (@drfgaskill) on twitter!