Saturday, July 5, 2014

"The Walking Dead" and the suspension of disbelief

"What is it about the first two seasons you really liked? Is it because it focused more on the dangerous conditions in which people must survive?"
I basically wrote that after the first two seasons, the series went awry for me. I wrote:

"For me, the series was absolutely brilliant during its first two seasons. After that, things started to go in the direction of outlandish fantasy. And at that point, I could no longer suspend my disbelief. 
 They started to lose me when they introduced the woman with the samurai sword. Then there was the introduction of the small-time dictator (a staple plot device in post-apocalyptic fiction). The magic was gone."

Allow me to delve a bit deeper into the whole concept of "suspension of disbelief"--which is something that absolutely must be achieved in order for any horror film or horror fiction to be effective. 

When it works, "suspension of disbelief" becomes an organic gestalt in which the sum is greater than the parts. (I am only going to scratch the surface here as it relates to previous post about The Walking Dead.)

The horror genre requires the writer (or filmmaker) to create a believable scenario which is--on the surface--unbelievable. 

Let's say I write a story about a middle-aged accountant who is frustrated with his job, has occasional arguments with his wife, and persistent troubles with a rebellious teenage child. Any reasonably competent writer can create believability from this scenario. (It may or may not make a story worth reading; but that's another discussion.) It will be easy to persuade the reader that these plot elements are real: Let's say the accountant is struggling with corporate politics. Maybe he and his wife quarrel about money. And the accountant doesn't like his teenage daughter's boyfriend.

As a reader, you can easily believe in this setup because---well, you probably already know someone like that. These conflicts and situations are drawn directly, verbatim from real life. They require little in the way of suspension of disbelief.

Now let's say I want to write a story about man who hunts vampires...or ghosts. Or maybe a man who thinks that his wife is really a witch (not figuratively, but literally). Let's further say that his suspicions are correct. 

Then my job is going to be a lot more difficult. I'll have to work a lot harder to create suspension of disbelief.

The most successful horror author to date is Stephen King, of course. And though opinions may vary about his "best" books, his scariest and most believable ones are: Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, Pet Sematary, Christine, and Cujo. The Stand and The Mist (a novella) were awfully good, too.

There are no completely original stories out there, and this is as true of Stephen King as it is of anyone else. Most of Stephen King's horror elements can be traced to earlier works in the genre: Stephen King obviously didn't invent the concepts of vampires, haunted hotels, or the apocalypse. And anyone who has read H.P. Lovecraft will see that earlier horror writer's influence in The Mist.  

What makes King's best horror novels so compelling is that he crafts a believable set of characters and situations around the fantastic horror elements. Pet Sematary is a story about reanimation of the dead, but it's also a story about an ordinary young family. Cujo is as much a story about marital difficulties as it is a story about a monster St. Bernard. And anyone who has been through high school will appreciate the mundane but universal aspects of adolescence contained in Carrie and Christine

It is these believable story elements that make the horror elements of King's novels so believable as well. The ordinary serves as a Trojan horse for the extraordinary. Before King asks the reader to believe in something unusual, he places the reader in a world that is both familiar and completely credible, peopled by Everyman and Everywoman characters who practically walk off the page.

Now back to The Walking Dead: In the first two seasons, the horror elements of the series shared time more or less equally with conventional dramatic elements. Here is a man trying to sleep with his friend's wife (Shane). Here is a somewhat lonely older man who tries to be everyone's dad or grandpa, even when such attentions are not necessarily wanted (Dale). Here is a redneck biker who persistently alienates the rest of the group (Merle).

These characters interact in ways that one would expect, with or without a zombie apocalypse. In one scene, Merle and T-Dog clash. As the initial verbal exchange escalates, Merle hurls a racial epithet at T-Dog and the two end up fighting. I don't believe that this scene was an attempt by the producers to SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT ABOUT RACISM. It was, rather, a depiction of how differences and simmering hostilities between people can sometimes be exacerbated when there are external pressures. The result was a powerful scene that was neither preachy nor politically correct, while still making clear who the villain was (Merle).  

These ordinary dramatic elements (and the characters that gave them life) were so well done that The Walking Dead could possibly have succeeded as a series even without the zombies. I can easily picture an ordinary crime series with Rick Grimes as the main character. 

The writers of The Walking Dead skillfully balanced the ordinary and extraordinary for two seasons. 

Then they introduced that highly improbable woman with a samurai sword, who kept two armless zombies as pets. She didn't strike me as an Everyperson facing the zombie apocalypse. I thought, "this is a takeoff on the Xena the Warrior Princess genre." The zombie-keeping, katana-toting woman simply didn't work for me. 

In the same season, the writers introduced the biggest cliche of apocalyptic fiction: The makeshift petty dictator. How many times have we seen this device? It is present in at least two of the George Romero films, not to mention non-zombie apocalyptic stories like The Postman

This was the point where the writers of The Walking Dead lost their winning formula, the one that had kept me believing in the story and the characters. After that, The Walking Dead became just another zombie film--still better than most, but not nearly as good as the first two seasons. 

Why am I so hung up on the woman with the samurai sword? Again, she just didn't seem believable to me. As a rule of thumb, a writer of speculative film or fiction shouldn't ask his audience to suspend their disbelief in too many directions at once. If you're going to write a ghost story, then it's generally a bad idea to throw in werewolves as well. If you're going to write a story about vampires in a small Midwestern town, don't ask the reader to simultaneously believe that a spaceship has landed in the nearby woods.

Likewise, The Walking Dead was most believable when its principle characters and conflicts were all equally believable. And that was best achieved during the first two seasons.  

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