Chris Churchill Saves the World | How "The Walking Dead" Helped Me Feel My Feelings
By Chris Churchill
I love The Walking Dead for a lot of reasons. But here’s the reason I’m so loyal to it:
When I was nineteen years old, committed to the psych ward, sitting across from my first psychiatrist, Dr. Bolan, he explained it to me. He told me I had a panic disorder (a diagnosis that subsequent psychiatrists haven’t necessarily focused on but one that seems to encapsulate a big part of my problem). He compared my brain to a house with many rooms, all of which had a light switch to be turned on when something worried me. As he explained, most people can turn the light on and then, when it was no longer needed (i.e., the thing that worries you is gone), they can turn the light off. People with a panic disorder cannot turn the lights off once they get turned on.
Next thing you know, all the lights in the house are on and it’s noon.
Good explanation, I thought.
Years later, after having been diagnosed as bipolar ii, my therapist and I began to discuss how I still at that time, once sent into panic, could not recover on my own. A concern over a missing wallet, even though the wallet was recovered the next day, turned into real existential crisis. I was so worked up about the possibility of identity theft, that I obsessed for months and months over any and all problems (completely different problems) that I could come up with. I came up with some great philosophical discoveries for myself, not the least of which being that I’ll bet most of the great western philosophers have the strictly obsessive side of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I also proved, to my own satisfaction (and really, who else’s satisfaction do I need) the existence and nature of God and figured out what science will need to do to truly create artificial intelligence, simply because I physically couldn’t stop thinking.
Forget enjoying anything. I was stuck in the emotional state of extreme vigilance. Extreme vigilance, without a real target, forces you to create problems to solve.
But why is that? My therapist and I talked through this for months. She explained to me that people with the type of childhood trauma I sustained might never learn to soothe themselves (without doing something). That’s why, in order to soothe themselves some people nervously shake their foot or tap their fingers or click pens, stay busy, or develop obsessions and sometimes, as in my case, some people can’t stop solving problems even when there aren’t any. They feel compelled to obsess over certain ideas. Fun fact: even when you solve the problem, you don’t feel any better.
As I was recovering from my most recent breakdown, I started gathering with a few good friends each week to watch bad movies. We enjoyed poorly conceived science fiction, unscary horror movies, and bizarre concepts in action adventure. A highlight from those movies was, of course, Roadhouse. Another was the Bart Conner (yes the Olympic gymnast) vehicle called Gymkata, where Mr. Conner played a character who kept getting into mortal danger but, luckily, this always occurred when he was near gymnastics equipment.
Things had been pretty dark for me during those days except for those weekly breaks where we marveled at terrible movies and bonded over our own highly personalized Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style riffs on these movies.
So one day, I came across a dvd of 10 Horror Classics. I thought, “Ten? All in one DVD? They must be laughably bad.” One was the original, George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead. I had not realized it was a classic because it was actually a good movie. I had assumed it would be terrible. I settled in for a good, patronizing giggle but instead found myself enjoying a really terrifying, groundbreaking, low-budget film.
I never had cared for scary movies before that day. I’m sure they were all funny to me. Just silly, overacted, bad effects, and unbelievable. But this movie, with its genre generating plot, hit me just right. It grabbed me with both how frightening it was and how icky it all was. Watching this movie I got legitimately worked up.
Then the movie was over and I realized that I felt pretty good.
So I thought, “Are all zombie movies this good?” (No) So I began to seek out old, Romero and Romero-like zombie films.
I was becoming obsessed with the feeling these movies were giving me. Not a problem to solve, but something visceral.
When I was running out of good zombie movies to watch, my good friend Charmin suggested I watch this new show, The Walking Dead. She knew I’d love it.
From the opening scene I was hooked. Our hero, in weakened physical state, and vulnerable, stumbles upon a little girl, dragging a teddy bear. He calls out, “Little girl...” to which the little girl responds by turning abruptly, showing that she is missing all the skin around her mouth, and rushes to attack him. I felt the horror, uncertainty, and “ickyness” of it all.
And then the hero killed it. And I felt better. Then our hero found another horrible, disgusting, dangerous monster and I was terrified and creeped out and vulnerable and then he killed it and I felt better. And it happened again. And again.
I felt scared. It felt personal. It got killed. Then I felt better.
I binged the show to catch up to its then current season (I think it was into the middle of Season 2 by the time I caught up. I got very used to getting very nervous and frightened, one could even say panicked, and then seeing someone kill that thing that scared me. And then I felt better.
Like the psychiatric equivalent of eating hot pepper in the midday sun to cool off.
My therapist and I realized I was actually practicing the primitive skill of feeling better. (She says I’m fascinating.) It turns out that learning to feel better is something you learn before you have episodic memory and only with the help of a soothing nurturer spending sufficient time with you.
So now, in lieu of having developed those skills when I was supposed to have, the show was teaching me to soothe myself. So each week. I tuned in to care even more deeply about these characters in peril. And even when they kill off a favorite TV friend, and then it goes to commercial, I realize it is just TV, and I feel better.
Then I began to practice that feeling away from my show. I worked at developing the sense memory of feeling better thanks to my beloved post-apocalyptic soap opera.
So when I read good or bad reviews about my show, it matters a little to me, but not a lot. Because now I realize that people love the shows they love because of the feelings that show repeatedly gives them, show after show, for years. Not just, did it scare them but did it help them feel better.
Horror is like comedy in that the tension builds due to a character or characters we identify with being in some level of peril and then that tension is released with a satisfying and sometimes unforeseen resolution. In jokes it happens quickly, while in horror, it might take two hours. In both cases, we often have physical reactions to the peril and release at the resolution. Laughing is a combination of tension and release. I’ve seen child psychologists explain with the example of a loving parent tossing their baby in the air and catching the child. The baby laughs when it is caught because it is relieved that everything is fine. The horror movie affects us in a similar way (often, also accompanied by laughter).
So it’s not surprising that someone like me who enjoys laughing through his days, with its repeated tension and release, also loves to pretend to care for people who are pretending to be killed. Tension and release, for sure, but with a longer arc and higher stakes.
I can practice feeling better.
So thanks Glenn Rhee for the dumpster fake out. I needed that.
Thanks to Darryl, Michonne, Carol, Carl, and Rick. Thanks for almost dying all those times. I needed that.
Thanks to the deus ex helicopter that saved Rick. I needed that too.
Robert Kirkman, thanks.
To all my psychiatrists, my therapist, and to that little half a pill I take who got me to the point where I could feel the fear and then the relief. Thanks.
Critics don’t matter. They’re not in my head. And they probably wouldn’t understand what was in there anyway.
The Walking Dead returns with its tenth season tonight on AMC.