The Search for Zombie Consciousness and Agency in AMC’s "The Walking Dead"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Zombie Consciousness and Science

3. Analysis

4. Conclusion

Appendix A


Appendix B

Transcript of Analyzed Scenes

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Zombies are - considering the significant amount of media input – nearly all around us. What was once a niche genre, has long spread and entered the public consciousness and pop culture through a variety of movies and more recently, through one very successful TV series adaption of a comic series, The Walking Dead[1] (2010) and its recent spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead (2015). Video game series like Left 4 Dead or Dead Island likewise increased the ever-growing stack of zombie productions. And where there were few or none academic works specifically about zombies in the past, there is now a considerable part of academia that explores and observes the zombie from many different angles. There are works which examine the zombie culture according to philosophical, religious, historical, political or even environmental points of view. (cf. Moreman and Keetley, “’We're All Infected’”)

One issue that is being explored in these works is the question of humanity and how much of it is still contained in a zombie. As zombies are still able to fulfill basic human functions such as eating or walking, this inevitably leads to questions of human and zombie consciousness. If a person is “zombified”, does he or she still have access to the feelings of the person that was bitten? Can these feelings be accessed and influence the zombie’s behavior? Or will a zombie always act like a mindless machine, never stopping and never settling for any less than human flesh?

This paper seeks to explore the questions mentioned above by analyzing scenes from the first, second and third season of AMC’s TWD. I will first (Chapter 2) seek to explore how alive and conscious the living dead actually are, essentially ask, how much of a human there is still in them. I will first introduce neuroscientific/biological ideas to discuss how “active” a zombie’s brain is and later add neurobiological and philosophical input about consciousness. These thoughts, with an emphasis on the neuroscientific/biological theories, will provide the background for the analysis (Chapter 3): There I will analyze a selection of scenes from TWD’s first three seasons and investigate how the series portrays the zombies’ level of consciousness and agency. Finally, I will conclude my findings.

2. Zombie Consciousness and Science

The question on how much life is left in a zombie may seem like an easy question at first. Is a zombie not but a rotting corpse with no connection to its former human self? As a zombie’s heart is not beating, how can we say that this “creature” is alive? As Bishop says, “each of these somewhat likeable creatures is still essentially dead, dumb and less intelligent. . . ” (Bishop 13). But if we look at what zombies are able to do (in contrast to actually dead people), the fascination about this being which seems “alive yet dead” at the same time, undead, cannot be denied. Which dead person was ever able to walk, to hear, to see or to eat? Yet, by all rules of science and reason, the zombie cannot exist. The laws of physics dictate that all actions require energy. While zombies eat, they generally do not need to eat to stay “alive”; starved zombies are not portrayed in films and TV series. The origin of the zombie, however, is not magical or unscientific.

Historically, there have been zombies on earth. The term zombie refers to a Haitian practice that was documented by ethnographers Hans W. Ackermann and Jeanine Gauthier. Healthy people were given a toxic mixture which slowed down their pulse; afterward, they were then buried alive. Following a brief waiting period, they were “awakened” from their graves and because of the deprivation of oxygen their brains were damaged. These “zombies” were not brain-dead, i.e. they were still capable of basic thoughts and work. However, their intelligence was pretty much diminished and they were used for ritualistic purposes or to work at plantations. (cf. Bishop 6-7)

So, the historical zombie has a background that is set in reality. But how human or alive are “modern zombies”, as we find them in today’s works of fiction? If we apply logical reasoning, zombies are capable of some sort of basic “living”. They may not be able to take a root, kiss somebody or translate a Latin text. However, they roam the world alone or in a community (horde), they are alerted to sounds or sightings, they follow other zombies if they get alerted by something and “hunt” together for food (humans and animals). Is it not that by these actions that they show more symptoms of being alive/human than a person who is truly “brain-dead”, i.e. absent of any brain activity? While the person who has suffered such an ill fate is only kept alive by machines (cf. "Brain Death”) and his/her brain will never show activity again, a zombie’s brain seems at least to be able to provide basic functions. It thus seems probable that a zombie’s brain must be active and the full extent of this assumption on consciousness needs to be investigated.

The thought that a zombie’s brain is still working and that they are not kept alive by some sort of magic is reinforced by “zombie rules” that were first introduced in Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. One of these rules includes that zombies can only die by inflicting a fatal head trauma. (cf. Bishop 9-10) If a zombie’s brain was not constantly “firing” neurons and rather be held alive by some sort of magic, it hardly could be stopped by a shot or stab to the head. To further refine these thoughts, I now want to take a look at neurobiological discourse about the role of the brain and consciousness. I argue that this approach ties in well as zombie movies have recently switched to a more rational explanation of the zombie phenomena as e.g. a virus, such as in the 28 Days / Weeks Later or Resident Evil series. These ideas contrast the more metaphysical explanations that are seen in John Romero’s movies. (cf. Rushton and Moreman 2)

So, how active is a zombie’s brain? To find an answer to this question, we first need to look at the brain’s physiology. The human brain is composed of three larger areas: The cerebrum is the newest evolutionary achievement and the largest part of the brain; it is mainly responsible for the highest level of mental/intellectual performance. The second part is the cerebellum, which mainly controls the coordination of the muscles. The third part is the brain stem, which controls essential functions such as sleeping or breathing. It also controls facial muscles and acts as a connector between the brain and body. (cf. Madeja 13-7, Rüegg and Bertram 5-7, “Brainstem”)

Putting this information into context, zombies seem not to have access to their higher brain functions (cerebrum) anymore, either through a blockage or destruction of the relevant parts. If they were still able to rationalize, their higher brain areas should be able to stop them from eating humans. However, zombies certainly must have access to their brain stem as otherwise a nerve connection between their brain and body would not exist; in this case, the brain would be trapped in a motionless body. Likewise, their cerebellum must be working as they are still able to control their muscles. Koch’s findings also support the idea of further brain activity: In his work, he writes about so-called “zombie agents” (Koch 206), automatized processes in the brain that every human has. These are executed on a daily basis without access to the working memory of a person, so the person never realizes them and they bypass his consciousness. These involve e.g. quickly readjusting the position of the eyes without any conscious decision or the automatized balancing of the body. (c.f. Koch 206-10,216) These zombie agents must still be active for zombies, as otherwise, they would simply fall if they take their first step, unable to control their weight. Having thus secured that at least a zombie’s brain stem and cerebellum must be active, this leads over to the question of a possible consciousness of zombies. But what is consciousness and how can we grasp it?

The philosopher John Searle states that “consciousness consists of those states of sentience, or feeling, or awareness, which begin in the morning when we awake from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until we fall into a coma or die or fall asleep again or otherwise become unconscious” (Searle qtd. In Koch 11-2). This is probably a definition of consciousness that most people can agree with: In our daily lives, we can say that we are conscious because we experience feelings and rationalize thoughts. By contrast, if we sleep, we generally are not conscious, not remembering clearly what we thought or dreamed about. But how is consciousness created?

There is not a simple answer to that as scientists and philosophers have argued and discussed the nature of human consciousness for a long time. These include theories that the mind and body are separate instances, a thought which dates back to the Greek philosopher Plato, whereas some consider c. to be a product of our brain and again others who deny that a human consciousness exists, that it is essentially an illusion. The theory of a separation of mind and body is referred to as dualism and was later refined by Descartes (cf. Koch 4-11) Koch argues for a neurobiological view of consciousness, in which c. is formed through “neuronal features of the brain” (10).The interesting part about his explanation of the factors involved in consciousness (cf. Koch 88-93) is that c. is formed not only in the upper part of the brain. There are two different pathways of neuronal activity in the brain related to consciousness: One starts in the brainstem and spreads from there around it and to the center of the brain, whereas another pathway starts in the center of the brain and moves to the upper, higher areas of the brain (see fig. 1). This means that even if only the lower brain functions were active for a zombie, theoretically (and if any writers considered these implications), at least parts of consciousness might still reside in zombies.

Are zombies thus at all able to be influenced by rational decisions? At times, their portrayal in movies is ambiguous. In Return of the Living Dead (1985) two zombies are calling for the authorities to send more paramedics. But most of these more visible “agent zombies” seem to be limited to works of comedy. (cf. Bishop 14) Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005), however, took the idea of rational zombies a step further. It made the zombies learn, communicate and come up with a deliberate plan to kill their human aggressors. (cf. Bishop 13; Derksen and Hick 15) And recently, the BBC series In the Flesh (2013) took a serious and highly visible approach of signs of consciousness in zombies. The series follows the life of Kieran Walker, a young man who killed himself after his best friend died. Somehow, he and other people were re-awakened as zombies (“rotters”), officially referred to as people suffering from “Partially Deceased Syndrome”. A drug was developed which stops their primal urge for human flesh and enables access to higher-brain functions, overriding the rotters’ “zombie routine”.

While TWD does not have the same emphasis as In the Flesh (it focuses on the human survivors and their stories, not the zombies), it will still be interesting to see if there are any similarities or differences in TWD’s portrayal to the previously cited examples. In the following analysis, I will use the theoretical ideas and thoughts presented in this chapter to analyze parts of TWD’s season one to three. I aim to analyze these scenes and find any signs of zombie consciousness and agency.

3. Analysis

I will limit my analysis to a total of four scenes of TWD’s first three seasons. The scenes are not analyzed in a chronological order but according to their relevance towards my research interest, i.e. the question of a zombie’s consciousness and agency.

The first scene that I will analyze is the last episode of season two, episode six (“TS-19”). I chose it as so far (Seasons 1-7) it is the series’ only episode that deals with a thorough scientific explanation of the zombie outbreak. This makes it an ideal episode to be compared to the neurobiological and philosophical insight that was found in the theoretical part (Chapter 3). Prior to this scene, the survivors have temporarily escaped the dangers of the zombie apocalypse by finding refuge in a bunker manned by the lone and only surviving Atlanta CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) scientist, Dr. Edwin Jenner. Dr. Jenner tells the survivors of his (futile) attempts to find a cure for the zombie outbreak. As such, his description of the zombie phenomena is vital in understanding how the series’ writers explain the role and origin of the zombies. At the beginning of the scene, Dr. Jenner already outlines the series’ view of consciousness. The scientist explains that the “lights” which the survivors see on the screen are synapses, which in their combined effort, create a person’s life: “Experiences, memories, it’s everything! Somewhere in all that organic wiring, in all those ripples of light … is you, the thing that makes you unique… and human.” (“TS-19” 19:52-20:07)

This view of consciousness very much reflects a neurobiological view of human consciousness, such as it is favored by Koch (Chapter 3). Human consciousness and personality are thus explained as a sum of all the neurons and tissue in the brain. This opposes a dualistic perspective: By Jenner’s reasoning, there is nothing, which would survive the death of a human body (so there can be no soul). But what about the brain activity and “life” of zombies? This is also touched on by Jenner shortly afterward: After the completion of the resurrection period, TS-19’s brain starts to show activity again in the form of red dots which appear near the brain stem and start to spread (see fig. 2 and fig. 3). Jenner explains that only the brain stem is affected, saying that “basically, it’d get them up and moving” (“TS-19” 22:43-45). He further explains that more advanced functions of the brain, such as the neocortex (which is situated in the cerebrum), do not come back and that just a shell would remain, “driven by mindless instinct” (“TS-19” 23:06-09). By Jenner’s words, the question of zombie agency or consciousness in TWD should already have been answered. According to this scene, zombies have no access to their higher brain functions anymore, they are, to paraphrase Jenner’s words, “a mindless shell”. This would correlate to my initial speculation in Chapter 3 that only a zombie’s lower brain functions are active. However, I argue that the series representation of zombies is not as clear as this episode wants the viewer to believe, as the following scenes will show.

The second scene that I will analyze shows so-called “bicycle girl”, a zombified woman whose demise and backstory was told in the webisode series “Torn Apart”, released for the promotion of season two. This zombie’s portrayal is especially relevant as it is the first zombie that Rick fully comes into contact with: After the protagonist awakes out of his coma, he only sees the hands of zombies, reaching through a locked door. When Rick first stumbles upon the zombie by “stealing” her bike, Rick is devastated. What is left of the zombie (her upper torso) lurches towards Rick and he quickly speeds away. However, he returns later and this is where the “biker zombie” shows interesting behavior. After noticing Rick, the zombie stops dragging her body along and turns her head around to face Rick. As Rick pulls out his gun on her, she follows his gun with her hand (see fig. 4). What is interesting here is that the zombie seems to appear signs of exhaustion: She only turns around to face Rick and hold up her arms, but does not drag her body towards him. This is surprising as she was still capable of more; her “tracks” left by her body being dragged across the grass are clearly visible. Also, the way the zombie holds up her hand, can be interpreted as a pleading gesture to end her life. Her behavior contradicts Dr. Jenner’s statements: If a zombie is a mindless shell, why should it stop lurching forward towards Rick, i.e. another food source? Why should it show any form of exhaustion? Here, the behavior of the zombie is not logical if the “zombie science” of Dr. Jenner as analyzed in the first scene is considered.

The third scene in this analysis also is from the first episode of TWD ’s first season. It takes place after the injured Rick had been found by Morgan and his son. After resting from both his gunshot wound and getting hit over the head with a shovel by Morgan’s son, Rick sits down with the Morgans. The scene begins when a car alarm goes off and Morgan spots his own wife amid the zombies. Suddenly, she walks into the direction of the Morgans’ home, walks up the stairs, attempts to communicate or listen (see fig. 5), reaches into her back pocket (fig. 6) and tries to open the door. At some point then she even appears to look Rick, who is looking through the door’s fish eye, into the eyes (fig. 7). I selected this scene as it is very much rich in hints that the zombies may be more conscious than what Dr. Jenner would describe later: Of all the doors that are in the neighborhood, Morgan’s (zombified) wife chose to go to their house. And not only that, she tried to open the door by turning the door knob. She only fails to do so, because the door was locked.

This scene is very significant: In the whole of season one, no other zombies were seen trying to open a door. Opening a door is also a more complex process than e.g. walking as you need to exercise fine motor control with your hands to successfully open it. So, Morgan’s zombified wife seems to display a level of agency that is inconsistent with the explanations of Dr. Jenner. If she was truly a “mindless shell”, why should she try to open the door? And how does a zombie even know that this object before him/her is a door and that you need to use your hand to open it? On the other hand, it could be argued that as she was only “turned” recently, that some personality still lingered inside of her. This, however, would contradict with the MRI images that were seen for Dr. Jenner’s wife (fig. 2). There, only the brain stem was active, so memories, which are contained in the cerebrum, could not possibly have been accessed. Like Jenner said, a person’s identity would be gone after zombification. Thus, there would be no reason for Morgan’s wife to specifically open the door. This scene supports the idea that – if not all – some zombies’ actions are still affected by their subconscious or memories of their human self.


[1] For reasons of text fluency, any further mentioning of The Walking Dead will be abbreviated to TWD.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Search for Zombie Consciousness and Agency in AMC’s "The Walking Dead"
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft: Anglistik)
Modulprüfung (Profilmodul 2 – British Studies)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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zombie, the walking dead, twd, consciousness, agency, neuroscience, neurobiology, brain, human
Quote paper
Gernot Meyer (Author), 2017, The Search for Zombie Consciousness and Agency in AMC’s "The Walking Dead", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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