Yesterday, Fred Phelps passed away. In case you are not familiar with who this is, he was the founder of Westboro Baptist Church – a group that stands outside of funerals, schools and even Ground Zero after 9/11 to hold up hateful signs to mourners or passers-by stating that anything bad that happens to United States citizens is because we are a country that defends homosexuality.
What does this have to do with fan culture? Other than my part in participating in a counter protest against these interesting people at San Diego Comic Con, which you can view my short film of HERE, a quote from one of the Phelps clan triggered something in me. Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred’s daughter and one of his belligerent WBC members, stated to CNN that there would not be a funeral for her father because “we do not worship the dead.”
This quote got me thinking not only about the WBC’s irrational judgement of those who love pop culture, but of my passion for the show “The Walking Dead”. Is this a weird hobby? Are people justified in twisting their faces in disgust and asking how I can stand a show about zombies and dead people? I look to explore that here, but fair warning, there is a comic spoiler, a Season One spoiler, and a Season Two spoiler within my diatribe. Otherwise, unlike these characters I’m writing about, you’re safe.
I first came across “The Walking Dead” at San Diego Comic Con 2010. This was my bucket list item of an activity to do. While there, I came across marketing for this show. I thought to myself “damnit, my entirely internal idea I’ve never developed for a long-form TV show about zombies has been stolen!” But once I saw all the clips and visuals for it, I knew I wanted to try it on for size.
I finally watched the first episode. At this point, even though I’ve always loved zombie films, I was still a bit of a wimp for gore, but the problem was I’m also a very sympathetic person. Seeing the struggle protagonist Rick Grimes went through, being torn away from his family and have no idea what was going on, was emotionally brutal for me. He didn’t deserve it and I hated seeing people suffer. As well as the bit of Morgan’s wife being a walker, and that poor damn horse getting torn apart by a horde of zombies, I admit, I needed a few days to regroup but kept watching.
I even decided to do something I don’t ever usually do. I started to read the material the show was based off. And boy, after reading Compendium One (still waiting on all the volumes that come after Compendium Two from the library, so no spoilers, please), I flinched. There is definitely the whole back and forth between Michonne and the Governor in the comics, which brought up memories of an assault I went through when I was younger, that made me put down the comics for a few days. It was tough. I was angry and felt like it was a bit exploitive, even. I thought at one point I was going to stop watching the show when Dale was killed off, because the sorrow of his death was soul wrenching to me. But one of my friends told me to suck it up and keep watching, which I owe to her.
Even at this point, I was still a pretty casual “TWD” fan. The show definitely rocked me and I was reasonably excited about it every time there was a new episode on, but I didn’t really feel a connect to it. Then, at C2E2 in 2012, I scored an interview with Steve Yeun, who plays Glenn on the show. It was an amazing experience. I asked him about his favorite fan encounter, and he acted as if that was the best question he was ever asked. After I was done filming our interview, I revealed to him I had tried to get a ticket to a signing he and co-actor Lauren Cohan would be at with no luck. He lit up even more, and I suppose I should have revealed before the interview I was a “TWD” fan because he was then so animated, was happy to sign something for me and take a photo, and genuinely thanked me for watching the show.
It was then I fell in love with the show. I got lost in the sorrow and gore of the show and forgot that it’s really about the people, and the show’s plot was so involved that I forgot for a moment these were actors portraying a non-reality. I re-watched everything and was sure that as much as the characters were awesome, I was sure the rest of the cast would be great people to their fans. I was right.
I have met many actors from the show – Steve, Laurie Holden (Andrea), Norman Reedus (Daryl), Michael Rooker (Merle), Irone Singleton (TDog), Lew Temple (Axel), Scott Wilson (Herschel), and I came within 10 feet of Andrew Lincoln (Rick) when he was signing fan items after the “TWD” NYCC 2012 panel ended. Though I didn’t meet him, I noticed the glee on his face and Norman’s as they literally had to be pulled off stage to make room for the next panel because they visually drank in their fans holding out items and Sharpies. Being a big fan of the show even inspired me to join the YMCA, get into shape and take part in the Run For Your Lives marathon/obstacle course. It was hell and I’ll never do it again, but I am proud I did it and it definitely fulfilled the advertised purpose of scaring the crap out of me.
I look forward to being able to attend future conventions where the actors will be to meet them, but the experiences with the ones I’ve met already were amazing. Being hugged so properly by Irone that I was physically picked up, making for an adorable photo op. Laurie holding my hand while I got choked up, since she’s been in a lot of films alongside her “TWD” gig that it causes me to have a surreal moment. Norman meeting with fans in the freezing cold before a speaking engagement after we had been waiting there for hours, even though I will without ego point out that I was there first. So many cool moments, but those stick out to me, especially since I got to share a lot of those moments with friends, which is the most important thing.
The biggest part of “TWD” that means so much to me is that through all the horror of the show and the scripted sorrow that people complain so much about, even though they keep coming back week after week, is the lesson it teaches overall. The backs of the “TWD” graphic novels always state the same diatribe, pointing out how the modern world is no more and these people are fighting to survive. When the world, as it was, ends, you become grateful for the basics. You are grateful for a safe place to lay your head at night. For food and water. For your loved ones living another day. And if you’re Merle, for booze and rock & roll cassettes.
The most meaningful thing I took away from “TWD” goes back to when I first saw anything about this show and the comics, at San Diego Comic Con 2010. This was also the year I met my best friend. Both he, and “TWD”, had to go through a mental battle with me before I could accept that I loved either of them. Now, I have a loving, healthy relationship with someone just as geeky as me. We nicknamed each other Glenn and Maggie, after the two lovebirds from both “TWD” universes, and I drive a car I named Merle with two “TWD” decals emblazoned on it.
So when people ask, “Why do you love a show about zombies?” My short answer that I give to them with a smile is, “It really isn’t.”