The Walking Dead series is based on the comic book series that came before it. It is produced by AMC TV and is probably the one of the most popular series of its genre, zombie fiction. Thousands are enamored with the show. It has thousands checking in to watch and can be compared to the thrilling experience of those who play at a jackpot casino. Missing an episode is unheard of.
The series is set in a time when government institutions, both state and local, have more or less collapsed but it is important to keep in mind that when government is once again up and running, those remaining alive will be held accountable for their actions during the zombie Armageddon.
The statue of limitations does not apply to murder and there have been historical events when those involved in situations like shipwrecks have had to face the consequences of their actions.
In the case of survivors in this case
In The Walking Dead it is the walkers themselves who are responsible for most of the deaths so should they, and could they be held accountable? The initial question is “Are walkers legally dead or legally alive?” This may not be as simple as you would suppose, because the zombie disaster in The Walking Dead is somewhat different from the zombie disasters in other stories.
In The Walking Dead the virus remains inactive until the time of death and means that every person has the potential to transform into a walker.
In the first season, it was explained by Dr Jenner, that at the time of death, the infection ignites some form of brain activity in the human and this creates a walker. The human bits of the brain continue to be inactive while the brainstem becomes functional. In actual fact, activation of the brainstem is not really enough to enable movement or other actions which need other conditions to be working like circulation, respiration and energy metabolism.
From a legal and medical position, it is important to know that with only the brainstem working, a walker’s brain is still functional. In most states, and according to the “Uniform Determination of Death Act”, death is considered complete when “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions” has occurred or when “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” has occurred.
Walkers would be categorized as alive if it were not for the fact that their heart and lungs no longer function. However, because they are deemed legally dead, it is not possible to legally hold them accountable for the devastation they have caused.
Mercy killings and legality
So, what about the human survivors? In the show the humans perpetrate all kinds of violence on their brethren, now and again with good intent. Notwithstanding the very bad situation these survivors were in and had experienced, would it pass legal muster?
Where does mercy killings fit into the paradigm? It could be argued that mercy killings are understandable. With the knowledge that someone is going to die, the person decides to kill them first, perhaps even with their agreement, and in such a way that they cannot then re-emerge as a walker.
An example of this was in season 3. Lori needed a c-section which would lead to death because of blood loss. Her son decided to kill her so that she could not come back as a walker. It is not difficult to sympathize and understand the choice he was facing but is what he did considered legal?
The series, The Walking Dead, is set in Georgia. In Georgia, self- defense means the danger to life must be imminent. If the threat is not immediate, then it is not considered a defense to murdering someone. So according to this perspective, Lori’s son should not have killed her, but left her to die even though she would return later as a walker.
However, because of the fluidity of Georgia’s “abuse of a corpse statue” it is likely that he would be able prevent her from returning as a walker.
What about the issue of assisted suicide?
Can you help someone who is dying to commit suicide? We saw an example of this in season three, when Andrea is bitten and wants to end her life. We see Rick Grimes hand her his gun and then he leaves the room. Even though the suggestion was not his, and he didn’t actually fire the gun, is this considered legal? In all US states assisting someone to commit suicide is in fact illegal. Therefore, supplying someone with the means to carry out this act, i.e., the gun, is considered a crime.
It is worth pointing out that a doctor is able to assist someone with suicide in only three states in the US. However, there are a lot of requirements that need to be fulfilled in order for this to take place. These include getting a second opinion, a reasonable waiting period and the use of medication to perform the act. Using a gun is not an accepted method of achieving death.
What about receiving emergency medical treatment, an example of which we saw in Season 3. Can you act without consent? Rick Grimes removed the leg of Hershel Greene after he was bitten on the leg, knowing that it would become hopelessly infected. He did this without Hershel’s consent. Usually, it is possible to infer that consent would be given if not carrying out the action would make the situation much worse.
Behavior and moral reasoning
From a psychological perspective how can we understand the behavior of survivors. The Show makes us examine the behavior of humans in extreme situations. In highly stressful circumstances humans will do things they would never have believed possible in order to live. In The Walking Dead all the characters are fighting for survival and are trying to satisfy very basic needs. But we do see the Governor behaving one way and, say, Rick Grimes behaving differently.
One explanation for the different behavior is put forward by psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. According to Kohlberg there are 6 stages in the process of the development of moral reasoning, from total self interest to social justice.
Before the Armageddon Rick was behaving according to the higher stages of this process, principles of right and wrong. After the disaster, and the new world in which he found himself, was forced to behave differently. However, the Governor is a psychopath. His behavior is not explained just by being at an earlier stage of development.
The Governor is a pathological liar, manipulative, shows no signs of caring or empathy. The Governor has lost his wife and daughter and trauma like this can affect people dramatically. However, it is argued that this would not turn him into a bad guy.
In the show, everyone has experienced trauma. In real life a person’s resiliency to trauma will determine how well they cope. Resiliency is impacted by many factors. Individual ones like IQ, emotional awareness, sense of humor, and connections to supportive social community. The benefits for the individual of being part of a high- level social group is shown during the apocalypse.
Why would people follow a psychopath?
There is a phenomenon called, group polarization. This refers to a situation where individuals in groups come to form extreme ideas that out of the group situation they would never come to hold. If the leader of the group was someone like the Governor, would people follow his decisions?
The answer is unfortunately, probably. There have been a number of studies carried out in this area. Stanley Milgram’s study showed how willing people are to carry out the orders of a figure considered to be the authority. Therefore, the willingness of people to follow the instructions of the Governor doesn’t seem too far- fetched.
People are captivated with this show, perhaps because of the dramatic situations these humans find themselves in. The survivors of the apocalypse try to hold onto the social norms they held before. This knowledge of how people should behave leads us to an understanding of the behavior of many of the people after the disaster. Nevertheless, even taking into account the effort made to maintain order, many of their actions would be deemed questionable according to the law as we know it.