An exploration of the possible causes of the events of The Walking Dead, with a final answer that you probably aren’t going to like.
Of all the mysteries surrounding The Walking Dead, none is more enigmatic or divisive than the question of what caused the dead to walk in the first place. While fan theories abound, creator Robert Kirkman has been elusive regarding this detail, except to say what the answer is not; so lets start there.
It Was All Just A Dream
This fan theory suggests that Rick Grimes never woke up from his coma, and that the events taking place are all just a long dream. The most obvious flaw with this hypothesis is that the show follows many different character arcs and perspectives, unlike dreams which take place in the first person and center around a single dreamer. This idea is further rebutted by the spin offs, which have nothing to do with Rick Grimes. But just in case you don’t believe me, here is what Kirkman himself had to say:
The most prevalent theories of genesis, both from the characters in the TWD universe and from the fans watching, is that it is some kind of disease or virus or other natural phenomena. While it is the most rational explanation, in the sense that is the most realistic according to ‘the real world’, it is also the one which has the most evidence against it. Taking what we know about the events of the TWD universe, and about natural sciences, it is almost impossible that the dead began walking as a result of biology.
The most overwhelming clue here is the specific method by which the ‘sickness’ is passed on to the living – bites and scratches. By what biological mechanism would only these two actions lead to ‘infection’? Teeth and fingernails do not excrete, and even if they did, it is unlikely that they would excrete the exact same chemicals. There is no common ground between being scratched and bitten, and there is no known biological phenomena which could possibly tie the two together.
Most diseases, viruses, etc. are passed along via bodily fluids, airborne pathogens or some other kind of biological contact. The most virulent method is blood contamination. In TWD we see characters constantly covered in ‘infected’ blood. Yet even when they have open wounds, they never get infected. Even when sweating in the Georgia heat and humidity, faces smeared with walker fluids, which would definitely lead to getting that stuff in your mouth in the real world, blood or bodily fluid contact never causes someone to turn. There is not a single physician alive who could vouch for this kind of biological miracle.
There are other factors, as well. Diseases, virus, bacteria and other types of infection generally do not act the same in every person they encounter. Our unique individual biological makeup means that there are always a few anomalies who respond radically different, such as immunity, being asymptomatic or just having entirely different symptoms altogether. We see no major examples of this in TWD. Whatever is causing it is universal in effect, which is entirely unlike how these things work in biology.
Finally, pathogens have a tendency to mutate over time. The more active they are, the faster the rate of mutation. After a decade in the TWD universe, there has not been a single change in the effects caused by whatever is happening. By biological standards, this is a damn near impossibility.
There are many other reasons that we must discount a natural cause, unless we are to ignore a few hundred years of biological science and the facts presented by the TWD creators. As you shall see going forward, the inability of nature to explain what is going on will also eliminate a few other possibilities.
Alternate Reality/Other Dimension
Hey, just because the disease model of our reality/dimension doesn’t fit, doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in a slightly different one, right?
While it is possible that an alternative biology could explain what is happening, there is just no evidence to suggest this is what is going on. All of the science and biology we encounter in TWD, except the dead walking, is completely consistent with ours. It would require an entirely altered set of biological facts, which would necessarily create a world different from our own. Yet in almost every way, the TWD universe is exactly like ours.
The multiple dimension hypothesis suggests that many worlds could be almost exactly alike, with only minor differences. For instance, two universes may differ only in that a single person eats a different lunch one day. However if a universe contains any appreciable difference, like the entirety of biology, it would appear almost entirely dissimilar to our own. The universe of TWD is exactly like ours in some incredibly specific ways which would be nearly improbable given a massive difference like how life functions, but for me, this one takes the cake.
During the show, Beth is heard singing songs by Tom Waits on a few different occasions. Waits is not exactly The Beatles, which is to say, he is not such a strong thread of this reality’s fabric that we would expect to find him and his music across a wide strata of the multiverse. Certainly not writing the exact same melodies and lyrics and combining them into the same songs. No alternate reality with an exact copy of Tom Waits and his music would be likely to exist alongside such a fundamental difference as a radically foreign biology. That is just too far a stretch, no matter how strangely specific bringing Tom Waits into it is. And other pop culture artifacts in the TWD universe help make a stronger case for this argument.
It could be possible that, if our reality is merely a simulation, that natural laws are just algorithms assigned by the programmer; and as such, can be reprogrammed at any given time to allow for any variable of parameters. Theoretically, TWD could take place in a simulation which has had the rules changed by the programmer. That would be consistent with simulation theory. However, the validity of that theory is already problematic enough, without considering the consequences of applying it to TWD.
Could an all-powerful programmer have created our species, only to ultimately destroy it in a horrifying playground of sado-masochism? Could a being with such infinite knowledge and power really be that cruel? A cosmic child who creates butterflies only to pull their wings off and watch them eat each other in a jar? Plausible, but unlikely. Unless, I guess, you worship the God of Abraham and are already used to accepting that kind of massive inconsistency and insanity as sacred truth. I call this maligned, moronic belief – Psychopathic Omnipotence.
Nanotech Gone Awry
It is certainly possible, in theory, that a specifically programmed nanobot could create the very specific mechanisms of the TWD scenario. It could explain the biting and scratching, if these were how the nanotech was programmed to act within the human body. Since we are dealing with an immature technology with unlimited potential for advancement, we cannot discount this possibility. However we still need a good reason why the programmer, whether human, Artificial Intelligence or something else, would write so a strangely specific and horrific set of coded instructions. Once again we are facing the possibility of psychopathic omnipotence, which is ultimately irrational and beyond verification.
It might be possible that the nanotech itself experiences programming errors or rewrites itself with a skewed sense of purpose, but in that case, we would almost certainly have seen mutations, as were discussed earlier. Most likely such a technological backfire would lead to what is called ‘grey goo‘ – a singular organic biomass containing no diversity, so that it can function with optimal efficiency. For a nanotech disaster to play out with such irrationally specific consequences does not really fit with any working theories of technology.
It could be plausible for a parasite, especially if alien and super-intelligent, to cause such a specific method of transmission. Especially if it were a two-stage life form, one which infects the living, and one which is transmitted by the dead, working together in symbiotic fashion. However, if imbued with such intelligence, we must once again question the motives of the agent(s) responsible.
Skipping past psychopathic omnipotence once again, there would seem to be little reason for a parasite to act in this manner. It would not be a very effective method of consuming us as food, and it would be strange that it would only feed on humans and not the other animals we regularly see, or the other organic matter on the planet like plants, mold, fungus, etc. It would be far easier to either kill everything at once and then consume it, or to keep it fresh as long as possible for later consumption, neither of which are what is happening in TWD. The living humans mostly died quickly, so there goes preserving fresh food. And why kill what you cannot eat, and even if so, what would be the benefit in having it walk around rotting further? Unless walking dead humans are some kind of alien parasite delicacy, this seems like a pretty unsatisfactory explanation.
Is it possible that there are really not even any zombies, and TWD is just a case of entering the delusional perspective of otherwise regular humans who are killing each other under pretexts that are merely a tightly shared hallucination? Unlikely. This would entail shared-but-different sets of hallucinations. For instance, how would a group of humans experience another group of humans as zombies, and vice versa? How would the group biting and scratching, instead of using guns and knives, believe that the other people were the walkers?
The required complexity for a mass hallucinations of this magnitude defies all psychological knowledge. And in fact, as I will illustrate later, the concept of mass hallucination might itself be completely flawed if the world is one of experiences rather than things.
Aliens, Molemen and Bigfoots…oh my! We are not going to spend very much time here, since most of the criticisms of this mechanism have already been discussed earlier. Impossible biology. Psychopathic omnipotence. Lack of any evidence of paranormal entities. Despite the exciting plot possibilities, there is just not much of a case to be made here.
I will say it one more time, then I will shut up. Psychopathic omnipotence is just too irrational to consider as realistic in the larger sense. A supernatural cause requires an all powerful agent to initiate the process. Did some insane toddler God do this? That is acceptable only if you can swallow all reason and accept an insane toddler God. I cannot.
While TWD flirts with many religious explanations, especially in the spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, it is generally suggested that those people are just batcrap crazy. Since the writers of the TWD portray those kinds of explanations as absurd, and make those within the universe who believe that appear mentally unstable or dimwitted, I doubt that Pissed-Off-Deity-Did-It is the intended solution here.
Of course there are other supernatural causes to consider, such as magic and witchcraft. Or demons. But those ideologies all entail the assistance of some higher power, which leads us right back to the insane toddler God. What kind of almighty would allow, ordain or empower such black magic?
However, since the supernatural really need not conform to reason or logic, a supernatural cause is a very strong possibility. As much as I dislike it, this very bad explanation actually works in the sense that TWD is ultimately fiction, which is no stranger to Mad Gods and Cosmic Psychos.
If it is someday revealed that TWD was really just a theistic morality tale all along, the legacy of the franchise would be reduced to a cult audience comprised of the kind of creeps who enjoy the Left Behind universe un-ironically. I doubt very much that the TWD franchise would ever be willing to destroy itself with that kind of uncanny affiliation.
Since Buddhists, Phenomenologists, Neo-Platonists and long-dead German Idealist philosophers are unlikely to write TWD fan theories, this is one you will probably not hear anywhere else.
Modern belief systems hold that the universe is primarily a physical thing, and that the consciousness which perceives it is a product of physical functions. Essentially, a direct cause and effect universe. However, like myself, many people past and present have found this notion to be naive and embarrassingly literalist in its interpretation. In fact, the most recent quantum physics experiments are poking wider holes in that worldview more and more often.
The alternative is that consciousness is the primary essence of existence, and that objects of experience exist only as ideals that we share to varying degrees – universal, group (‘mass hallucinations’) and individual. I refer to this as INTERSUBJECTIVITY – All experiences are products of our combined earlier experiences, and the beliefs and expectations they entail. Tricky stuff, I know.
To put it simply, the dead began to walk because humans overwhelmingly came to believe in the possibility of that happening.
This would be a perfectly good explanation if not for one major issue: the people in TWD never appear to have ever even heard of zombies prior to the events which unfolded. The prophecy of the walking dead could not be fulfilled due to the simple fact that the prophecy itself never existed.
However, if the dead ever start to walk ‘in real life’, this would be the most sound explanation for it happening.
Okay, Here It Is, But You Are Not Going to Like It One Bit
Having explored every explanation I can think of, and finding them all insufficient or unsatisfactory, the only conclusion left to me is that there is no viable solution. The only question then is, was this the intention, or just a consequence of the various writers in multiple mediums having backed themselves into a corner with inconsistent writing?
I am inclined to believe it is the latter. When Kirkman created the comic book, he simply borrowed tropes from pre-existing zombie mythology and pop culture. Perhaps he did not consider how it would affect any solutions he later tried to offer. Or perhaps he always had something in mind that would be consistent with the facts he laid out, but his plan was curtailed with new facts created by different writers and plot managers. A simple thread weaved by too many other hands-with-a-mind-of-their-own into a complex web that is now impossible to untangle.
Or perhaps it was Kirkman’s intention all along to defy a solution to his TWD universe. Maybe he never wanted us to take it too literally, and hoped to create a world of allegory and metaphor which the viewer could use as a cipher to tackle ethical, moral, social and philosophical issues. Since media legends like Orson Welles, Gene Roddenberry, David Lynch and many others have used their cinematic art to make statements or pose questions in works that transcend realist interpretation, maybe this is what Kirkman is doing. If it is, it is also unlikely that he will ever reveal this, at least as long as the franchise is active.
While that answer – there is no answer – is hard for most modernist thinkers to swallow, it is also the only one that really makes any sense. However it opens up a whole litany of more interesting questions, starting with: What can we learn from TWD universe?
To my mind there is one answer to that question which overshadows all others, which is: SURVIVAL ISN’T EVERYTHING.