That Walking Dead Feeling: On Nightmares, Conspiracy Theories, Empathy, and Art That Makes Us Care

I’ve been having nightmares.

Now, normally when I have nightmares I love it. Normally my nightmares are these awesome creepy stories playing out in my head, and I wake up and I write them down and I think, “Come on, brain! Why can’t you come up with stuff that terrifying and amazing when you’re awake!?” They scare me while I’m in them, but don’t bother me afterward. They’re figments… phantoms. But these new ones are nothing like that. They’re disturbing and frightening and sad, and all those emotions carry over into waking.

All of this began happening Sunday night, October 25th. I know because that’s the night I watched the Walking Dead episode “Thank You” with about half the rest of the U.S. population. [Be warned, this entire post is major SPOILERY SPOILERIFIC SPOILERS, so if you’re one of the few people left in the world who don’t know what happened and wish it to remain so, don’t read on]. Of course this is the episode that will live in infamy forever among the fans as the episode where we watched Glenn Rhee die.

(Except, did we? Not exactly. More on that later.)

I watched the episode at a friend’s house, and lingered afterwards for the Talking Dead therapy session we all so badly needed. Of course, Talking Dead, with its cryptic quote about Glenn’s future and its “Please don’t let it be true…” words-only screen on the In Memoriam segment and guest Damon Lindelof talking about how the Alexandrian guy’s letter to his wife was the red herring distraction to keep us from realizing what was coming… it didn’t help. It kind of made it worse.

I went to bed that night but couldn’t sleep. I was substitute teaching the next morning and really needed the shut-eye. But as much as I tried to take my mind off the show, it was still there. So I tried the pep talk: It’s a fictional television program. It’s not real. You’ve seen equally gruesome deaths on that show and it hasn’t bothered you like this. Yes, Glenn was your favorite character, but so what? Good people die in both life and fiction ALL THE TIME. It sucks but you get over it. Just calm down and sleep.

I tried. I really did. But I got about three hours, tops.

I taught all day Monday. I had no internet access in the classroom (subs don’t get the password), and I don’t have it in my phone or at home, so I was cut off from all pop culture discussion. This was probably for the best. Still, random things throughout the day would remind me of what I’d watched the night before.

I got to sleep that night but woke feeling uneasy and exhausted. I had dreamed, but could not remember what, just this overwhelming feeling that something was terribly, horribly wrong.

Seriously, brain. Stop it. This is beyond ridiculous. Now it’s just annoying.

Tuesday at work I spent an improbably long time “checking my email” in the back, really scouring the internet for any articles about what had happened on the show. And there were tons of them. You’ve probably seen them too. People angry at the show for killing him. People sad it went down the way it did. People comparing his death on the show to the character’s death in the comics. But most of all, people convinced he wasn’t really dead, that there were ways the character could have gotten out of it somehow…

I feel stupid now, but the thought hadn’t occurred to me.

Look at where we left him. Knocked to the ground after Nicholas shoots himself, surrounded by a ravenous hoard of walkers… and those were his guts they were pulling out, right…? Except, as the articles all reminded me, Nicholas fell on top of him.

…Oh.

So he has a very slim chance. Because then there’s the dumpster that’s taken over so many memes now. The theory about a sewer entrance underneath. Or this one:

Or the thought that maybe it was all Nicholas’s hallucination, since didn’t he run out of bullets? How would he have had one left to shoot himself? (I quickly dismissed this one because so far this show has avoided such narrative trickery. The audience is always presented with the truth even if characters misinterpret what they see. Plus they showed Nicholas on the In Memoriam clip. I don’t think they would have done that or let the actor talk to journalists if he wasn’t definitively dead.)

Okay, so the fact that this character might be alive should have made it better, right? Wrong. Again, it only made it worse.

As this meme so accurately explains it…

I would really rather it be the first one, of course. Not just because I like the character and want to see more of him on the show, but because otherwise the writers and showrunners have crossed a line creatively speaking. It seems pretty cruel to your audience (not to mention anti-climactic) to create and cultivate this cloud of ambiguity around the fate of this character if there’s not a better payoff for the story somewhere along the line.

(And you know they are actively doing this. Taking Steven Yeun’s name off the credits? Him going out the next day to get a haircut, as if anticipating a repeat of the Jon Snow conspiracy theories? Radio silence when it comes to interviews, or even tweets? They’re loving every moment of this.)

Maybe that’s what bothers me most of all. All these other characters, heroes and villains, got their deaths spelled out clearly, got their moment of glory if you will. Shouldn’t this guy who’s been with us since the first episode (well, his voice at least) get a better end? If he dies, they should have let us stay with him a little longer, not cut away for 12 more minutes of Things Happening Elsewhere with Rick and the RV. That kind of writing works as a cliffhanger, but not so much for a dramatic death scene.

So you say he’ll be back somehow? Well, seeing Glenn as a walker weeks later, or having him show up in a flashback isn’t going to have the same effect. If he’s alive, then yes, they tricked us. (They didn’t lie to us. The editing of that scene, what they chose to show and not show — it’s not their fault if we’ve misinterpreted based on not having all the facts.) But if he’s dead then they outright betrayed us, showing such little regard for a brave, kind, loyal — and, yes, fictional — man, and with some really poor writing no less.

So as I type this it’s eleven days after “Thank You” originally aired. There have been nightmares many of those nights. Not the fun type I talked about before, but the really unsettling and troublesome ones. I’ve got bags under my eyes. It sucks. And of course Sunday we all thought was going to spell out all the answers, and instead we got an episode dedicated to Morgan. It was a really beautiful and well-crafted episode, and once I got over my initial Hulk-rage I really enjoyed it. (Though a tiny part of me did kind of agree with this…)

It also restored my faith in the storytellers of this show, because it was a very wise move to pull back and give us space. Thematically as well as emotionally, it made sense. It answered questions we’ve had for a while about Morgan and the journey he went through to get where he is now, plus the understanding of who he’s talking to in the episode is going to be significant in the plot ahead, you just know it. Seeing them make these very astute decisions reminded me of what I’ve loved about the show so far and gave me hope that, dead or alive, they will somehow bring Glenn’s story to a satisfying conclusion.

Of course, I’m really rooting for this one…

I still don’t understand the nightmares. I’ve obsessed over this show some in the past, but nowhere near as much as I did with Harry Potter in between books back in day. Why is it affecting me this way? It bothers me that it bothers me that much.

(The last time I couldn’t sleep because of a TV show was when I was eight and I saw an episode of Touched by an Angel where a man was possessed by the devil, and the way they made his eyes look was identical to the wide staring eyes painted on a cloth doll that hung on my window. I was convinced the devil was in the room with me, watching me in my bed. But I even managed to get over that in one night.)

I feel guilty, because real losses, real deaths of loved ones haven’t haunted me like this. Yes, I’ve read all the articles about how feeling strong emotions for fictional characters shows high levels of empathy, but there is a line between empathy and delusion and I hope I haven’t crossed it somehow.

I recently finished reading M Train by Patti Smith, and was surprised to find that she has a chapter in the book that deals with this subject.

A really good book. You should totally read it.

Smith loved the show The Killing, and on discovering it had been canceled, she wrote this of her favorite character Linden…

“But I am not ready to let her go and I do not want to move on.

What do we do with those that can be accessed and dismissed by a channel changer, that we love no less than a nineteenth-century poet or an admired stranger or a character from the pen of Emily Brontë?

What do we do when one of them commingles with our own sense of self, only to be transferred into a finite space within an on-demand portal?”

Yes. What do we do, indeed?

It’s a testament to everyone involved with The Walking Dead that they’ve made something we care about so deeply. Something that entertains us, makes us think, makes us a little crazy. Something that reminds us of our humanity… and occasionally haunts our sleep.

So maybe writing this post will have helped me. Putting the emotions, the fears, the conspiracy theories all on the page. Talking it out.

Or maybe it’s unavoidable. Maybe it’s just…

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.