I was talking to my college students a couple weeks ago about their favorite TV shows.
Turns out that most don’t actually watch TV but, among those who do, The Walking Dead emerged as a must-see show. And this from a couple of the brightest kids in the room.
Curious, I thought. What is there about the undead that young people today find so inviting and mesmerizing? Is it a leftover fascination spawned from reading Twilight books in middle school and high school? Is it a feeling that all zombies look like Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson? Is it disillusionment with the real world? Or is something else going on?
In the online world you can commune with lovers of the undead all you want. There are even index sites which take you to the Web’s best vampire sites. Of course some of these indices take you to only their affiliated sites, but that’s another matter. On one index I found, the site garnering the most votes seems to be from Transylvania (why not?), but there are plenty of ones in English. For example:
* Adrian’s Undead Diary
* Diary of a Runner
* Todd the Zombie
* Zombie Day
And the list goes on and on.
Here’s what Adrian’s Undead Diary says about itself:
“Welcome to Adrian’s Undead Diary. Adrian Ring is our intrepid hero here, having just barely survived a world consuming apocalypse of the undead. Adrian’s Diary chronicles his battles with the zombie hordes and his ongoing struggle with survival. Read and understand exactly how he completed his hero’s journey, avoiding starvation, zombies, injuries, fellow survivors, and sickness, as well as sharing in his humor and his horror.
“We are not only attempting to share some high quality zombie, undead and horror genre fiction, but also to build a friendly community of like minded folks!”
Next follows a standard online disclaimer that the site contains cussing and crude stories, always guaranteed to lure in the under-18 crowd who is “warned” stay away.
However batty it seems, zombies have made a pretty good comeback over the decades. Not surprising for the undead, though, right?
When I was a kid growing up in Midwest City, there was a late-night Saturday program called Shock Theater, and it often featured Bela Lugosi as Dracula, the best-known (before Pattinson and Stewart) zombie. Our neighborhood gang loved it, and we would hold “Shock Parties” in each other’s homes to watch the human bats suck the marrow from life. Not exactly what Robin Williams had in mind in The Dead Poet’s Society, but it worked for us.
A few years later came the classic zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, and the bats were on the wing again.
Then the bat caves turned silent for a long time, unless you count the Batman phenomenon but, again, that’s another story. A few years ago, however, the stirrings of the undead arose once again as the Twilight saga hit the big screens after a sizeable audience of teens had been primed for it through the series of book
TV finds the undead
And then AMC unleashed The Walking Dead and it found a huge audience. All of a sudden, parents were wondering what was happening to their kids and grandkids, forgetting (as grown-ups usually do) that they were fascinated by the same vampire genre when they were kids.
Actor Brad Pitt will bring even more attention to the zombie craze in the upcoming World War Z as he races to save the world from a zombie apocalypse.
Recently, Terry Mattingly who writes a religion column for Scripps-Howard News Service, took a look at the current zombie craze among young people. He quoted the editor of Good News, a Methodist magazine, as saying the following:
“It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you’re going to run into some kind of zombie comment,” said Steve Beard. “Someone will say something like, ‘When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we’re all at so-and-so’s house so we can stick together.’ It’s all a wink and a nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time.”
Beard believes that the fascination is not actually about zombies at all, however, but actually points to something deeper.
“Truth is, The Walking Dead is not about zombies,” he says. “It’s a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living. How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane in a world that has gone crazy?”
So, if I’m following this logic correctly, young people may be feeling that zombies have found a way to do what many in my generation did when they decided to turn out to LSD and drop out of the establishment for awhile. Joining hands with the undead may be a way to live in the world, yet not be a part of the world. It’s another attempt at human-made spiritualism, and its results will probably be as predictable as that which came from LSD.
Or, Beard’s framing aside, perhaps the zombie craze is just another way of featuring buckets of blood and violence on the screen without having to believe real people are being hurt in the process.
Or, back to my earlier speculation, there is something to be said for feeling as if you look like Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart …
Tossing technology into the mix, what makes the current fascination with the undead different from previous eras, is that now young people cannot only commune with other lovers of the undead, but they can do it in the unliving world of the Web. It’s another way of living with fantasy in a place of fantasy.
Good escapism maybe, but one wonders if that’s really what the world needs more of today.
Every semester I face this same problem.
I am a university professor of mass media, and the challenge I face is threefold:
- Should I focus on the new media delivery systems, or on the nature, purpose, and impact of the media on news and entertainment consumers?
- If I focus on the delivery systems, how can I be sure my 20-year-old students don’t already know more than I do about them?
- Is anyone really paying attention to the kind of content we are getting from the media these days and, if not, shouldn’t I focus on that?
The challenge of time
The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that I have less than 48 total contact hours with these kids over three months time. In that time I must try and detail the traditions of the news and entertainment media since Day 1 while also going over the sea changes occurring just over the past decade alone.
Can I have a lifeline?
Speaking in tongues
Oh yeah, and add this problem to the mix: Few people have the same idea of what the following terms even mean, at least operationally, today:
- New Media
- Media Convergence
We’re not talking textbook definitions here, although even those change from generation to generation. We are talking about the nature, purpose, and impact of these terms.
Remember the old song lyric, “You say tomato, I say tomahto.” Just substitute any of the above media terms and you get the Tower of Babel scenario existing on college campuses existing between student and prof in talking about the media.
A relic from the past
A couple years ago, for example, I was talking about newspapers in a media class, and I held up an ink-on-paper copy of the Los Angeles Times.
A hand shot up in the back of the class and a student, who acted like he’d never seen one of these artifacts before asked: “Where do you get one of those things?
I’ve become used to what others might perceive as a startling phenomenon, so I suggested simply that the student walk just outside our building and buy one from the newspaper rack. I have no idea what he thought that sidewalk structure was for, since he had undoubtedly passed it several times a day.
The first chapter in the media text I’m using is called, “Media Literacy,” and I’ve come to understand why the author put that topic front and center. It simply means becoming literate about the most powerful institution in our lives today.
Not only is it important, given the huge influence the media have on how we run our daily lives, but it is also something a lot of young people have not thought much about.
Adrift at sea
Here’s what author John Vivian says about this in his book, The Media of Mass Communication.:
“We swim in an ocean of mass communication, exposes 68.8 percent of our waking hours to media messages. So immersed are we in these messages that we often are unmindful of their existence, let alone their influences.”
I mean, they know how to use the technology better than most of us. But what that technology can do for — and to – them is another matter that often escapes their attention.
A loaded weapon
In another realm, one might ask what kind of society we would have if everyone understood how to shoot a gun but gave no thought to how one should behave with that gun.
That’s not such a far-fetched analogy. Just ask the families of those young people like Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi who committed suicide after a sensitive video of him was uploaded to the Web. Or ask the families of the 25 passengers killed on an L.A. commuter train in September, 2008. The driver of that train was texting when he crashed head-on into another one.
Thinking back to my opening dilemma, I recall a saying that suggests we should always play to our strengths. That makes sense to me.
I’ll assume the students know how to pull the trigger of their iPad.
As for me, I’ll focus on gun safety.
Like a lot of young university researchers, I once placed almost total confidence in numbers as the basis of knowledge.
If a research study were done properly, the variables were all brought under control, the observations all reduced to numbers and those digits were crunched properly, then the results formed a stronger basis for knowledge than anything else on the planet.
Those results were stronger than anecdotal evidence, stronger than what your mom or dad told you, stronger than common sense. In fact, a researcher once convinced me common sense didn’t even exist. I believed it until a good friend — herself a scientist — pointed out one day that everytime I came in from across a muddy yard, my shoes would leave tracks on the carpet. So take off your shoes.
That, she rightly noted, is common sense.
Since then, I’ve had new respect for that concept. I still place value in well-executed quantitative studies, but I also place a lot of value in common sense.
For example, media researchers will often tell you there is no body of research that proves violence on the Internet, television, video games, or in the movies leads to real-life violence. If young Edgar witnesses a spate of bodies dropping in prime time, it doesn’t follow that he is going to become the next Jeffrey Dahmer. But it is also true that the two young Colorado shooters who left 12 bodies in their bloody shooting rampage at Columbine High School were extremely heavy players of Internet games.
New York Daily News health advice columnist Dr. Dave Moore recently told a reader that the gaming habits of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were contributors to their bloody Columbine act, and explained why their favorite game of “Doom” was so dangerous. Doom was the hottest 3D action game of the time, launched in 1993 and named video game of the year in 1994 by PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World.
Video Game Addiction
Still, Dr. Moore told the advice-seeker, “You, and unfortunately parents, are clueless about what creates the video game addiction. What separates Doom from other video games and toys is one big point. They are deliberately programmed to make the player a ‘first person shooter’. You are not controlling a character, YOU ARE the character. Parents can see that transformation start in their video gaming kids – what addiction specialists call negative developmental changes.”
A quantitative researcher would say there were other variables involved with Klebold and Harris that would not be found in an across-the-board sample of teenagers. That’s true, but there are still a healthy number of kids out there with the unhealthy tendencies and vulnerability of these two, waiting to be triggered by mediated violence. Communication researchers have identified what they call an Aggression Stimulus Theory or Aggressive-cue Theory that shows the media violence can prepare someone — condition him or her — to act violently.
A Literal Defense
On the other side are defenders of the video game, Doom, now in its third iteration. This observation comes from a site called Old.doom.com: Choosing to take a more literal approach to the connection between the features of Doom and Columbine, the unnamed writer says:
“I personally believe that Doom had nothing to do with the Columbine High School attack. I seriously doubt that Kelly Fleming was running at the shooters hurling fireballs from her hand when she was shot or that Corey DePooter was chrarging them with a shotgun. In Doom, Hell Knights don’t comfort each other under the table crying. Humans have been killing each other since the beginning our of existence, before Doom was ever around. Harris and Klebold were going to shoot up their school no matter what.”
Good News, Bad News
Some parents might breathe a sign of relief to discover that heavy television viewing has decreased somewhat among teens, and that some video stores are having trouble keeping the doors open because of lower sales. The bad news, of course, is that young people are flocking to the Internet instead to get their kicks — literally when it comes to violent online video games. So the influence that may have helped propel Dylan and Eric is still there; it has just changed platforms.
Check These Out
If you want to attach some weight to statistics, try these from the Web site, Enough is Enough:
* American teens are more wired now than ever before. According to our latest survey, 93 percent of all Americans between 12 and 17 years old use the internet. In 2004, 87 percent were internet users, and in 2000, 73 percent of teens went online.
* 20 percent of teens have engaged in cyberbullying behaviors, including posting mean or hurtful information or embarrassing pictures, spreading rumors, publicizing private communications, sending anonymous e-mails or cyberpranking someone.
* 48 percent of K-1st reported viewing online content that made them feel uncomfortable, of which 72 percent reported the experience to a grownup, meaning that one in four children did not.
* 63 percent of teens said they know how to hide what they do online from their parents.
* 65 percent of high school students admit to unsafe, inappropriate, or illegal activities online
And the prevalence of Internet gaming?
* The most common recreational activities young people engage in on the computer are playing games and communicating through instant messaging.
Here’s what the site, Teen Violence Statistics says about internet violence, its methods and influence:
“While most people think of teen violence occurring at school or in the teens’ neighborhoods, some teen violence occurs or starts on the Internet. The Internet can both encourage and prevent teen violence, depending on who pays attention or speaks up.”
And the ways that can occur? The same Web site notes:
Teen Internet violence and cyberthreats can occur in many ways. A teen may use the internet to:
- Directly threaten to hurt someone
- Indirectly threaten someone, like saying, “You’d better watch out at school tomorrow”
- Manipulate someone by threatening to hurt their loved ones
- Write about hurting him or herself, wanting to end it all, or feeling that life isn’t worth living
- Read or publish hateful information about a certain person or group of people
- Talk about wanting to hurt or kill other people
- View or post threatening pictures, songs, videos, or other forms of media
- Play games that encourage violence. Studies have found connections between playing violent computer games and acting violently toward other people.
- Visit web sites about violence or self harm
- Engage in cyberbullying
The Best Math
As I think about it, probably the best means of gaining knowledge about issues like this is to combine statistics and common sense. When it comes to the dysfunctional aspects of Web addiction, that’s when the numbers really add up.