This article contains spoilers of the Season 7 premiere of AMC’s TV show The Walking Dead.

Trauma Porn is all around us. From the bowels of the Ellen and Oprah daytime couches to the new breed of true crime documentaries and gritty genre television, it seems almost impossible to avoid extended close-ups of people’s faces experiencing extreme grief, snot dribbling down their mouths and sobbing wildly. We invariably watch on, growing increasingly numb to their distress, simulated or otherwise. There is a tried and tested formula to create Trauma Pornography, and it goes as follows: set up a person’s backstory in a way that makes the viewer relate to their trials and tribulations — create the context for emotional attachment — and then destroy something the character holds dearly in a spectacular way, keeping the camera zoomed in on their emotional reaction. Boom. Trauma Porn.

“graphic depictions of violence and trauma can serve profoundly artistic functions”  

So is all filmed trauma ‘Trauma Porn’? No. Just as all visual representations of sex aren’t necessarily pornographic, so can the depiction of trauma be carried out in a way that’s deeply interwoven with larger narrative devices. A perfect example of this is Alain Guiraudie’s 2013 masterpiece Stanger by the Lake, which features an immense amount of sexually explicit scenes but would only be considered pornography by a dimwitted moral crusader. The film is set in the South of France on the shores of a (you guessed it) lake where men meet to fuck, and each sexual act serves to deepen its narrative, atmosphere and character development. Stranger by the Lake is proof that graphic depictions of sex can be art, just as movies like There Will Be Blood and The Act of Killing are proof that graphic depictions of violence and trauma can serve profoundly artistic functions in films both fictional and otherwise.

Stranger by the Lake (2013)

Stranger by the Lake (2013)

But what I just watched — the much-anticipated premiere of The Walking Dead’s seventh season — was not art. It felt more like the brutal dismantling of everything artistically meaningful about the show, and it was done in a way that left me feeling like I’d been manipulated by a hamfisted conman. Two characters (relative newbie Abraham and long-standing fixture Glenn) had their heads beaten in with baseball bats, the camera fixing their bulging eyes as they lost the ability to speak and were slowly reduced to what I can only describe as a puree of gore.

“I could feel my mind desperately recoiling from what I was being asked to experience”  

The camera then took its time focusing on the rest of the show’s cast as they writhed in emotional agony over the loss of (in the case of Abraham) their lover and (in the case of Glenn) the father of their future child. And that’s when the fucking pianos started. Slow, mournful notes that by all accounts seemed designed to make the moment even more emotionally impactful. As if we as an audience were supposed to forget that, mere seconds prior, the show’s creators had purposefully relished showing us these characters being beaten to death. Watching the scene, I could feel my mind desperately recoiling from what I was being asked to experience: perhaps this was a commentary on manipulative, cheap television? Nope. The Walking Dead is many things, but a subtle meta-critique is not one of them.

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The problem with the episode, primarily, is one of tone: by combining scenes that are gleefully ultra-violent with manipulative attempts at dramatic contextualization, the show becomes as sadistic as its own villainous character: taking creative pleasure in traumatizing, dehumanizing, torturing and killing characters while using schmaltzy piano to remind you just how serious the narrative is supposed to be. This isn’t some bootleg VHS of Cannibal Holocaust you watch with your friends as a teenager, giggling at the schlocky B-movie exaggeration of it all. Nor is it one of Tarantino’s ‘clever’ (but relatively shorter) torture scenes in Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. This is a show asking you to emotionally comprehend its creators working for six seasons to make you attached to a character — slowly crafting a situation in which it makes sense for Glenn to have a child with Maggie on the way — and then zooms in on his deformed face as it is slowly bashed in with a baseball bat. To salt the wound even further, Glenn blurts out “I’ll find you” to his wife mid-mangle, all of this beneath a non-stop deluge of idiotic mockery by the show’s latest badly-written villain.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

For those who have read the comic book, you might rightfully point out that AMC’s The Walking Dead is simply being faithful to its source material. To this I answer: the comic book has no music. It does not deal in temporality (and as such cannot force the viewer to linger on a frame). By nature of  being illustrated (and monochrome), the print version of The Walking Dead cannot traumatize in the same way a detailed, realistic depiction can. I would argue that the comic book, as an artform, is visually codified in a way that allows the human brain to process it differently. Therein lie the crucial differences, and therein lies my reason to say goodbye to The Walking Dead for good.

“At worst, The Walking Dead is guilty of skipping a few steps in our logical evolution”  

In a way, I’m grateful to be free of the show. Its magnificent 16mm grain and moments of brilliance aside, The Walking Dead suffered from aesthetic inconsistencies, patches of terrible writing, and a series of caricatural villains (remember The Governor?). But on a deeper level, I felt saddened by what I was watching. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I think the season premiere is a good representation of Where We Are as a culture. The Walking Dead is not, as it may have once been, the kind of niche entertainment that caters to fans of horror and gore alone. This season’s premiere garnered 17 million viewers. That’s 5% of the entire American population. In fact the show has consistently beaten records when it comes to viewership, especially with 18-49 year olds. The Walking Dead is as mainstream as cable television gets. That is a huge amount of people tuning in to watch — for fun — what any sensible person would be horrified to hear happened in a prison camp during a war. I think this speaks to a certain numbness in our general disposition. I know that a growing number of fans are ‘breaking up’ with the show over the episode and some media outlets are calling out the show on its level of violence, but let’s be honest — this is nothing new. We’ve been enjoying violence, torture, sadism — and their effect on the characters who experience them — as part of our entertainment diet for a long time. It would be disingenuous to say that the show’s creators are the only culprits here. At worst, The Walking Dead is guilty of skipping a few steps in our logical evolution.

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“We are revolted because in its indelicacy, the season premiere forced us to see ourselves as we truly are: pain addicts who feed on the trauma of others to get through the day”

So why are we like this? What draws us to Trauma Porn? If I were to theorize on the roots of its commercial success, I would venture to say that we have grown addicted to depictions of trauma because they serve a vital function: that of numbing our sensitivity to ‘real’ trauma. Watching other people’s trauma allows us to control when and where we experience the feeling — it provides a controlled environment in which trauma ‘doesn’t affect us’ — which then allows us to deaden the pain of (past, present and future) real-life trauma. As with any drug, the user must increase the dosage to maintain the same effect. The creators of The Walking Dead just cooked us too strong a batch, causing many to overdose on trauma instead of getting the usual numbing effect. We are revolted because in its indelicacy, the season premiere forced us to see ourselves as we truly are: pain addicts who feed on the trauma of others to get through the day. Like I said, this form of self-harming (much like drug addiction) is a way for us to take illusory control over when and where the world hurts us — which over the course of a human lifetime it most definitely will. In fact, I would argue that the so-called ‘first world’ is a traumatized culture increasingly consumed by manic flight — we run from the fact that our wealth is born of deep injustice, that we are devastating our planet through late-stage capitalism and industrialization, and that we live in constant fear of retribution in the form of terrorist attacks and class/race/gender warfare, real or imagined. Whether we are Negans, Glenns or a Maggies, rare are those who experience the current state of affairs without a feeling of impending dread. And that is why our favorite television shows grow increasingly gruesome, bleak, and traumatic. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eviscerate some white supremacists in the game I’m currently playing, Mafia III.

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