Fans of 'The Walking Dead' are sad, and science explains why
It's not unusual for people to feel a sense of loss when fictional characters die.
Caution: Spoilers ahead.
Let's be honest. It's not strange for people to die on a show about zombies. But it seems "The Walking Dead," one of the most popular shows on television, went a step too far on Sunday night. In the Season 7 opener, two fan favorites who had been on the series for years were killed.
The conversation on social media on Monday was ceaseless. Devoted fans were up in arms. Some vowed to stop watching the show. A search for "Walking Dead Glenn Dies" yields a remarkable 1 million results.
For many fans of TV shows, seeing their favorite fictional characters walk off into the sunset can be just as hard as saying goodbye to a real-life friend. Spend enough time with a character from "The Americans" or "The Big Bang Theory" in your living room, and when they leave it can actually cause you to feel sad. That is the finding of research by Professor Jonathan Cohen of the University of Haifa in Israel, who studies our friendships with TV characters. Yes, that's an actual field of research.
Our connections with any fictional character – from Harry Potter to Tony Soprano – are called "para-social" relationships. "We tend to develop relationships with these characters, and they develop more over time," Cohen told From The Grapevine.
"We tend to develop them for the same reasons we develop regular relationships – the human capacity to connect. When you spend time with people, hear their stories, you develop a relationship with them. That's what happens with characters as well."
Cohen, who recently published a study on why we enjoy watching reality TV, also pointed out that para-social relationships can exist with nonfictional people as well. He cites Michael Jackson's death, and the overwhelming outpouring of grief by his fans, as an example of people feeling emotional for someone they never actually knew in person.
While characters die on many episodes of "The Walking Dead," the two who perished on Sunday – including one who has been on the show since it launched six seasons ago – were difficult for many fans to accept.
Greg Nicotero, the episode's director, was asked about the fan backlash on a Monday morning conference call with reporters. "If we killed someone and they didn’t care, then that means we haven’t done something to connect people to the characters," he said. “I would say that that means we have done something to affect these people in a way that they don’t necessarily know how to process."
He compared his show to that of another popular series. "I’m a big 'Game of Thrones' fan and I’ve been shocked at the turn of events on that show, but I still love it and I still am committed to seeing where the story goes. I think it’s’ a knee-jerk reaction people have because they care about these characters."
For his part, Nicotero take a more holisitic approach. "Glenn is not dead; Abraham is not dead," he said. "Their spirit lives on and the fact that you have Maggie pregnant with his baby, and you have Sasha and Rosita carrying the memory of Abraham. There's more story to tell with the result of what happened with those people, so I certainly look at it a little differently."
As for Cohen, the TV researcher from Israel, he explained that our relationships with fictional characters are weaker than those we have with our real-life friends. So getting over their loss should be easier. "The most important thing to remember," he told us, "is that para-social relationships are not a compensation mechanism for lack of other relationships. People who have good, strong relationships also have many para-social relationships."
And if you do decide to give up on "The Walking Dead," there's always zombie movies to watch instead.
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