For the last several weeks, I have chosen to focus on scholarly articles that speak broadly to the term “digital storytelling.” This week I am trying something new on for size – examining the success behind some of pop culture’s cult zombie digital stories. Triumph of the Walking Dead edited by James Lowder is a compilation of professional reviews examining why zombie stories like “The Walking Dead” have risen to fame and stayed in the spotlight for so long. In order to pull off these reviews, the authors rely on comparing the show to movies like “Night of the Living Dead,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “Survival of the Dead,” and a plethora of others. The reviews held enlightening comparisons that showcased elements of good storytelling, but what I didn’t expect to find were the themes that have shown up over and over again in my DS106 assignments and previous articles prescribed by this course.
The first movies to portray zombies as the walking, flesh eating nightmares that we know today were created by George Romero in the late 60’s Before that time, zombies were nothing more than people enslaved by voodoo curses to do others’ bidding. Romero took a more docile version of the walking dead and made them into a terrifying phenomena that has set the standard for all other movies thereafter. As one author notes in the this book, “Zombies in the Romero style are precisely what Robert Kirkman delivered when he kicked off the comic book series…The first few issues tread other rather familiar patches of storytelling ground, too. The opening…has been criticized as being derivative of the film 28 Days Later…Both Kirkman and Boyle were tapping into a long tradition in postapocalyptic fiction of hospitalized [protagonists].” In these few sentences, the author is describing the use of inspiration and “remixing” for the sake of creating something new and exciting. In a previous blog post, I talk at length about how remixes – using another’s work to inspire your own; to turn it around to make something new yet reminiscent of another’s style – have been around for a long time and has led to successful digital story creations. Here in this review, we see the very evidence of a professional creator using inspiration to remix a new version of the zombie apocalypse and “move beyond [its] inspirations.” Previously, I noted that remixes are a great way for students to find more easy access into creating their own digital stories. However, its not just at the amateur level that success can be found in remixes, but we can even see here that at a professional level remixing can lead to success in digital story creation as well. After realizing this connection, I thought to myself, “what a cool thing to share with students when introducing them to digital storytelling,” and “what a great perspective to give students who find themselves struggling with remixes as ‘not quite their own,’ or ‘unoriginal.'”
Though remixing is a large theme throughout many of the reviews in this piece of literature, another theme also prevails in explaining the success behind “The Walking Dead” and its predecessors. One of Jason Ohler’s assessment traits for evaluating digital stories is a sense of audience. In other words, “how well does a story respect the needs of the audience?” In a world where audience exposure to death, gore, and other gruesome horrors has created a numbness to these visuals, viewers are in need of a different way to connect with digital stories meant to inspire fear. One author addresses this in his thoughts. “If you believe the characters in a story, you will believe most anything. It’s the key to making a good fantasy work. Make all the day-to-day details, the lives and interests of the characters, real, and we’ll accept those zombies…The Walking Dead is full of real characters. The good, the bad, the ugly, and mostly, the complex: that’s what keeps pulling us back. We want to see how things turn out for these folks.” Seeing professionals openly recognize the validity behind knowing a story’s audience was another cool eye-opener for me in revealing successful traits behind digital stories. But it’s not just the acknowledgement of this trait that makes it interesting, it’s the way that they help us understand how the story is connecting to the audience psychologically and physically. When the audience cares for the characters (for better or worse), the horror that gets bestowed upon them manifests actual physical symptoms in the viewer. “Audiences must deal with the unpleasant physical reactions themselves” which ties them closer to the story.
All in all this book provided some great insights into how the things I am learning about in abstract articles and assignments from this course really are the cornerstones in the professional world of digital storytelling. Sharing the ideas with students as isolated traits to incorporate into their own storytelling is powerful in helping them to realize what makes a strong story, but if we are to truly empower our students to make their own strong stories, sharing examples and understanding of these traits (such as those found in this reading) can be even more powerful in the long-run.