Zombies and suspense
by Rossend Sanchez-Baro — Universitat Pompeu Fabra
March 08, 2012 – 00:00
In the prologue to the comic series The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman warns the readers that what they are holding in their hands is a “great epic saga” which aims to tell the stories of how characters react when faced with extreme situations. With this initial premise in mind, Kirkman sets out a story based on the accumulation of plot twists, using surprise as a fundamental narrative strategy. On the other hand, the television adaptation of the comic book casts aside surprise as a strategy and chooses mainly to make use of suspense-based mechanisms. Here, we will look at three examples of events that happen both in the comic series and in the television version.
In the comic, when Rick is reunited with his wife, Lori, and his son, Carl, the revelation that they are still alive comes to the reader at the same time as it does to the character, without foreshadowing of any kind. By contrast, in the TV series, Lori and Carl are present in the very first episode, and, from then on, the story deliberately delays the reuniting of the family, causing the hopes and expectations of the audience to grow. A similar thing happens in the second season, when Carl is shot and his life is in danger. The series nurtures the suspense element on the question of whether the boy will live or die by spreading out his recovery over two episodes. In the comic book, by contrast, Carl recovers only a few pages after having been injured; there is no delaying mechanism for the reader. There is a similar situation with Lori’s pregnancy. In the comic, suddenly and without any prior clue, Lori says, “I’m pregnant”. In the television series, on the other hand, it is made clear that Lori is hiding information of some kind, before it is finally revealed that she is pregnant.
The television series does not reproduce the events in the comic word for word –the relationship between the two stories is only one of paratext. This means that the use of suspense skillfully serves to introduce doubt regarding which events will mirror those in the comic strip and which will differ from them. The delaying mechanisms produce uncertainty as to whether, in the universe of the series, Carl will live or Rick will be reunited with his family, even if the viewer already has prior knowledge of the story from the comic.