Ever since the title of the prequel-spinoff of The Walking Dead was announced, the reaction to it has been pretty universal. It’s too long and unwieldy. Who the hell is gonna say all that? It’s dumb, why did they call it that? And trust me, I was right there with all the title naysayers until tonight. After watching the third episode, “Dog,” I turned to my husband and said “This show is scarier than the other one.” It began to dawn on me why the clunky title is so apt and why the show couldn’t be called anything else.
On The Walking Dead, the fear comes from the people, the ones who have survived by whatever means necessary. The zombies are all but (incredibly dangerous) window dressing, not the driving force on the show. They scare us, but they don’t make it scary. The show is character-driven, it is a human drama, not a supernatural one. We know the rules of this world, we know what happens and what to do when it does. The stakes come from the conflicts between characters and the choices they make and have to live with.
Fear the Walking Dead is much scarier and so are its zombies. On the spinoff, we may know the rules, but the characters don’t. We know what’s going to happen eventually (or at least we think we do), but we don’t know how and we don’t know who will make it along the way. We know that when it comes down to it, Rick, Daryl, Michonne, and Carol are tough enough and smart enough to make it through whatever mess they’re in. But we’ve just met these folks. They have no idea what kind of shitstorm they’re in for and thus far none of them have proven they’ve got what it takes to survive. Uncertainty is one ingredient that makes this the scarier show.
The other is how relatable and vulnerable these new characters are. We’re not following warriors and badasses, we’ve just got teachers and teenagers. The Walking Dead‘s characters are versions of who we wish we would be if this happened to us. Sure, they were once regular vulnerable people, but we know them in the world of the show and only get glimpses of the lives they no longer have. On Fear the Walking Dead, we have people just like us, watching their world fall apart, dealing with the crisis on an everyday level, making us realize just how completely screwed we’d be if this ever really happened. It’s the same “this could happen to you” feeling that made one of my most hated horror movies, The Blair Witch Project, so pants-wettingly terrifying (disclaimer: I am a horror wuss, but still, that movie was creepy as shit).
Fear the Walking Dead has life-threatening zombies, of course, but it’s also got terrified everyday folks who don’t understand and can’t cope with the situation at hand. As we learned from Agent Kay in Men in Black “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” Add to that a heaping measure of uncertainty as to how this is all going to go down and what’s going to happen when it does (Maybe the west coast is fine? Maybe they barricaded themselves into Disneyland, found a vaccine, and they have daily ice cream and pizza parties? Probably not, though.) Throw in a super creepy Atticus Ross score and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for a scary-ass show with a title that makes a lot more sense in that light.