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Sanity Theme in “The Walking Dead” Essay


In an apocalyptic world of lawlessness, debauchery, and destruction, it becomes difficult to understand how human beings would react or maintain their sanity. Kirkman evokes such thoughts in his fictional work, The Walking Dead (1). He makes us wonder who has the guts to take up a leadership position in such a world and how he is going to manage group dynamics. This introspective focus on human behavior could lead many readers to question many things about people’s actions. For example, in his work, The Walking Dead, Kirkman leaves his readers to wonder whether people are innately self-serving, callous, or hostile (2).

In a post-apocalyptic community that Kirkman created in The Walking Dead, the readers get to have an insight into human behavior by exploring how people unravel, or how they react in the face of death and danger (1). Furthermore, the readers get to question which kind of people survive and what attributes enable them to do so. Like other comic book writers who have written about an apocalyptic society, Kirkman does not present a story where “anything goes;” instead, he provides us with an opportunity to understand how human beings would behave in the wake of death (1). His story demonstrates that some people can maintain their psychosocial stability, while others appear to lose it altogether.

This paper analyzes the theme of sanity as a recurring one in the comic series, The Walking Dead. Sanity refers to people’s inability to think logically and act as such (Langley 2). Sections of this paper will demonstrate how different characters in the book lose their sanity because of several reasons. Mental health is a relatable theme in the comic book because many people have experienced incidences where they feel like they are “losing their minds.” Langley says such mental instability cases occur when reality and insanity start to appear the same (1-3). Psychological disorders could happen to anyone. In fact, Langley says they could happen to “model human beings” (2-4).

When people’s minds start to become unhinged, it is always noticeable. Evidence of the same could manifest in different behaviors such as through peculiar dressing, a change in behavior, a change in the company people keep, and differences in the things people say (among others). This paper argues that the theme of sanity manifests throughout most of the comic book, The Walking Dead. It appears in extreme acts of violence, death, suicide, and hallucinations. The sections outlined below support this viewpoint.

Characters Talking to Themselves/Hallucinations

One of the main hallmarks of insanity is self-talk (Fandom). When this happens, it is an indication that people have lost hope in getting help from others. Instead, they listen to “voices in their heads.” Logically, even when these voices are of other people (dead people), they appear as though they are real for most victims of mental health issues. When people start experiencing such thoughts, they mistakenly believe they can rely on them. They do so because they could believe that they are “going crazy” and want to save themselves. Some characters in The Walking Dead manifested such thoughts. For example, some of them were talking to dead people and loved ones who had passed on. For example, Michonne often spoke to her dead boyfriend as a way of maintaining her sanity (Fandom). Andrea coped with her mental troubles in the same way because she frequently conversed with Dale even after his death (Fandom).

When Rick loses his wife, his mental status also dissipates. He starts to hallucinate in different instances where he talks to his dead wife. In many of those cases, he had long conversations with her. In his mind, such discussions seemed real, but logically, that could not be the case. However, he derived inspiration from such hallucinations, which “kept him going” because, in his mind, there was some sense of normalcy or stability involved with talking to people who had passed on. It is as if his dead wife was still alive and filling a void that was a core part of Rick’s mental health. During the same period, Rick isolated himself from the other members of his group in a way that was characteristically reminiscent of other characters who were experiencing mental problems. This action could mean that he needed to process what he was going through by himself. He did not want to be disturbed because he knew that he could lose his sanity. However, for many readers, this period of instability is worrisome because other members of his group depended on his leadership and guidance for survival.

These actions show that most of them were battling mental health issues because they had developed a distorted version of reality and were looking for someone with whom they could talk to numb their thoughts. For example, they often “spoke” with dead people when hallucinating. By doing so, they understood that they could not confide their thoughts in their fellow human beings because they were all having the same problem or experiencing it differently. Therefore, they found comfort in their thoughts. Additionally, in the process, they assumed that they were having conversations with dead people who were their confidants.

The zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead had a significant impact on how the victims coped with traumatic events. Parallels between the characters of the comic book could be drawn with victims of floods, described by Dai in an article titled, “Association between Social Support and Recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Flood: A 13–14 Year Follow-Up Study in Hunan, China” (1). Similar to victims of the flood, those of The Walking Dead developed symptoms of the disorder, which could lead to mental health deterioration if left unchecked. Dai describes such symptoms by saying victims of the disease experience hallucinations, flashbacks, and nightmares (1). The same signs explain the behaviors of some of the characters in The Walking Dead. For example, Morgan and Rick exhibited some of these symptoms. Those affected by flood manifested the same signs as well (1).

Social support systems emerge as useful tools for both sets of victims mentioned above (flood victims and The Walking Dead characters) because they alleviate some of the mental health issues that affect them. For example, the flood victims mentioned by Dai exhibited an improvement in their mental health conditions after receiving social support from family members (1). Additionally, some characters in The Walking Dead showed similar progress. For example, Morgan exhibited an improvement in his mental health status after meeting Rick who also shared his problem. Therefore, they both seemed to have benefitted from the social support they gave each other.

Another interesting observation the readers could make from the comic book is that the focus on core objectives seems to have motivated many of the characters to cope with their problems well. Without a central mission or personal goal, it was difficult to conceptualize a situation where they would maintain their sanity. Readers could see the same motivation in the lives of Michonne and Abraham, who underwent a lot of horror and devastation, but their objectives and core goals kept them sane. For example, Abraham maintained his sanity by staying focused on the goal of finding a cure to the virus that had affected humanity (Brockway). The absence of such a goal could have led to his mental deterioration because he had undergone many harrowing experiences, which would have taken a toll on his mental health. The same is true for Michonne. Based on their experiences and those of Rick, insanity emerged as a significant part of their post-apocalyptic world experience.

Death and Suicide

Death is a common occurrence in The Walking Dead. However, how the characters reacted to the fear of it showed the main difference between those who could maintain their sanity and those who were unable to do so. People often respond to death differently. As Langley espouses, traumatic events such as losing a loved one or having to kill a fellow human being would cause multiple psychological issues that could affect people’s mental stability (7). Some responses include emotional numbing and social avoidance. Such was the case of Morgan, who locked himself up in a room after losing his son. He was often emotionally erratic and did not want to interact with other people. These behaviors showed the volatility of his mental state. Additionally, when Rick met him, he noticed that he was on the verge of being insane.

Frustrations experienced by some of the main characters in the comic book were the root causes of most instances of death and suicide. For example, two of Rick’s group members who went to live with him in prison committed suicide because of frustrations with their lives (Brockway). Furthermore, one of them killed other group members because of anxiety and negative group politics. Furthermore, Carol lost her sanity when she attempted suicide and suffered social isolation because of frustrations in her life (Fandom). These examples of self-defeating behavior are signs of insanity, which is a common theme in the book. In addition, suicide is associated with madness because people who have their lives to look forward to would not partake in such an action. However, the suicide attempts by some of the characters in the book underscore the frustration that most of them felt by living in an unfamiliar world of sickness and death. Concisely, some of them believed that a world where they always had to “watch their backs” was a miserable one and not worth living. The apocalyptic world was also devastating to most of them because they did not only have to protect themselves from “walkers,” but from other human beings who wanted to kill them as well.

Such conditions may have created unnecessary pressures for some of the characters, thereby affecting their mental state. The same is true for Carol, who was Lori’s best friend. Although there is insufficient evidence explaining how the two became friends or even started having a common liking for one another, there is an instance where Carol manifested signs of insanity after catching her boyfriend Tyreese cheating on her. The betrayal forced her to attempt suicide in front of her daughter (Brockway). However, she was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, her mental state was still questionable because she attempted to convince Lori and Rick to have a polyamorous relationship with her (out of revenge). She did so by kissing Lori and Rick, but the two rebuffed her. However, she did not give up and attempted to kiss Lori again (Brockway). In the end, she gave up after Lori and Rick told her that they were not interested in what she was doing.

Her quest to have a polyamorous relationship with Lori and Rick was a clear sign of erratic behavior because it demonstrated how emotionally and mentally unstable she was. To cement this view further, Kirkman described an incident where she tried to sleep with a teenager (Brockway). Such actions were uncharacteristically strange of a mother and a self-respecting wife that she was. In fact, they only contributed to a narrative of insanity on her part because her actions were similar to that of a mother wanting to sleep with her son. Other pieces of evidence of her insanity emerged when she tried walking towards a zombie, after claiming that the “creature” liked her. She knew that she could die in the process, but still went ahead to do it. Trying to commit suicide and wanting to sleep with a boy are strange behaviors on Carol’s part that could prompt readers to question the sanity of the characters in the book.

Maggie is also another character who tried committing suicide because she found it difficult to cope with her environment. In addition, Shane exhibited signs of being insane when he tried to kill Rick because he had developed feelings for his wife. Furthermore, he was frustrated by the fact that he did not have a chance of being with her romantically when Rick showed up and was running their camp (Fandom). At the same time, Negan seemed like a mentally unstable person because, severally, his demeanor changed from being playful to ruthless when he was talking to Rick and his group. The theme of sanity, which runs throughout the book, explains this contrast in character. Michonne’s character throughout the novel also exemplifies different characteristics of insanity because she transformed from being an ordinary woman to a cold-hearted killer at the expense of her mental health. Overall, many of the characters in The Walking Dead coped with the problem of insanity differently. However, collectively, they demonstrated how the theme was prevalent in the comic book.


The acts of violence committed against other human beings in The Walking Dead also demonstrated the theme of insanity in the book because the characters turned out to be ruthless killers because of their poor mental health. Most of them had no limits to the kind of destruction they could cause to other people and even to themselves. For example, the governor raped and tortured Michonne to inflict psychological harm on her and her friends. Glenn alluded to this fact because he said that the Governor did so to torture him (Brockway). In a world where human beings are living in a post-apocalyptic society, it seems unfathomable that some people would be cruel to their fellow human beings unless they are insane.

The theme of insanity in The Walking Dead also manifests in violent acts among some of the characters who killed other people and ate their body parts. For example, “the Hunters” who met up with Rick and his group informed him that they often ate people, including their children (Brockway). Additionally, they mentioned that they cut off one of Dale’s legs and ate it. Kirkman described such acts of cannibalism in the governor’s story as well (28). At one time, the governor remarked that he tried eating human flesh and disliked it. However, his niece, Penny, did not have a problem with it (Kirkman 28). These incidences of cannibalism espouse the theme of insanity because only insane people would kill their children and eat them. Similarly, only insane people would find it acceptable to kill other people for food. This action shows a breakdown in the mental health of those involved in such acts because it is a self-defeating strategy of getting food. Indeed, it is only a matter of time before one of them becomes a “victim” when they suffer a shortfall of food. The mere act of killing other people also shows that they had lost all sense of empathy and compassion for their fellow human beings and had been desensitized from looking at them as one of their own. Instead, they perceived people as animals who they should hunt for food.

Readers could assume that the acts of violence described in this paper are products of vengeful emotions, which, according to Van Denderen, symbolize a psychological disorder (504). In addition, his analysis points to such acts of violence being an emotional response to being hurt by others. This view represents what most victims of The Walking Dead went through because not only did they have to survive the zombie apocalypse, they also had to fight their way through life because some people were out to kill them. Therefore, they experienced psychological trauma on two levels. The zombies perpetrated the first one, while the second one was from fellow human beings. When subjected to such kinds of traumatic experiences, they quickly became violent and aggressive.

Van Denderen defines such actions as symptoms of mental health issues, and they are commonly observed among people who have been sexually abused or those who have undergone significant physical trauma (504). He says such victims often want to revenge by harming others. Notably, he draws the readers’ attention to people who have been affected by homicides after saying that their quest for revenge often limits their chance of coping with the stress that caused the trauma in the first place (Van Denderen 504).

Michonne is one such character in the comic series that manifested this behavior. She lost her boyfriend and unborn child in events that were caused by the zombie apocalypse. Consequently, she became a ruthless person by using her sword to kill any zombie that crossed her path. This act of aggression could be viewed in the arguments of Van Denderen as a vengeful one because zombies caused the death of her loved ones (504). Her mental state transformed to make her an aggressive and irate person, who could kill when provoked. These are the hallmarks of PTSD and they describe the inability of people to cope with grief (Van Denderen 504).

Issue 71 of The Walking Dead also presents some of the characters in the story as creepy and disturbing; especially in the “fear the hunter” narrative (Kirkman 67). In the segment, the characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. A recap of the encounter between Rick and the cannibals could lead us to question the general sanity of all the people in the group. Concisely, it is unclear why they would commit some of the most atrocious acts of violence on the cannibals, while Kirkman portrays them as the “good guys” (33). Therefore, readers could wonder why the “good guys” would be brutal to other people, if not for the fact that they are losing their sanity as well. Everyone at this point of the story seems to be having substantial mental issues. The same analogy applies to the governor and his unclear choice of torturing his victims by raping them or mistreating his subjects by restricting their movements. Overall, extreme violence meted against other human beings in the book indicates the prevailing theme of sanity in the comic story.


This paper contains several examples of how different characters in the comic book, The Walking Dead, espoused the theme of sanity. These illustrations are defined by three behaviors that the readers could associate with mentally unstable people: violence, people talking to themselves (hallucinations), and death/suicide. The three acts formed the core of this paper’s argument because they helped to show that sanity was a core theme in The Walking Dead. This theme recurred in the book because of the environment created by Kirkman in his depiction of an apocalyptic world where law and order had broken down, and death, devastation and debauchery reigned supreme (1).

The post-apocalyptic narration creates an environment, where even the most mentally stable people would experience difficulties coping. When entire neighborhoods are wiped out, and cities are swarmed with people who are a threat to the basic survival of humanity; the characters are faced with a grim reminder of their possible destiny – death. With such a reality seeming probable every day, most characters in the book are pushed to the borders of their sanity. Indeed, there is a sense of hyper-defensiveness that puts them (and even the audience) on edge. Here, the fear of death is the most basic source of the apprehension witnessed in The Walking Dead.

At this point of analysis, it is also important to note that the experiences suffered by many of the characters of the comic series were possible causes of their mental problems. Some of them had to kill each other, protect themselves from bloodthirsty zombies and even steal from other people to stay alive. Furthermore, the experience of children growing up in a post-apocalyptic era can only do damage to their mental health because their psychological growth is unequal to those of adults. Such is the story of Carl. Collectively, the devastating experiences of the main characters in the book draw the readers’ attention to possible instances of post-traumatic stress disorders, which made them killers, psychopaths, and sociopaths. Some of the main characters who exhibited these characteristics included Rick and the governor. Michonne and Morgan also underwent the same transformation because they became ruthless killers after enduring harrowing experiences of personal tribulations. Therefore, in varying degrees, most of the characters in the book became killers because of their personal stories. However, it is difficult to understand how Rick, Negan, and the governor could maintain their sanity in ways that allowed them to lead others. Again, as demonstrated in this paper, their ability to transcend above their tribulations came at a considerable cost to their mental health. This analysis explains why sanity is a crucial theme in the book.

Works Cited

Brockway, Robert. TV Tropes, Web.

Dai, Wenjie, et al. “Association between Social Support and Recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Flood: A 13–14 Year Follow-Up Study in Hunan, China.” BMC Public Health, vol. 16, no. 194, 2016, pp. 1-9.

Fandom. Wikia, Web.

Kirkman, Robert. The Walking Dead. Vol. 23, Image Comics, 2015.

Langley, Travis. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead. Sterling Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2015.

Van Denderen, Mariëtte, et al. “Revenge and Psychological Adjustment after Homicidal Loss.” Aggressive Behavior, vol. 40, no. 1, 2014, pp, 504–511.

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"Sanity Theme in "The Walking Dead"." IvyPanda, 11 Oct. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/sanity-theme-in-the-walking-dead/.

1. IvyPanda. "Sanity Theme in "The Walking Dead"." October 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sanity-theme-in-the-walking-dead/.


IvyPanda. "Sanity Theme in "The Walking Dead"." October 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sanity-theme-in-the-walking-dead/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Sanity Theme in "The Walking Dead"." October 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sanity-theme-in-the-walking-dead/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Sanity Theme in "The Walking Dead"'. 11 October.

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