The Walking Dead and Self-Defense

As most of you know, I’m a big fan of vampire books and movies. Given as how the last couple years Hollywood has been cranking out bloodsucker flicks more than ever before, I’m a happy camper. I also used to like horror movies a lot when I was a teenager but grew out of it because the genre seemed to become stale: the same old cliches were repeated over and over;  few directors did anything new and exciting. One of the exceptions to that was George Romero.

The Walking Dead Season 1 and Self defense

Click the image to buy The Walking Dead, Season 1

The first movie I saw of him was Day of the Dead, which I still enjoy today even though many people think this one isn’t his best work. Since then, I’ve watched a number of zombie movies but eventually also stopped watching them.

And then came The Walking Dead.

Before you read on, there are minor spoilers up ahead. I tried to give away as little as possible but that’s impossible if I want to point out certain things.

Here goes: When I first heard about the series, I was a bit skeptical because just the title alone sounded like a bad TV-movie. But after several friends recommended it, I started watching and got hooked right away. I think it’s one of the best series on TV right now. Even if you’re not a fan of the horror genre, give it a try because the zombies are just an excuse to place the protagonists in difficult situations. And the gory scenes are actually relatively limited in comparison to all the rest.



So what’s the relevance to self-defense in all this?

It’s pretty simple:

The Walking Dead describes a world where our society has broken down because of extreme external circumstances. The protagonists have to adapt to this new reality or die. Their daily lives depend solely on their self-defense skills, in the largest sense of the term.


Pretty much every hairy situation you see in the show is something that can (and actually does) happen in reality, in a different context than a zombie apocalypse of course:

  • Racism turning into violence (The scenes with Merle on the roof  in Season 1.)
  • People under extreme emotional stress looking for a way to release it by hurting you (Rick meeting the group in the store for the first time after escaping from the tank in Season 1.)
  • People who have no objections to using violence to get what they want, regardless of what you think about it (The scene in the bar when Rick and Glenn go get a drunk Hershel in Season 2)
  • People who believe might is right and see their way as the only way, regardless of the cost to you or others (Shane, especially in Season 2)

There is lots more but you can see how all these situations happen in the real world too. Just switch on the TV and look at the context of every news item that covers violence; you’ll see the similarities. More on that below.

To expand on this, I’d like to point to the life style of the survivors in the series:

Everything they do, every single thing, is geared towards making sure they can be safe. Self-defense is their first priority, every moment of the day. 

This is manifested in different ways.

First of all, there are the safety protocols:

  • The survivors team up instead of going at it alone and risk being outnumbered by a horde. They quickly learn that going up against multiple assailants by your lonesome self is a losing proposition. Kind of like in real life…
  • They clear houses and buildings instead of just walking into them. They assume danger instead of safety.
  • They look around corners, check for walkers, etc. before leaving cover.
  • They keep watch whenever they set up camp.

There is more of course but you get the point. The survivors use the full spectrum of self-defense techniques: from awareness and prevention to strategy and tactics and eventually actual combat techniques that target the weakness of the opponent (head-shots only.) They have no other choice than to go all the way because they can’t win by using brute strength: they are always outnumbered and cannot lose, not even once, as one bite is all it takes. So their only option is to have an all-encompassing mindset of survival and self-defense.

The Walking Dead Season 3 and Self-defense

The Walking Dead, Season 3: Not an example of civilian self-defense…

The second aspect is the psychological side of things.

In season 1, you see how some people make the transition from modern-day life to the post-apocalyptic world relatively easily. Daryl is one of them, because he was already living a similar lifestyle beforehand. But others, like Hershel, are stuck in denial and refuse to accept the changes forced upon them. There’s also Carol, who at first stays in her role of abused and battered wife but eventually finds inner strength, primarily because of one specific traumatic event.

But most of all, there’s Rick. He’s a small-town sheriff who is basically just a regular guy doing his job. In Season 1, he tries to be a good man, doing the right thing for the group despite how hard it may be. As events unravel, especially in Season 2, he has an increasingly difficult time keeping the group together and asserting his leadership. As of Season 3, he has become a battle-hardened survivor who seems to be suffering from PTSD and is starting to fall apart.

Rick’s evolution is a good example of the corrosive environment that life-and-death combat actually is. Taking life (or un-life as in the series) takes a toll on you, like it or not (except if you’re a functional psychopath but I’ll assume you’re not…) It eats at you and keeps on consuming your psyche until you either handle it or burn out. The “safer” your environment before you end up in such a situation, the more difficult you usually have it once you use lethal force. Hollywood so often gets this wrong, with the hero shooting people left and right right before he sips a martini and carries on as if nothing happened.

In this series, the character of Rick goes through a much more realistic (though still fictionalized) process of psychological hardship. The tipping point is the scene where Rick gets out of the woods at the end of episode 12 of Season 2. I won’t give it away but the crux is when he says “This is on you! Not me!”

This scene is the culmination of everything he went through since the apocalypse happened, his former beliefs and morals constantly being under fire, the untenable situation he is in (both because of his own doing and that of others) but most importantly because of the tactics and distance he uses to achieve his goal in that scene. Especially this last part is key and I very much recommend “On Killing” as a great source of information on the psychological factors involved.

Though this scene is fiction, those factors are real and portrayed well enough.

The Walking Dead Season 2 and Self-defense, Rick

The troubled and traumatized Rick.

Why use this series as an example?

I often use movies or TV shows as an example when I teach. Students often both better understand what I’m explaining (the “visual” is clearer in their mind) and also remember it better (anchor the correction in their memory). This usually works great, unless people don’t know the movie because I’m getting old and they haven’t heard of it (the disorganized walk of Robocop comes to mind…) So I’m always on the look out for examples from today’s popular shows and movies.

Now before you get the wrong idea, let me make things clear:

  • Is The Walking Dead the perfect example of self-defense for our daily lives? No, not at all. The point I’m trying to make is that the series illustrates self-defense concepts and the right mind set very well in certain regards. The lessons are there if you want to learn them. If you don’t, then whatever I say doesn’t matter.
  • Do you mean that I should train the combat techniques they use on the show? Not even no but “Hell no!” Training to use head-shots only, to sneak up on somebody from behind to blast a bullet through their skull or bash their head in is what the criminals and professionals do. Those are not the skills a civilian like you and me needs for every day life. I would suggest focusing on the awareness and avoidance you see displayed in every episode. That’s what you need the most.
  • “Ha, are you kidding me?! A zombie apocalypse is extreme fiction; the situations in that series can never happen in real life.” I beg to differ. Like I said earlier, take away the zombie-context and look at the underlying causes of the violent situations: racism, criminal and egotistical behavior, etc. are all very real and cause casualties all over the world, every single day. But to make it clearer, I give four points here below explaining why it could happen to you.



This last point is what I wanted to emphasize the most. Yes, the show is fiction. But the anti-social and violent behavior it shows is very human. It is of all times, places and races. It’s universal human behavior.

Modern societies increasingly lose track of the real dynamics that drive this human behavior. The thin layer of civilization and the absence of violence in their daily lives fools many people into thinking all those nasty things aren’t real or not their concern. Especially if your experience with life-and-death violence only comes from TV or movies, then there’s a high likelihood you’re at risk for this lack of judgement which can potentially cost you your life.

If you think you’re safe because you live in a calm neighborhood or in the expensive part of the city, some thoughts for you:

  • Modern societies can break down. It doesn’t take much for the civilized behavior to go out the window. All you need is electricity and water off-line for three days and people go nuts. These articles of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and the violence that followed Hurricane Sandy are ample proof. Please bear in mind that these articles only cover the incidents that were reported.  In real life, the numbers are usually a lot higher but because people don’t go to the police for various reasons, they don’t show up in the statistics. But if you end up shot dead in a crime that is never reported, you’re just as dead as when somebody does take the time to file a report. 
  • Criminals travel. They typically go looking for victims where they can find them. In other words, they know where you live and just might decide to come pay a visit. Look up “home invasion” on Google for your neighborhood. For some of you, the number of incidents and the actual risk you run will be quite the surprise, and not in a good way…
  • Violent people are everywhere. They aren’t just in the working class levels of society or among criminals. Look up “Random violence” on Google and you’ll see what I mean.
  • You travel too. You won’t stay in a safe place your entire life. You’ll travel all the time: to and from work, to go to the gym or other leisure activities, to visit friends and family, to go on holiday, etc. You will either be in or pass through places where violence is more common than in your neck of the woods. So it’s only common sense to have a self-defense mind set.

Now don’t go thinking I’m all doom and gloom and expect the world to come to an end tomorrow. I don’t and it’s also besides the point.  The goal of this post was to use a popular TV series to illustrate the concepts and skills that apply to your daily life. Because the series depicts an extreme situation, it showcases these things more clearly than other series do. Which is why I wanted to write about it.

Also, if you needed an excuse to watch The Walking Dead, now you can just say to your significant other or parents that you’re doing research.


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  1. My hometown, Detroit, was the scene of a hugely destructive and violent race riot in 1967. It took some time before the 1st Airborne Division of the US Army was dispatched to take control of the situation.

    My high school made national news due to a race riot in the 70’s.

    All hell can break loose around you in an instant. All you have to be is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there may be very few signs to read to give you some warning.

    • Yes indeed. I’m always fascinated by the mind set of “It can’t happen to me” that a lot of folks have. They don’t seem to understand just how fast things can go wrong.

  2. Kevin Keough says

    Rick’s brief history lesson re Detroit is remarkably similar to my hometown-Wilmington, Delaware. I don’t remember exactly when the National Guard hit the streets in Wilmington in 1967 but the Guard occupied Wilmington 9 months after they’d been sent home in every other US city occupied by National Guard units during that time.

    Fast forward to 11.2012 and Wilmington has been tagged as number 1 in violent crime per capita and 7 in overall crime (? —information provided by several police officers, knowledgeable civilians, and a LE friend who read the recently published facts).

    I live about 150 yards from the “other side of the tracks” known as Union St. The unsettling uptick in violent crime in Wilmington over the last 4 months has required County police to cover some of the city, changing little since both departments are criminally understaffed.

    These crimes affect the people I visit daily for caffeine, and other essentials. 7-11’s are favorite targets. One friend has been through 14 incidents of robbers placing guns to his head. At each location the men behind the counter give unusually warm welcomes as I enter and request that I stop in as often as possible especially 11 pm-7am shifts. In a word they are afraid. Because it is my community I assume a responsibility to engage in “norm-building and culure setting. We will treat the people behind the counters at the pharmacy, 7-11, gas station, etc with respect and we will not intimidate or threaten them. It is amazing how people react when I inform them they are messing with my friends in my neighborhood “You wouldn’t let me come into your neighborhood store and talk threaten your friends……….so I appreciate your recognition of that fact. Always give people a way to save face, demonstrate respect, and piss inside and outside the stores…..(dark humor).

    These people want someone to talk to and for the time I am in the store—some level of protection from a robbery or intolerable abuse while I’m there (mostly because guys want easy hits and the presence of a scruffy grumpy looking old man chatting with the guy behind the counter is something of a deterrent—go where the counter man is alone).It isn’t easy for these men to request the “assistance-protection” of another man but it is happening with increasing frequency. I attend to the fear in the eyes of the counter people and the confusion in the eyes of would be bad guys and can’t discontinue a 25 year old habit.

    Sure, I know the odds are against me. And I want out of the city as soon as possible. With age I am more aware of how much I dislike this responsibility I experience and the toll it takes on me. But I have waked these streets since I could walk. It is my town. I am old fashioned enough to believe I ought do my small part.

    This has been a long way of saying I agree with Wim’s points. Letting my guard down or failure to scan continuously isn’t an option.

    All hell is already breaking loose. IMHO, we have blinders on if we don’t see how quickly things are escalating.

    Personally, I’d prefer to be dealing with zombie’s vs. people—-makes the job so much easier if you think it through.

    Thanks Wim

    • Thanks Kevin. IMO, things will get a whole lot worse before they get better. We’ll see how your US elections as that will be part of it but primarily, the way the economy goes the next year will prove critical. IMHO, the future is looking grim in that regard. In particular for my country, which isn’t doing what is necessary to crawl out of the pit it jumped into while knowing full well the consequences.
      May politicians everywhere be damned…

  3. The Walking Dead is the best thing on TV at the moment, love. Seems to be a cultural obsession with a “Zombie Apocalypse” this past while, references everywhere you look. Are we being told something or what?

  4. Being in NY and witnessing first hand how people react under crisis, I now see the mentality that you should have if, let’s say it got worse or if there was an apocalypse (zombie or not). In a huge fan of the show and I appreciate the realistic points that you note. Extreme stress brings out the worst in people making them mindless and irrational, kind of like zombies lolA. When it comes down to it, we can all learn a lesson from the series, as fictional as it may be. Being prepared, not only mentally but physically will promote the best chance of survival!

    • I hope things get better fast in NY, Rich. Some of the reports I read were pretty disturbing. Not unexpected, but sad to see I wasn’t wrong in expecting it.

  5. Awesome blog Wim!! Love the show and you did a great job at picking it apart!


  6. Charles James says

    Ahhh, you will then enjoy the upcoming movie “World War Z” and the book as well if you have not already read it.

  7. Another self-defense take from this show (which I love BTW) is that you must defend yourself ferociously since your life is on the line. No half-hearted defense is going to protect you from zombies, nor the heartless, mindless vermin that may attack you, or your loved ones, in the real world.

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