The horror genre has never been a favorite of mine, and I typically avoid these types of TV shows or movies like the plague. However, about two years ago I happened to be curled up in a warm hotel room on a chilly New Year’s Eve, avoiding the crowds and the drinking and the sub-freezing temperatures. Flipping through the TV channels I stumbled upon a marathon of The Walking Dead on AMC.
I had never seen it before, and really had little interest in a show about a zombie apocalypse, but I periodically heard acquaintances and TV critics alike claiming that this was the best drama currently on TV. So, out of curiosity, I settled in at around 6:00 PM on December 31st and began watching episodes, coming in somewhere during the show’s third season. At 3:00 AM on January 1st I was still watching, having missed the ball dropping, the champagne corks popping, and the playing of Auld Lang Syne. And I could not have cared less, because I was hooked. Before the end of the first day of the new year, I had gone online to order the DVDs for Seasons 1 – 5, and so began my love affair with one of the strangest and most compelling shows ever to hit the airwaves.
Yes the show has its share of blood, gore and violence and yes there are flesh-eating zombies and they are pretty scary. But these things soon fade into the back drop of what is essentially a story about a diverse group of human beings who have been thrown into inhuman circumstances and are attempting to survive and thrive in a terrifying new world. The show seems more like science fiction than horror to me, and the amazing storytelling and powerful acting caused me to become very emotionally entangled in the series. I also suffer feelings of loss when a beloved character meets his or her fate. As a psychologist I find it interesting that when the show is broadcast on AMC, each episode is followed by an episode of a show called, Talking Dead in which that night’s spisode is analyzed and the host, Chris Hardwick, urges the audience to participate by expressing how they are feeling after the watching the latest episode. It’s like a group therapy session for die-hard fans.
If you’re already a fan, I hope you will appreciate my account of touring the studios outside of Atlanta, Georgia where the series is filmed. If you haven’t seen the show, you may still find some of this interesting and I promise not to leak any spoilers, in case you decide you want to binge watch the show and catch up on the action. (FYI: the second half of Season 9 begins again on AMC on February 10, 2019).
The series first began with Rick Grimes, a police officer from a rural area outside Atlanta, Georgia, waking up from a gunshot-induced coma in a hospital bed and realizing that something is terribly wrong. No nurses answer his calls, flowers at his bedside are withered and dead, and lights aren’t working. What he will soon discover is that during his slumber, the world has succumbed to some sort to disease that has decimated the population, resulting in those who’ve died from the disease re-animating as vacant, aggressive, flesh-hungry zombies. So begins Rick’s search to find out what has happened, to determine whether his wife and son are still alive, and if so, to figure out where they have gone.
The series is shot almost exclusively in Georgia, with many pivotal scenes filmed on location in downtown Atlanta and in a rural area 45 miles south near the town of Senoia, Georgia. Senoia is home to the studios where the show is produced, and in the surrounding area there are many locations that have been used as outdoor sets during the filming. This year, for the first time, the studio has been opened on to the public for tours while the show is on hiatus. I embarked on a 2 hour tour of the studio on a sleepy Friday morning, happy to see that there were only a handful of other folks on my mini-bus tour. Evidently weekends are a madhouse, so I was glad to get a more personalized tour with our guide Elias, who is a member of the crew for the show’s filming.
Before embarking on the tour, you must go through a debriefing in which it is made very clear to you that you are not allowed to photograph or film at ANY time unless given permission by your guide. This was my biggest disappointment about the tour, though I do understand the need to protect the plot lines’ secrecy. If an errant tourist filmed something that might give away future plot developments and posted it all over the Internet, it would spoil things for everyone else. For those of you who know the show well, the locations visited on the tour within the studio’s confines include The Heaps, a junkyard setting where Jadis’ tribe of scavengers resided, Oceanside, the secretive, all-female outpost, and the Hilltop, a walled mansion/fortress where people are trying to build a new life. While we were allowed to photograph the Heaps, the other two locations were strictly off-limits to photos, which was disappointing because the Hilltop in particular is really impressive and this beautiful mansion was built entirely for the series.
Contrary to what I’d read online, the prison at which a significant amount of Seasons 3 and 4 was filmed, is not a real location. The entire thing was built on the studio lots and was subsequently blown up and burned when the prison is attacked during Season 4. According to our guide, Elias, evidently the prison was so realistic that Georgia penal authorities contacted the series’ producers wanting information on exactly where the West Georgia Correctional Facility was located! What was left of this set was subsequently converted into Negan’s Sanctuary in later seasons. There was also a stop at the lake in which Rick and Aaron spaddle and swim through zombie-infested waters to retrieve supplies on a houseboat. Elias also explained that the many vegetable gardens depicted in the show – at the prison, Alexandia, and Hilltop, are filled with real plants that are raised in green houses on the studio property. So when you see characters on the show working in the gardens or picking vegetables or fruits, these are real props that have been raised just for the show to make everything more realistic.
From here the tour leaves the studio property for the short drive into Senoia, and pulls off the main road to a locked electronic gate in a rusty, corrugated metal wall. Any true Walking Dead fan will instantly recognize this wall as the one surrounding the show’s “Alexandria Safe Zone”. This was perhaps the most interesting part of the tour. It seems that what is depicted as Alexandria on the show began as a housing development in which seven homes were already inhabited. Somehow, AMC talked these home owners into allowing them to completely encircle the development with the walls, install 24 hour security to protect them from fans seeking to enter the area, and construct many more homes and buildings within the walls, all of which are used to film any scenes that take place in Alexandria. There’s Rick’s house, Carol’s house (where her infamous cookies were baked), Jessie and Pete’s place, where Rick and Pete fought it out and crashed through windows out onto the street, as well as the medical facility, Gabriel’s church, and the jail. To protect residents’ privacy, no photos may be taken except in one limited area and in one particular direction, which is understandable, but again, was very disappointing. Still, I marveled at the fact that residents here can look out their windows during filming to see things like a church tower collapsing, fire bombs being lobbed over the walls, and hordes of zombies roaming the streets. Also, the vegetable gardens planted in Alexandria actually provide fresh veggies for the real-life residents of the development.
After the tour, I headed into Senoia on my own. Again for fans of the show, if you go to the foot of Main Street and look back toward town you will instantly recognize that Senoia is actually used to depict the town of Woodbury, ruled by the Governor in the series. You can also look across the railroad tracks and see the familiar sight of Alexandria, with its swanky homes and brownstones peeking out above the wall. In Senoia, I visited the Walking Dead Store, which features many mementos such as t-shirts and action figures from the series. The basement of the store houses a museum with artifacts from the show and “Abraham’s Army” – a shop selling interesting original art work and featuring a dead-ringer for Abraham manning the cash register. I actually gasped when I walked in, the resemblance was that strong.
There are maps for sale at the Walking Dead Store and a handful of websites on-line that will guide you to various other sights where the show has been filmed. I visited Crook Road, a short, quiet stretch of forested road on which many pivotal scenes have been filmed. I wanted to visit Herschel’s Farm, which was depicted in the show as an idyllic refuge, but rumor has it that it is set way back off the road, is not visible from the highway and that the owners are extremely irritated by photo-seekers, so I let that go. Back in Atlanta, I made a pilgrimage to the Jackson Street Bridge, the vantage point from where the iconic Season 1 scene of Rick riding horseback into an evacuated Atlanta was shot. It kind of gave me chills.
The media have always had a profound effect TV shows and film fans. In the 1970s, fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show discovered the house in Minneapolis that was used to depict the place where Mary and Rhoda lived. So many tourists visited it, some actually thinking it would be funny to knock on the door “to see if Mary or Rhoda were home” that the residents forbid further use of the location for filming and put a large “Impeach Nixon” sign in the front window to dissuade photographers! In the 1980s, a sprawling ranch in Parker, Texas was used to depict Southfork, the estate inhabited by JR Ewing and his feuding family on Dallas, and it soon became a tourist attraction. Somewhere in my collection of photos I have a picture of me lounging by the pool where the Ewings had their tense breakfasts and where dramatic family feuds occurred at the annual Ewing Barbecues. Locations used to depict the coffee shop where Seinfeld and his pals dined, or the apartment building where TV’s Friends supposedly lived are now well-visited attractions in Manhattan, even today. And here in San Francisco, the Victorian house from the film Mrs. Doubtfire still attracts camera-toting tourists.
This is an aspect of the media that I find truly fascinating. Shows and films that so strongly capture our imagination or characters that come to feel like people we know can motivate us to seek out these filming locations in an attempt to experience or be a part of the media magic. I know that as I drove through the quiet, wooded back roads of central Georgia that day, my imagination conjured up images of zombie “walkers” emerging from the forest and attacking my car and imagined shops, homes or tiny churches that might have been used as safe places to hide for my beloved heroes on The Walking Dead.
Thankfully, there has not yet been a zombie apocalypse, and so after my day of following in the footsteps of the walking dead, I was able to head into Atlanta and enjoy some of the best southern cuisine one can find. And as I chowed down on hushpuppies, shrimp and grits, and bread pudding, I have to admit, it was nice to be back in the land of the living!