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“I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferer, and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault”: Disability in BBC’s In the Flesh

Zombies explore the “definition of the human,” and they do spectacularly well in BBC’s In the Flesh, where zombies who have regained or retained their human minds coexist alongside humanity.1 In the Flesh, originally released in 2013, is a two-season zombie drama in which, prior to the start of the series, scientists have discovered a chemical compound that removes zombies from their rabid state and returns them to their human minds. In the show, The Rising (their name for the event in which the zombies rose from their graves) occurs in 2010; the zombies who rise are those people who died and were buried in the former year. Scientists have, by the beginning of the series, taken years to develop the “cure,” and in the interim society falls into a post-apocalyptic anarchy. The series focuses on this society’s growth as order is reestablished and, more importantly, as the now human-like zombies are reintegrated into society.

Kyle Bishop claims that “Every zombie has its own story to tell as well, and sometimes the zombie itself can best tell that story.”2 This is particularly true of what he cites as a recent phase of zombie texts, in which zombies become sympathetic characters. This turn toward zombie protagonists is exemplified by In the Flesh. Its central character, Kieren Walker, as well as the other “cured” zombies of the narrative, represent “the ‘agent zombie,’ or the thinking, feeling, evolved version of George A. Romero’s famous flesh-eating foe.”3 The traditional zombie aspect of the series reveals what Bishop claims to be the purpose of zombies: that they “teach us about our own repressed (and revealed) anxieties and tensions.”4 Bishop argues that “we purge these anxieties through the catharsis of apocalyptic narratives,” but because of the cure narrative of In the Flesh, zombies instead come to live among humans, disrupting this catharsis of anxiety and instead bringing the anxiety to the forefront of the story.5 The cure narrative allows the audience to deal with a direct confrontation with the Other, distinctly unnatural nature of the zombies (called Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers. or PDS Sufferers, within the series), in a juxtaposition with the “normal” humans, which creates numerous allegorical interpretations based on their treatment in this new form of a post-post-apocalyptic society.

The zombie culture of Dominic Mitchell’s In the Flesh is representative of real-world anxieties about people with disabilities and their place in society. Zombies are an apt metaphor for disability; as Bishop writes, “ ‘Walking dead,’ Romero-style zombies flagrantly defy the established boundaries of the living and dead, confronting audiences with dangerous bodies that challenge the natural order of things.”6 Disability theorist Tobin Siebers argues that no bodies are more dangerous in our own society than those of disabled individuals, which bring to mind questions of what makes us human along with considerations of mortality and the disabling nature of time, through which all of our bodies will sooner or later fail us.7 However, as we see in In the Flesh, zombies are not the only people with disabilities, and the turn of the show in the second season toward illuminating disabilities in humans as well as zombies even more clearly displays the anxieties we face around human disability and its effects in everyday life.

Kieren Walker, the main protagonist of the story, has been Othered from mainstream society since before he was a PDS case; Kieren suffered from major depressive disorder, a disability that eventually resulted in Kieren’s suicide. Kieren consciously makes parallels to his time as a zombie and his teenage years, experienced through the haze of depression. In season one, Kieren as a PDS case, is set at odds with the villain of the season, Bill Macy, who led the Human Volunteer Force (or HVF). The HVF were the group of humans who fought back against the zombies during the Rising. Kieren notes in a fight with his sister, Jem, who is a member of the HVF, that Bill Macy has always hated him—partially for being queer and in love with Bill Macy’s son, yet another thing that Others Kieren from his more traditional rural society, but also because he has always seen Kieren as weak. In season one, Bill tells his son Rick that Kieren always lacked fortitude when he references Kieren’s suicide, calling it “a weak ending for a weakling.”8 In Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, Dan Goodley makes the distinction that “impairment is conceptualized as a cognitive, sensory or psychological difference that is defined often within a medical context, while disability is understood as the negative social reaction to those differences.”9 Kieren’s depression was a psychological impairment; the stigma associated with his depression and the way it changed people’s perceptions of him made his depression a socially conceptualized disability. Bill Macy is certainly indicative of the stigmatized view in which depressed and suicidal individuals are perceived as weak, but this is not the only impression people have about depression and depressed individuals. Furthermore, this view is not limited to English society; a study conducted in Australia found that a large number of respondents believe that depressed individuals are weak. A large percent of respondents also believed “people with depression are dangerous,” “depression is not a real medical illness,” and “people with depression could snap out of it if they wanted to.”10 These unfortunate perceptions are displayed by Bill Macy and his associates in In the Flesh, but are merely cursory representations of many people’s beliefs in the real world.

Kieren is also not the only PDS Sufferer who dealt with a disability during his first life. Amy Dyer, who quickly becomes Kieren’s best friend after they are both cured, suffered from chronic illness during her life, eventually resulting in her death. Although Amy only speaks once about this, when trading death stories with Kieren, it is implied that Amy led a sheltered life because of her disability. She had few friends who could recognize her as Partially Deceased, which allows her to go on frequent day trips out into the community to keep herself occupied in her second life (unlike Kieren, who is immediately recognized during the first of these trips that Amy convinces him to accompany her on). Amy is accustomed to being Othered by her society because of her disability, and in many ways appears to find society’s disdain for her more palatable than Kieren does. This is likely because, during life, her disabled state was more obvious than Kieren’s, and so her Othered existence and subsequent treatment was more severe than Kieren’s. However, this also makes Amy more confident in being true to herself and her disabled state as a PDS Sufferer, in contrast to Kieren, who feels the need to hide the reality of his existence even from himself. This is shown to the audience in the many scenes in which he covers up the mirror in the bathroom with a towel in the mornings as he begins to apply the cover up mouse to his face, hiding his zombified state even from himself.

This need to hide shows how Kieren is affected by self-stigma. Corrigan et al. state, “To experience self‐stigma, the person must be aware of the stereotypes that describe a stigmatized group… and agree with them… These two factors are not sufficient to represent self‐stigma, however. The third is application. The person must apply stereotypes to one’s self.”11 Kieren is being inundated by the stereotypes associated with his “syndrome”: that he is dangerous, that he is less than human, that he should be kept apart from society. His enaction of self-stigma, seen through his avoidance of the realities of his partially deceased state and his unwillingness to acknowledge himself as Partially Deceased, makes it clear that he, to some degree, agrees with these stereotypes and applies them to himself. Amy, by contrast, has moved past self-stigma precisely because she is accustomed to being disabled and having similar stereotypes applied to her.

To fit in among the human population, PDS Sufferers are encouraged to wear an enhanced form of makeup and colored contacts. This phenomenon matches David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder assertion in Narrative Prosthesis that “[in] order to dissociate one’s disability from stigmatizing associations, disabled people are encouraged to ‘pass’ by disguising their disabilities. Prosthetic devices, mainstreaming, and overcompensation techniques, all provide means for people with disabilities to ‘fit in’ or to ‘de-emphasize’ their differences.”12 In In the Flesh, the makeup and contacts represent a case in which an addition or substitution is made, because “as is always the case with prosthesis, the minimal goal is to return one to an acceptable degree of difference.”13 Amy Dyer flagrantly defies this expectation, refusing to wear cover-up or contacts, relishing her natural zombified appearance. In response, she is assaulted by one of the members of the community and ultimately gives in to the pressure to conform to society’s expectation: cover up to fit in. In a final act of defiance, however, she leaves the community behind, hoping to find a place that is more accepting of the realities of her existence.

Kieren and Amy’s marginalized positions in society are also indicative of wider trends in more recent zombie texts, such as Warm Bodies or The Walking Dead. Fojas writes that zombies “express the inchoate and inexpressible, allowing us to see what it would be like to collapse difference and rethink the social order from the perspective of the marginalized.”14 However, the cure of zombies in In the Flesh allows for the social order to be re-established. Those in power attempt to re-integrate the agent zombies into society, but the zombies’ now outranked and dependent state re-marginalizes them. Rather than being a powerful horde, the zombies are now a minority in the post-post-apocalyptic society. But the humans’ recent position as the marginalized group does not result in any sympathy toward the PDS Sufferers. Instead, they revel in their empowered position and continue to treat the human-like zombies as if they were still mindless creatures.

One of the things that makes Partially Deceased Syndrome an apt metaphor for disability, in particular, as compared to other minority identities is one factor of what makes disability unique amongst other minority identities. Disabled individuals often experience a degree of isolation unlike those of other minority groups, who more often have the ability to engage with or seek out those others in their community, and who more often possess the ability to advocate for themselves. Because of the inaccessibility of our society, disabled individuals are often reliant on nondisabled individuals to function.15 PDS Sufferers fit into this pattern of isolation and reliance. When they are nominally allowed back into society, it is expected that their living family members will come to collect them and assume responsibility for them. PDS Sufferers are reliant on others around them to administer their medication, which is injected into a hole in the back of their necks. They are denied citizenship, which makes them dependent on their living family members or friends to participate in society, an ability which is even further restricted by what is considered socially acceptable. PDS Sufferers are often kept locked up in their homes, especially in rural societies like Kieren’s, which isolates them from others who are in the same state. They are also then perceived as dangerous when they form groups advocating for their rights, something which will be discussed later in this article.

The PDS Sufferers are hallmarked as disabled not only for the way in which they fit in to this post-post-apocalyptic society, but also for the physical ways in which they are now dependent on the living humans around them. Siebers describes the medical model of disability as “a property of the individual body that requires medical intervention.”16 Via this model, PDS Sufferers would be considered disabled, as they require daily medical intervention in the form of a shot of a drug called “neurotryptiline” to stimulate the growth of certain cells in their brains required for adequate function of their minds and bodies. Furthermore, Siebers claims the “medical model defines disability as an individual defect lodged in the person, a defect that must be cured or eliminated if the person is to achieve full capacity as a human being.”17 This can be seen in season two as flashbacks reveal the scientific efforts behind the first PDS Sufferers beginning to respond to the experimental drugs, the human experimentation that followed, and the government initiative that launched as efforts were made to reintroduce the zombies into society. The audience is given a scene in which a government scientist coins the name for the condition, “Partially Deceased Syndrome,” noting that it sounds hopeful and like something that can be managed.18 This in turn frustrates the scientists responsible for creating neurotryptiline, as they view the drug as something less than a “cure” for what is wrong with the zombies: it does not make them fully human, it just removes them from their rabid state. The fact that neurotryptiline is not a cure can also be seen in the strongly implied fact that zombies who fail to respond to the drug are killed, locked up, or experimented on, as they are still viewed as less than human—to parallel a common social perception of individuals with particularly severe or apparent disabilities, those who have frequently been institutionalized and have not always been protected from human experimentation.

More importantly in terms of Sieber’s conception of disability, PDS Sufferers would also be considered disabled when viewed through the lens of the social model of disability, in which “disabling environments produce disability in bodies and require interventions at the level of social justice.”19 Their physical difference results in their ostracization from society, where despite legal protections, PDS Sufferers are at first encouraged to hide indoors, as otherwise they may be hurt or killed by the human members of the society. As season two advances, social justice movements in favor of partially deceased rights begin to appear; notably, there is the Undead Liberation Army, a group of zombies who push the boundaries of what society expects from PDS Sufferers by not wearing their makeup and daring to be seen as their true selves in society. However, there are also movements against granting increased rights to PDS Sufferers, just as there are movements against granting more accessibility and rights to disabled individuals in society. Siebers notes that “Disability is not a physical or mental defect but a cultural and minority identity. To call disability an identity is to recognize that it is not a biological or natural property but an elastic social category both subject to social control and capable of effecting social change.”20 The Undead Liberation Army is representative of those with a minority identity attempting to effect social change; conversely, Victus is a political movement centered around restricting the rights of PDS Sufferers and advancing the power of the majority, the living, in politics as well as society.

This becomes immediately relevant to Kieren’s story in episode two of season two when he attempts to leave the country to go live in Paris, where people are less intolerant of PDS Sufferers, only to discover that he is legally not allowed to leave as his citizenship has been revoked. Instead he is required to participate in the “PDS Give Back Scheme.”21 This scheme is predicated upon the idea that PDS Sufferers must “give back” to society in order to earn human rights that are apparently not applicable to the undead. Through participation with the aptly titled scheme, Kieren comes to learn that there is also no predetermined end to the “community service,” or free labor, that he is being required to give. There is no concept of what completion of this work will provide in tangible benefits to PDS Sufferers who comply with the new law; specifically, there is no plan in place to return citizenship, and with it the rights that are being denied to PDS sufferers.

The issue of disenfranchisement, while extreme in In the Flesh, is not unheard of in modern society. For example, in America “all but 11 states have laws on the books that can restrict voting for people with mental disabilities.”22 Voting rights for people with disabilities are improving in the UK, but at a much slower rate than voting rights for other minorities (such as women). Dawn Foster of The Guardian interviewed Ciara Lawrence, a woman with a learning disability who works as the campaigns officer at the learning disability charity, Mencap. Lawrence told Foster, “Even today some people still question whether we have capacity or can make decisions on who to vote for. This is insulting and wrong. We have a right to vote like anyone else, but still face huge barriers.”23 Disenfranchisement of disabled individuals also still goes beyond just stigma and damaging political rhetoric; Foster notes, “People with physical disabilities can face problems voting, with 67% of polling stations not being accessible. And blind or partially sighted people are often hindered in their attempts to even make it on to the electoral roll by registration forms that are not easy to read.”24

Furthermore, there are places in the world in which it is impossible for disabled individuals to become naturalized citizens, like in In the Flesh. In Canada, as recent as 2018, their Immigration Act featured the “excessive demand” clause, in which a person who “would or might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demands on health or social services” could be rejected citizenship, which impacts many individuals with disabilities trying to emigrate to Canada.25 This showcases the way that disabled individuals are, even today, viewed as a drain on society; the Canadian policy makes it clear that they know that they could not get away with revoking the citizenship of natural-born disabled citizens, but it implies that if the lawmakers thought they could do so without backlash, they would. In the Flesh shows us a world where this backlash either does not exist or is not strong enough to prevent the disenfranchisement of the disabled zombie minority. Furthermore, the fact that disabled individual’s rights around the world, including in democratic countries, are not being enforced (and in fact are in some places being campaigned against) highlights how In the Flesh’s representation of disenfranchisement of this disabled minority is indicative of all too real fears of truly disabled individuals in the real world.

In conjunction with this Give Back Scheme, PDS Sufferers are required to attend mandatory class sessions which instruct them about how they are to conduct themselves in society. This thematically correlates with how disabled people, while not literally instructed on dealing with nondisabled individuals, are nonetheless covertly and subliminally taught through experience to deal with the anxieties of nondisabled people surrounding the realities of disability. In Zombie Theory: A Reader, Anna Mae Duane discusses Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s writings on how people with disabilities interact with nondisabled individuals. Duane notes that “Often, Thomson relates, it falls to the person with disability to manage the anxiety [these] encounters provoke in others.”26 In Thomson’s book Extraordinary Bodies, she elaborates on this point, claiming, “To be granted fully human status by normates [nondisabled individuals], disabled people must use charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humor, or entertainment to relieve nondisabled people of their discomfort.”27 Kieren and his fellow PDS Sufferers experience an uncomfortable and unfair new reality in which, to be granted even something which approaches (but decidedly does not reach) fully human status, they must overcompensate for their disabled status. This is exemplified by a scene in episode six of season two in which some human characters are served at a diner by a partially deceased waitress. In her opening greetings, she recites the government mandated spiel: “I’m a fully compliant PDS Sufferer. I have been administered neurotryptiline in the last 24 hours and will not enter a rabid state.”28 This is shown as absurd even by fully human standards as the two customers are made even more uncomfortable by this, flustered and unsure of how to respond, eventually replying, “Oh. Ha-ha. That’s good to know.”

However, not all people react this way. Kieren’s experience as a bartender shows us the way more conservative people respond to being served by the Partially Deceased. Maxine Martin discovers that he is Partially Deceased and becomes distressed, calling the atmosphere of the bar in which PDS Sufferers and living humans comingle as “relaxed” in a disdainful tone.29 Kieren is harassed in his workplace with such a frequency that he eventually quits, as it becomes clear that his only other option is to put up with people’s disparaging comments about him. This reveals the expectation that society places on disabled individuals to tolerate abled individuals constantly disparaging disabilities; for instance, consider the frequency with which “lame,” “stupid,” “idiot,” and “retarded” are considered commonplace in the population’s shared slang, despite the fact that at least three of the four terms are acknowledged as slurs. This is a direct parallel to Kieren hearing former members of the HVF use the disparaging term “rotters” at work.30

Even people who are more comfortable with the Partially Deceased do not always grant them fully human status. The two human customers mentioned previously provide us with an example of this unfortunate reality, as they attempt to track down Amy Dyer. Their plan is never fully specified; however, it is implied heavily that they plan at the very least to lock her up and experiment on her due to some test results that her doctor sent to their organization, which were hallmarked as unusual for Partially Deceased people. The way that the doctor attempts to protect Amy from these people further implies that they do not plan to ensure that Amy accompanies them willingly, but rather intend to take her with them even if forcing her to do so against her consent is required. This action is made possible because of the way in which their society has Othered the Partially Deceased due to their disability; Siebers writes that “the pathologization of other identities by disability is referential: it summons the historical and representational structures by which disability, sickness, and injury come to signify inferior human status.”31 This culminates in a display of the way they view her as merely a body, rather than a person with rights and agency who is deserving of respect, when they dig her out of her grave in one of the closing scenes of the series, presumably to continue their experiments on her dead body.

As we have seen, the monstrosity of humans is a running theme in this series. Bishop writes, “According to Kevin Alexander Boon, what makes a monster decidedly monstrous is its difference from the human, its unnaturalness.”32 In the Flesh turns this expectation on its head, giving us sympathetic “agent zombies” and violently unsympathetic humans. More often the zombies are more “human” in their morals, while some of the humans (particularly members of the HVF) revel in violence and death and paranoia, in some cases having a harder time fitting back into a non-apocalyptic society. Bishop claims that “zombie narratives address not only the expected monstrous behavior of the hordes of the walking dead, but also the monstrous acts committed by the few humans struggling to survive a dangerous post-apocalyptic world.”33 While this is a common thread in many zombie tales, such as The Walking Dead, In the Flesh provides a unique perspective on this phenomenon in the character of Jem Walker.

Jem Walker’s character in In the Flesh provides a fully human face for disability with the complex depiction of her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in season two of the series. In many ways, her PTSD makes her a sympathetic character: she sleeps with a towel underneath her because of how badly she sweats through her nightmares; she avoids the grocery store because it was where she witnessed her brother, in his untreated and rabid state, murder her best friend; she has trouble making friends because they cannot understand the horrors that she witnessed and that haunt every moment of her day. Here, Jem showcases the common difficulty veterans suffering from PTSD face with reintegration to civilian life.34 However, her PTSD also provides us with horrible moments, some of which reinforce common stigmatized perceptions. Mittal et al. discovered through their study of stigma associated with veterans who suffer from PTSD that there is often “a belief that combat veterans are responsible for having PTSD.”35 In season two episode two, one of her partially deceased peers takes a drug called Blue Oblivion, which returns him to a rabid state, in which he stalks through the school hallways attempting to break into classrooms to attack the students and teachers within. Because of her history as a member of the resistance during The Rising, Jem is forced out into the hallway to deal with the zombie, as the other students and her own teacher lock the door behind her and leave her to her fate. Jem, unable to react due to her stress, fear, and flashbacks, instead wets her pants and begs the class to allow her back in to the safety of the room. In response, instead of being treated with sympathy and understanding, Jem is alienated by her peers and mocked for her “cowardice.”36 Later, in response to this perceived failure, Jem goes out on patrol with the current leader of the HVF, where she panics and subsequently shoots one of her classmates, Henry, who is not only medicated—and so not a rabid zombie—but more importantly innocent of wrong-doing.

Here In the Flesh falls into perpetuating a common stereotype about veterans with PTSD: that they are “dangerous/violent” or “crazy”.37 It fails to help that the murder is covered up by both the leader of the HVF and the MP of her community, which results in Jem’s guilt worsening her PTSD, for which she still is not receiving help. Mittal et al. claim, “Most participants reported avoiding treatment early on to circumvent a label of mental illness.”38 Despite the violent act that has been committed because of her worsening illness, it still takes Jem until the end of the season to admit that she needs help. However, the series ends on a hopeful note for Jem’s story, with the implication that “help” in the form of professional intervention will mitigate Jem’s symptoms.39 Still, the series provides a representation of the stigma and stereotyping associated with PTSD in combat veterans, even if it at times falls into the very mindset that it is attempting to criticize.

We confront the monstrosity of humanity in additional moments to those concerned with Jem and her PTSD. A central issue of season one’s plotline concerns Bill Macy and his reception of his son, Rick Macy, a PDS Sufferer who was killed at war in Afghanistan and is now returning home after being recovered and treated there. At first, Bill Macy goes into deep denial, pretending that his son was recovered fully alive and is not Partially Deceased like the woman he murdered only moments before he got the news that Rick would be returning home. This is because if Bill Macy was to confront his son’s disabled identity, he would have to decide to either change his mind and believe that all of the PDS Sufferers deserve a second chance at life, or he would have to accept that he needs to kill his own son. Rick eventually forces his father to view him as he is—a Partially Deceased individual—which culminates in his father facing these choices, and choosing to murder his son. While extreme, this is not out of line within the considerations of how able-bodied individuals view those with disabilities. Duane notes that “activists in disability rights organizations such as Not Yet Dead contend that American culture’s fear of imperfection often manifests in the assumption that it is better to be dead than disabled.”40 In episode three when he murders his son, Bill Macy genuinely believes that he is releasing him from a worse fate, saying, “You’re trapped, aren’t you?”41 However, the show calls out Bill Macy for this idea by having him realize, when confronted by Kieren, that killing his son was the wrong choice; it would have been better for everyone if Rick was alive and disabled than dead and “free” of his disability.

Beyond this, there are many microaggressions committed by people in their belief that the partially deceased are inherently less than human. One such example of this is the treatment of the human character Dean after he is bitten by a rabid PDS Sufferer. Dean is safe from turning; the zombies of this series, as previously mentioned, are only those who died during a certain year, and cannot spread the “syndrome” to other individuals through any means. However, Dean is not completely safe; the fear of Partially Deceased individuals means that his own friends in the HVF turn on him, locking him up so that if he does turn (which he won’t), he is contained. This, however, is more than an inconvenience for Dean. Dean is actually a disabled human, although his disability is invisible and does not significantly contribute toward him being Othered by society: he is diabetic. This becomes immediately relevant, as while he is locked up, Dean’s friends do not bother to bring him food—minimizing his disability and exaggeratedly showing the effects of a disabling environment on a disabled individual. Instead of helping him, those who approach Dean spit on him or call him slurs. It is not until Ken comes along that anyone is willing to help Dean; Ken is the man whose wife’s brutal murder Dean was party to only days before. It is because Ken understands that disabled people, like PDS Sufferers, are people that he helps Dean despite having a very legitimate reason to ignore his crisis. This moment, even juxtaposed against the many moments of intolerance shown in the series, provides hope that society has the potential to move toward an iteration that is more accessible and tolerant of disability.

However, zombie narratives often necessitate this very intolerance. Duane asserts that “if, as disability theorists have long argued, ableist assumptions treat disability as a problem that requires one either to cure or kill it, the zombie narrative distills this binary logic into a moral imperative.”42 There is so often no choice but to kill in these traditional zombie narratives; as mentioned above, the audience sees the humans of In the Flesh struggling to reprogram themselves from zombie killing machines back into humans who can be tolerant of those Othered from themselves. Many of the humans fail at this; Bill Macy, Jem Walker, and Gary Kendal all struggle in different ways with switching off this mentality, or simply refuse to even try to change their mentality at all.

This cure or kill mentality comes out in season two episode three when Freddie (a PDS Sufferer) misses a dose of his medication and nearly attacks his ex-wife.43 The severity of the situation is theatrically exacerbated by the fact that the two individuals are trapped in a locked storage garage. After the incident is contained and Freddie is given his medication by Kieren (who has to step in front of Gary’s gun to administer it, after talking Gary into letting him do so rather than just killing Freddie), Gary ties up Freddie to take him back to the government facilities, revoking his rights to live in society because he has been “noncompliant” in taking his medication.44 There, he will be locked up, and maybe experimented on, by scientists studying Partially Deceased Syndrome. Gary tells Kieren (while standing on Freddie’s head), “You’d be amazed what I can do to your sort. What you can do sod all about.”45 This echoes the vulnerability of disabled individuals everywhere, who are often, because of the current structures and norms of Western society, reliant on the kindness of those around them for their survival. In the Flesh is a scary look at what happens when violence against these vulnerable individuals is either ignored or even sanctioned by authority figures. This is reflective of a trend in many Western nations, such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and Great Britain. In “Invisible Victims: Violence Against Persons with Developmental Disabilities,” Joan Petersilia writes that “important and consistent” evidence provides the “conservative estimate… that people with disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be the victims of crimes than people without disabilities.”46

In any study of disability, it is important to consider the role inferiority plays in the construction of disabled identities. Mitchell and Snyder believe that the foundational question of disability studies, in comparison with the studies surrounding other minorities, is “can one possess a physical or cognitive anomaly that does not translate into a belief in one’s social inferiority?”47 In the Flesh does not provide a hopeful answer to this question. In season two, when Kieren is at the train station waiting for a train to take him to the airport to leave Roarton behind, Amy, seeking to detain him from leaving, asks him how many layers of cover-up mousse he applied that morning, and how far he thinks he’ll need to go before he’s comfortable removing even one layer, let alone all of them.48 However, hope is partially restored at the close of the series, when Simon encourages Kieren to leave with him and Kieren replies, “Amy asked me once how many miles I’d have to go before I could be okay with myself. I thought I’d have to go around the whole world. I don’t think that anymore. I’m okay here.”49 Kieren’s belief that he will be okay is immediately offset, however, by the revelation that extremist groups like the ULA are still seeking to kill him, raising the question of if he will ever be safe. While people are seeking to kill him for reasons more tied to plot and the belief in a Second Rising of the zombies, for which Kieren’s death supposedly acts as a catalyst, we would be remiss to not consider the way in which people believe Kieren’s death would be excusable because he is Partially Deceased and occupies a disabled position in society. Unfortunately, because the show was cancelled, the idea was never able to be further explored in subsequent episodes.

Still, Mitchell and Snyder write that “In stories about characters with disabilities, an underlying issue is always whether that disability is the foundation of character itself.”50 In many ways, the characters of In the Flesh revolve around their positions as disabled members of society, especially when those characters are PDS Sufferers. However, this is in part what makes the narrative so compelling; it introduces a hope that society can learn to be more accepting of disability and difference, moving past the prejudices and persecutions that mark our history of dealing with disability.


Bishop, Kyle William. How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture: The Multifarious Walking Dead in the 21st Century. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015.

Corrigan, Patrick W., et al. “Self-Stigma and the ‘Why Try’ Effect: Impact on Life Goals and Evidence-Based Practices.” World Psychiatry, vol. 8, no. 2, June 2009, pp. 75–81. doi:10.1002/j.2051-5545.2009.tb00218.x.

Derksen, Craig and Darren Hudson Hick. “Your Zombie and You: Identity, Emotion, and the Undead.” In Zombies are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead, eds. Christopher M. Moreman and Cory James Rushton, 11-23. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.

Duane, Anna Mae. “Dead and Disabled: The Crawling Monsters of The Walking Dead.” In Zombie Theory: A Reader, edited by Sarah Juliet Lauro, 237-245. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

In the Flesh. 2013-2014. BBC. Produced by Dominic Mitchell.

Fojas, Camilla. Zombies, Migrants, and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture. University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Foster, Dawn. “A Century after Women Got the Vote, Many People Are Still Disenfranchised.” The Guardian, 6 Feb. 2018. (

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Disability in American Literature and Culture. Columbia University Press, 1997.

Griffiths, Kathleen M., et al. “Predictors of Depression Stigma.” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 8, no. 1, Apr. 2008, p. 25, doi:10.1186/1471-244X-8-25.

Goodley, Dan. Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, 2nd edition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2018.

Immigration and Disability: Stephen Hawking Could Never Become a Canadian. Council of Canadians with Disabilities. (

Mitchell, David and Sharon Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Mittal, Dinesh, et al. “Stigma Associated with PTSD: Perceptions of Treatment Seeking Combat Veterans.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2013, pp. 86–92. doi:10.1037/h0094976.

Modarressy-Tehrani, Caroline. “Thousands of Americans with Mental Disabilities May Be Improperly Barred from Voting.” Vice, Oct. 21, 2016. (

Petersilia, Joan. “Invisible Victims: Violence against Persons with Developmental Disabilities,” Human Rights vol. 27, no. 1 (Winter 2000): p. 9-12.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. The University of Michigan Press, 2018.

Watson, Amy C., et al. “Self-Stigma in People With Mental Illness.” Schizophrenia Bulletin, vol. 33, no. 6, Nov. 2007, pp. 1312–18. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbl076.

End Notes

  1. Camilla Fojas, Zombies, Migrants, and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 61. ↩︎

  2. Kyle William Bishop, How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture: The Multifarious Walking Dead in the 21st Century (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015), 190. ↩︎

  3. Bishop, How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture, 164. ↩︎

  4. Bishop, How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture, 3. ↩︎

  5. Bishop, How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture, 17. ↩︎

  6. Bishop, How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture, 75. ↩︎

  7. Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2018). ↩︎

  8. “Episode Two.” In the Flesh: Season One. Directed by Jonny Campbell. 2013. BBC. ↩︎

  9. Dan Goodley, Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, 2nd edition (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2018), 9. ↩︎

  10. Kathleen M. Griffiths, Helen Christensen, and Anthony F. Jorm. “Predictors of Depression Stigma.” BMC Psychiatry 8, no. 1 (April 18, 2008): 25. ( ↩︎

  11. Patrick W. Corrigan, Jonathon E. Larson, and Nicolas Rüsch, “Self-Stigma and the ‘Why Try’ Effect: Impact on Life Goals and Evidence-Based Practices.” World Psychiatry 8, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 75–81. ( ↩︎

  12. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000), 3. ↩︎

  13. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 3. ↩︎

  14. Fojas, Zombies, Migrants, and Queers, 62. ↩︎

  15. Goodley, Disability Studies, 14. ↩︎

  16. Siebers, Disability Theory, 25. ↩︎

  17. Siebers, Disability Theory, 25. ↩︎

  18. “Episode Five.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Alice Troughton. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  19. Siebers, Disability Theory, 25. ↩︎

  20. Siebers, Disability Theory, 3. ↩︎

  21. “Episode Two.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Jim O’Hanlan. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  22. Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, “Thousands of Americans with Mental Disabilities May Be Improperly Barred from Voting,” Vice, Oct. 21, 2016. (↩︎

  23. Dawn Foster, “A Century after Women Got the Vote, Many People Are Still Disenfranchised,” The Guardian, February 6, 2018. ( ↩︎

  24. Foster, “A Century after Women Got the Vote, Many People Are Still Disenfranchised.” ↩︎

  25. “Immigration and Disability: Stephen Hawking Could Never Become a Canadian,” Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Accessed November 15, 2018. ( ↩︎

  26. Anna Mae Duane, “Dead and Disabled: The Crawling Monsters of The Walking Dead” in Zombie Theory: A Reader, ed. Sarah Juliet Lauro (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 238. ↩︎

  27. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Disability in American Literature and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 13. ↩︎

  28. “Episode Six.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Alice Troughton. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  29. “Episode One.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Jim O’Hanlon. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  30. “Episode One.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Jim O’Hanlon. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  31. Siebers, Disability Theory, 6. ↩︎

  32. Bishop, How Zombies Conquered, 75. ↩︎

  33. Bishop, How Zombies Conquered, 73. ↩︎

  34. Dinesh Mittal, Karen L. Drummond, Dean Blevins, Geoffrey Curran, Patrick Corrigan, and Greer Sullivan, “Stigma Associated with PTSD: Perceptions of Treatment Seeking Combat Veterans.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 36, no. 2 (2013): 87. ( ↩︎

  35. Mittal,, “Stigma Associated with PTSD,” 87. ↩︎

  36. “Episode Two.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Jim O’Hanlon. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  37. Mittal et al, “Stigma Associated with PTSD,” 87. ↩︎

  38. Mittal et al, “Stigma Associated with PTSD,” 87. ↩︎

  39. “Episode Six.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Alice Troughton. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  40. Duane, “Dead and Disabled,” 238. ↩︎

  41. “Episode Three.” In the Flesh: Season One. Directed by Jonny Campbell. 2013. BBC. ↩︎

  42. Duane, “Dead and Disabled,” 239. ↩︎

  43. “Episode Three.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Damon Thomas. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  44. “Episode Three.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Damon Thomas. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  45. “Episode Three.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Damon Thomas. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  46. Joan Petersilia, “Invisible Victims: Violence Against Persons with Developmental Disabilities.” Human Rights 27, no. 1 (2000): 9. ↩︎

  47. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 4. ↩︎

  48. “Episode Two.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Jim O’Hanlon. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  49. “Episode Six.” In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two. Directed by Alice Troughton. 2014. BBC. ↩︎

  50. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 6. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Jennifer Brown is currently a second year Master’s student at Boston College studying Irish Literature and Culture through their English department. While her graduate work has taken her in exciting new directions, her first love will always be analyzing cultural issues and identity formations in speculative fiction. She has two previous publications, both adapted from conference presentations. Her publication in the last issue of Response, “Satirizing the Supercrip,” was likewise a paper on disability in speculative fiction, and received MAPACA’s Walden Award for Best Undergraduate Paper in 2017.

Volume 4, Issue 2
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