Conflict Strategies in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead
(Content Warning: Plot spoilers, descriptions of physical violence)
Imagine one day, while enjoying a lazy Sunday outdoors, you are suddenly facing a natural disaster. You escape the immediate danger by running into an isolated house in the country, only to find that the disaster is quickly spreading and you are now blocked inside the house. Suddenly, you discover you are not alone as you face the dangers that are surrounding you, as there are seven strangers in the house with you.
How would you approach trying to survive together? What happens if there is a disagreement about what the best strategy is for staying alive? Is it better to compete to protect yourself first and foremost, or is it worthwhile to take risks in order to cooperate with others?
In 1968, George A. Romero imagined this scenario in his classic film, Night of the Living Dead. In this case, the natural disaster is that the dead are coming back to life and devouring the flesh of the living. The situation that emerges as a band of survivors attempts to defend themselves is perfect for thinking about the strategies we use to manage conflicts when under duress. This essay will discuss positional bargaining, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), and the prisoner’s dilemma. Before we are overwhelmed, let’s recap the plot of Night of the Living Dead so that we’re all on the same page.
Danger in the Night
The story begins with Barbra, and her brother Johnny, visiting their father’s grave in the countryside. While at the graveyard, a man staffers up to them and attacks Johnny, revealing that something isn’t quite right. Johnny dies while struggling with this strange man, and Barbra flees into an isolated farmhouse. Soon she is joined by Ben, as other attackers straggle up to the house. Due to the shock and trauma of witnessing her brother’s murder, Barbra shuts down while Ben takes charge barricading the house to fortify them both from their attackers.
Eventually, five more strangers emerge from the basement, where they have been hiding. This includes a married couple, Harry and Helen Cooper, and their injured daughter, who ran into the farmhouse after being attacked while traveling on the road. With them is also Tom and Judy, a young couple from the local area. Together they all discover through a radio broadcast that the attackers are, in fact, the dead who have recently re-animated and are driven to attack the living.
From the very beginning, things are tense between the survivors. Despite everyone having escaped to this farmhouse with the aim of surviving the onslaught of the “ghouls,” they do not know each other and trust is short supply. To make matters worse, while Ben has been working hard to secure the upstairs area, those in the basement had continued hiding despite hearing Barbra scream, knowing that she might be in trouble. Unfortunately, this a bad foot on which to start a new relationship.
This lack of trust feeds the first conflict, and quickly escalates it. Ben believes it would be safer to stay upstairs, where they can see the ghouls outside and make it to an exit if the fortifications fail. Harry insists that they should instead all retreat to the cellar immediately because they can barricade the door, providing a more secure point of entry to defend from. The others are divided, with Barbra and Helen defaulting to Ben’s side and Harry’s side respectively, and Tom and Judy trying to bring the two sides together to cooperate. To make matters more difficult, there are scarce resources available which may be essential to their survival, such as a radio, food, and a gun.
Where to Survive vs. How to Survive
What we see in this conflict is that both Ben and Harry are engaging in what is called Positional Bargaining, which is “a negotiation strategy that involves holding on to a fixed idea, or position, of what you want and arguing for it and it alone, regardless of any underlying interests” (Spangler, 2003a). Ben holds the position that they should all stay upstairs to defend themselves against the ghouls. Harry advocates for the position that they should all hide in the basement, and wait for help down there. In contrast to these differing positions, they both clearly share at least one underlying interest: survival.
Due to these competing positions, the conflict is seen as a zero-sum or “win-lose” situation – if one person’s position wins, the other necessarily loses (Spangler, 2003b). Because these two positions would place all of the people and resources in one location or the other, upstairs or downstairs, the two positions become mutually exclusive. For example, the radio can’t both be upstairs and downstairs at the same time. This is the biggest problem with positional bargaining as a strategy for managing conflict: it transforms the conflict into the zero-sum game where disputants must compete with each other.
The alternative would be to focus on the underlying interests of both parties. The interest in survival is something they all share, and it isn’t mutually exclusive. This could be framed as a positive-sum or “win-win” situation, as everyone wins if they all survive together. While there may still be some conflicting interests between Ben and Harry, such as who will be looked to as a leader or who will have the status of being “right,” these interests aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, Tom points out that they could all start upstairs, like Ben suggests, and then retreat downstairs if the ghouls manage to break in, like Harry suggests, which allow them to both be “right” in their own way.
The bargaining between the two sides continues for a time, as they argue over who should be where and whether any of the resources can be shared between them. Eventually, they find a TV, which announces during its broadcast that the military has set up rescue stations, and is advising civilians to seek safety at these stations. This sets up more conflicts, as they debate whether to attempt to leave the temporary safety of the farmhouse and how to do it if they choose to go to the rescue station. This brings us to the “mode” through which each of them approaches conflict.
Competing to Survive
In Night of the Living Dead, each character appears to embody a different “mode” of managing conflict as identified in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (Kilmann Diagnostics, 2018).
As you can see in the chart, this instrument models styles of conflict management along two axes: “assertiveness” and “cooperativeness.” Sometimes these labels are replaced with the labels “self-interest” and “other interest,” as these modes could be understood as being driven by disposition or priorities. Either way, the type of strategies and solutions these different approaches embody are consistent: Avoiding, Competing, Accommodating, Compromising, and Collaborating.
Avoiding is the strategy to which we see Barbra resort. Paralyzed with shock, she withdraws from all the conflicts going on around her. She avoids siding with anybody, or even voicing an opinion, and instead escapes into symbols of domesticity, such as the doilies on the couch or the sweet sounds of the music box. The passivity of this response leads Barbra to be unable to contribute during the crisis, but she also isn’t escalating the conflict.
Competing is what we witness both Ben and Harry do throughout the movie. Rather than seek a solution that achieves both of their interests, they stick to their own positions and fight between each other to assert their positions. While sticking up for one’s position can be important sometimes, it is ineffective at improving this situation because it leaves everyone divided and unable to work together for survival.
Accommodating might be the best way to describe Judy’s approach to these conflicts. She goes along with whatever anyone else asks of her, whether it’s Tom, Helen, or Harry. As she tries to help everyone, she finds herself being pulled in different directions, often leaving her unable to protect herself. This can be seen when she gets caught out in between Harry at the door and Tom in the truck as they try to execute their escape plan, which then complicates everything.
Compromising is how Helen deals with the situation. After years of dealing with her husband, who she observes is obsessed with being right and everyone else being wrong, she has adapted by finding some point of middle-ground between her own interests and the interests of others. We see her forge compromises to try and de-escalate the conflict, like when she negotiates for Judy to return to the basement to watch Helen and Harry’s daughter while Helen comes up to see the television broadcast. Compromising provides her with more opportunities to de-escalate the conflict, but it comes up short because nobody is truly satisfied in the end. As a result, the conflict continues simmering beneath the surface.
Collaboration can be found in Tom’s attempts to bridge the gaps between everyone and find a way forward for all of them together. Tom frequently focuses on the interests they all share, for survival and security, rather than getting hung up on any particular position. It is through collaboration that they end up coming up with their plan to escape, as they realize that if Ben and Tom can fuel the truck, while Harry distracts the living dead with Molotov cocktails and Judy and Helen protect the house, they can all stay safe until they can leave together to the rescue station. This strategy provides the best possible outcome for everyone and appears to, at least for a short time, resolve the conflicts between them.
Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan. While they succeed at first, with Harry tossing Molotov cocktails out the window to distract the ghouls as Ben, Tom, and Judy get into the truck, they encounter a hiccup at the fuel pump. Panicking, Tom struggles to find the right key, Ben shoots the lock, and Tom fumbles the nozzle spilling gasoline. The gasoline spills right onto Ben’s torch, catching fire and spreading to the truck. Tom and Judy attempt to get the truck out of harm’s way, but it is too late and they perish as the fuel tank explodes.
Betrayal in the Farmhouse
As Ben retreats back to the farmhouse, Harry betrays him and closes the door, locking Ben outside. With ghouls closing in on him, Ben has no choice but to break open the door in order to get to safety. He quickly closes the door behind him, and attempts to board it back up to keep the undead from getting inside to feast upon them. Despite hesitating at the cellar door for a moment, Harry decides to help Ben secure the door since they are all at risk. Once the door is secure, Ben is understandably upset after Harry just locked him outside to die and punches him in the face, yelling at him in anger.
Later on, as the hordes of the living dead begin to break through their defenses on the windows and doors, Harry takes advantage of the situation to seize the gun and immediately points it at Ben. Rather than being able to focus on securing the window, Ben throws a board at Harry to protect himself, wrestling him for control of the weapon. As the house’s fortifications are torn down around them, Ben gets the gun back under his control and shoots Harry in self-defense. When an injured Harry and a terrified Helen retreat downstairs, they find their injured daughter who has been downstairs this whole time has turned into a ghoul who proceeds to kill and feed upon both of them. With the undead breaching the defenses, Ben retreats, at last, into the basement, where he is forced to kill the now-zombified nuclear family downstairs. When day breaks the next morning, Ben goes upstairs when he hears the ghouls are gone and people are outside, but is shot and killed by a militia of white rednecks.
As the credits roll, the characters we have watched this entire time have all died. Instead of the monsters outside which they defended against, it was their own inability to cooperate that killed them in the end. After all, every death was caused either by an accident, such as Tom and Judy in the truck, or at the hands of one of the other survivors, such as Ben shooting Harry. Why were they unable to cooperate? More importantly, why did Harry betray Ben when their very survival was at stake?
One way to make sense of Harry’s decision is to look at it as a form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Kuhn, 2014). The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes the Prisoner’s Dilemma as follows:
Tanya and Cinque have been arrested for robbing the Hibernia Savings Bank and placed in separate isolation cells. Both care much more about their personal freedom than about the welfare of their accomplice. A clever prosecutor makes the following offer to each. “You may choose to confess or remain silent. If you confess and your accomplice remains silent I will drop all charges against you and use your testimony to ensure that your accomplice does serious time. Likewise, if your accomplice confesses while you remain silent, they will go free while you do the time. If you both confess I get two convictions, but I’ll see to it that you both get early parole. If you both remain silent, I’ll have to settle for token sentences on firearms possession charges. If you wish to confess, you must leave a note with the jailer before my return tomorrow morning.”
This dilemma is an exercise that is often employed to explain the basics of Game Theory. In Game Theory, we assume all parties are rational, self-interested actors that make their decisions based upon the incentives they face in a given situation. While these assumptions may seem silly, thinking things through from this perspective can sometimes reveal to us why a seemingly irrational choice might actually make sense based upon how a person is incentivized. We can model the dilemma described above using game theory as follows:
What this table tells us is that if both Tanya and Cinque cooperate with each other, and stay silent, they will each spend one year in jail due to the “token sentence.” If Tanya betrays Cinque by testifying against Cinque, but Cinque is still cooperating with Tanya by being silent, Tanya will walk free while Cinque spends three years in jail. This applies vice-versa, as well. Finally, if they both betray each other and testify, they will both be sentenced to longer sentences but be offered early parole, meaning that they will each spend two years in prison.
In this situation, what would you do? Many game theorists argue that the rational choice is to betray your partner in crime, under these conditions. There are different ways to explain this, but one simple way is to point out that you cannot control what the other person will do. If they betray you, you are better off already having betrayed them as well, because you will only have two years in jail instead of three. Additionally, if you betray them, but they choose to cooperate, you actually go free! The problem is, if both people are incentivized to betray each other like this, they will both end up being worse off than if they had cooperated all along. This is because joint cooperation results in only a one year sentence each, as opposed to the two years of jail time they’ll both serve if they betray each other.
This brings us back to Ben and Harry. Neither of them are facing prison sentences, but we can suppose that by choosing to cooperate or betray each other, they are risking differing probabilities of survival. Let’s imagine that their chances of survival look like this:
As the living dead break through the windows, the chance that they all survive if they cooperate isn’t certain, as the situation is getting dangerous. Still, they probably stand some chance of surviving if they both work together. If Ben betrays Harry, he doesn’t have to worry about Harry shooting him in the back, but Harry will definitely be dead. Vice-versa, if Harry betrays Ben, he can usher his family into the basement without worrying that Ben will break-in the basement door and endanger them, but Ben will definitely die. If they both betray each other, Ben won’t be able to defend the upstairs and Harry will likely not be able to protect his family downstairs, though they both might be alive momentarily. As a group, they are best off all working together, but because they have focused upon their own personal interests and positions throughout their disputes, they can only see the immediate incentives of betraying each other.
Surviving the Night
After considering how all this plays out, it seems possible to imagine another way our band of survivors might have made it through the night. When Ben and Harry first begin fighting, they could have re-focused upon the interests they each had, such as survival, instead of getting stuck upon the positions they each put forward. This would have allowed them to pursue a win-win solution that helped everyone. If more people had embraced Tom’s strategy of collaboration in this situation, rather than competition, avoidance, accommodation, or compromise, they may have been more successful at implementing their escape plan or in adapting to it after it failed. And if Ben and Harry could have understand that their best chances remained in cooperation, rather than betrayal, they may have been able to work together to fight off the ghoulish horde.
Kilmann Diagnostics. (2018). An Overview of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Retrieved from http://www.kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki
Kuhn, S. (2014, August 29). Prisoner’s Dilemma. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/prisoner-dilemma/
Spangler, B. (2003a, June). Positional Bargaining. Retrieved from https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/positional-bargaining
Spangler, B. (2003b, October). Positive-Sum / Zero-Sum / Negative-Sum Situations. Retrieved from https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/sum