Looping Music on 'The Walking Dead' Is Waterboarding For Ears

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Music is a wicked means of torture in episode three of The Walking Dead, “The Cell.” Trapped in The Savior’s main compound and surviving only on dog food sandwiches, Daryl undergoes systematic musical torture at the hands of the show’s big bad, Negan. The notorious villain’s go-to abusive tool slowly wears down the listener’s brain until it’s psychological mush.

Daryl is first broken by the constant repetition of “Easy Street” by the Collapsable Hearts Club — a tinkly, banjo-heavy track with a cheery message that transforms into something all too unsettling in Daryl’s torture chamber. The final blow in his psychological demise is induced by an endless loop of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, which forces Daryl to break down into his own sobs. He’s not the only one who suffers: Whenever Daryl is forced to hear another round of “Easy Street,” the audience does as well; as we watch, we empathize by going slightly mad with him.

The Walking Dead’s use of music is rooted in decades of real-life instances where music was used for torture. From the use of purposefully cheery polka in Nazi concentration camps to the employment of “loud music” in the United States-run “dark prisons” until 2006, repeated music has been employed as a means to create a sense of futility. While the status of music as “torture” in U.S. and international law is described as “at best, not clear”, the organization Physicians for Human Rights believes that music in interrogation becomes psychological torture when it’s used as a tactic for prolonged sensory and sleep deprivation.

University of Portsmouth professor John Leach writes in Extreme Physiology & Medicine that sensory attacks can be particularly torturous because the victim can’t predict, control, or hide from an auditory attack. Not being able to screen sound can “overwhelm their psychological defense mechanisms,” and, in experimental studies, subjects who were exposed to intense auditory and visual stimuli experienced “mood changes, illusions and hallucinations and body image distortions, irritability, distraction, disorientation, and a withdrawal from reality.” Leach also notes that it’s thought that the brain prefers harmonic, periodic, and more natural sounds, meaning that it’s a song that progresses unpredictably, like “Easy Street,” that’s more likely to rattle the mind.

One of the reasons that music can create such a torturous effect is because it can affect a person in multiple ways. In the journal Transposition, researcher Morag Grant, Ph.D., writes that there are different “pathways to musical torture, including “sensory deprivation, political communication, humiliation, and “power performance.” When Daryl is forced to listen to “Easy Street,” the song isn’t just attacking his senses — it’s gnawing at him on a cognitive level, too: He’s being forced to listen to lines like “we’re breaking out the good champagne, sitting pretty on the gravy train” while being tortured.

Humiliation combines with emotional stimulation when, at the end of the episode, Negan puts on Orbison’s “Crying.”

“Yes, now you’re gone and from this moment on/I’ll be crying, crying, crying, crying,” Orbison croons. Trapped and blaming himself for Glenn’s death, Daryl can’t help but cry too.

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