Ask anyone why The Walking Dead is as popular as it is and you'll get a wide variety of answers. "I love Norman Reedus," or, "I read the comics," might be common answers, but ultimately the individual diversity of answers can be condensed into a few main categories of why one of the most popular shows on television is a gory zombie show.
We Can't Do This Without People
One of the primary reasons for the show's popularity is that it is character-driven. Audiences delve deeply enough into the psyche and personality of individual characters to form a bond which is strong enough to garner deeply emotional reactions to the fate of these characters. One has only to look at the audience reaction to the death of Scott Wilson's character, Hershel Green, in Season 4 to judge the veracity of this point. I know I sobbed along with Hershel's family while watching his demise.
One might say that anyone could have an emotional reaction to the death of a character, but the audience of The Walking Dead is so connected to the characters that they are emotionally attached to all aspects of the characters' lives, especially their interpersonal relationships. Ask any "shipper" how he or she feels about Caryl and Bethyl and you'll soon understand that for many fans, these characters are much more than flickering images on a screen.
Without these well-developed and deeply-connected characters, The Walking Dead would be little more than a well-written and enjoyably filmed horror flick. Without the emotional connection to the characters, viewers would have little to bring them back to the show each week other than some cool special effects and the beautiful scenery of Georgia.
What a World, What a World
While the strong characters might be a key reason why viewers return to the show week after week, something has to get the viewer interested in the first place. For many, myself included, the world in which we live has become violent and painful. A show like The Walking Dead gives viewers something to watch that reminds us all, it could be worse. That we could be worse.
Unlike the romantic comedies or high powered dramas which permeate the entertainment offerings of television and film, The Walking Dead shows us a world where the good do die, where the guy doesn't always get the girl, and where sometimes the girl literally eats the guy's heart. In short, the world of the Walking Dead is very like our own, but more dangerous and more vicious. The nature of the world where Rick Grimes, Daryl Dixon and Michonne live is familiar enough for us to connect to it easily, but bad enough that viewers can heave a sigh of relief when they realize that they don't live in that world.
It might seem strange for an audience to crave escape to a world worse than their own, but it can be empowering to see the violence of The Walking Dead world and to engage in "what if" scenarios where the viewer can be their best and postulate how they would have handled what their favorite characters were forced to do.
How many fans cursed or applauded Carol's actions in Season 4? How many envisioned themselves in Andrea's place in Season 3? And how many have asked themselves if they could make the choices Rick has had to make each season? It is through these kinds of questions and the discussions among friends which they spawn that fans of The Walking Dead are able to connect with the show while simultaneously being empowered by their belief that they can be stronger, better, and more human than the show's writers allow the characters to be.
It's All About the Fans
A final key reason why audiences of The Walking Dead are vehemently loyal to the show and set out on pointed missions to recruit new viewers at every turn is the connection the show's stars, writers, directors, producers, cast and crew have with the fans. Not a day goes by that one of the cast or crew of the show doesn't post something on social media that shows them interacting directly with the fans. Norman Reedus regularly shares photos of himself with fans at events and out in public. Josh McDermitt carries on "Mullet chats" with his fans via twitter. Gale Ann Hurd and Michael Cudlitz stay connected with fans of the show almost daily. In short, the people who make this amazing show take the time to stay connected to those who keep the ratings jacked sky high. The cast and crew regularly thank the fans for their support and the fans share their love through fan art, fanfiction, and sky-high merchandising sales.
The Walking Dead would not be the record-breaking, popular show it is should any one of these factors fall by the wayside. Without the strong characters, the world which encourages fans to be better and the clear connection between the show and the fans, The Walking Dead would just be a gory blip on the screen every Sunday night.