Fear The Walking Dead season 7, episode 3, “Cindy Hawkins,” is an absolutely terrifying episode that establishes the spinoff as the scariest Walking Dead show – and that’s mostly due to the freaky brand of noise it’s making. The Walking Dead has flitted in and out of the horror genre over the past 11 years on AMC. Originating as a TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s zombie comic, The Walking Dead was initially steeped in genre tropes, but as time went by and human villains become more important, the dramatic and action-based elements began overrunning the Romero-isms. Recent seasons have brought The Walking Dead back to its roots somewhat (season 11’s “On The Inside” was gloriously creepy), but horror is the exception right now, not the rule.
The Walking Dead might’ve reignited its horror spark with “On The Inside,” but Fear The Walking Dead spooks away its parent series to become the scariest Walking Dead show in town. For the first time in Fear The Walking Dead season 7, “Cindy Hawkins” catches up with June and John Dorie Sr., who hunkered in the bunker Teddy had prepared for himself after triggering season 6’s nuclear strike. Taking the premise of hiding in a serial k.i.l.l.e.r’s nuclear hideout to its logically messed-up conclusion, “Cindy Hawkins” proves Fear The Walking Dead is the most unsettling, disturbing, horror-ific point on AMC’s zombie triumvirate.
“Cindy Hawkins” packs a bunker-full of classic horror tropes into its 50-minute runtime, all with an undead twist, and becomes something of a self-contained Fear The Walking Dead mini-movie. The isolation June and John find themselves enduring creates a suspenseful atmosphere where the grimness of their situation is crudely papered over by the joyous sounds of The Mamas & The Papas. Echoing so many classic horror stories of decades past, the cramped surroundings bring out the human horror – hallucinations due to John’s alcoholism, and June’s manipulations as she navigates her grief from losing John Dorie Jr. When invaders come a-knocking, Ron Underwood’s direction limits the audience’s vision to only the narrow eye holes of John’s gas mask, giving the sensation of being semi-blindfolded in a wasteland of ghosts and ghouls.
But what really makes Fear The Walking Dead the scariest Walking Dead show on TV is the sound design. As admittedly geeky as that reason might be, Fear The Walking Dead season 7 manipulates noise and Foley sounds to create a creepier sense of unease than even the most gruesomely disfigured shuffling corpse could conjure. In “Cindy Hawkins,” this manifests as the piercingly loud hammering John hears while going cold turkey. The sharp clangs not only build toward John’s sanity cracking, but also serve as an ominous warning to the audience that unknown attacks are slowly drawing closer. When John eventually does break and visions of a mutilated Cindy manifest, it’s once again sound that wrings every drop of horror from the situation. The high-pitched shrieks and “help me” cries are more effective at making Cindy’s ghost frightening than any visual effects and makeup.
Fear The Walking Dead didn’t become the scariest Walking Dead show overnight – these techniques have been building throughout the season so far. As a prelude to Fred almost k.i.l.l.i.n.g Mo the baby in Fear The Walking Dead season 7’s previous offering, Mo the baby’s loud, abrasive wails permeated the episode’s soundtrack. Though jarring and annoying at first, the effect was intentional, and served as foreshadowing for Fred’s attempt to “silence” Mo the baby later in the episode. Before that, Fear The Walking Dead’s season 7 premiere used a classic foggy lighthouse scene as the setting for a zombie showdown with Strand and Will – the eerie mist perfectly blending George A. Romero with John Carpenter.
Fear The Walking Dead isn’t the scariest Walking Dead show simply by throwing more money at visual effects or covering darker subject matter (although the latter certainly is true). It’s the basic horror principles that have remained untouched since Alfred Hitchcock’s heyday – innovative use of sound, isolated scenarios, terror that speaks to the human mind.