World War Z

World War Z

by

Max Brooks

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Themes and Colors
Humanity vs. Monstrosity Theme Icon
Fear Theme Icon
The Fragility of Privilege and Modern Life Theme Icon
The Cost of War Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in World War Z, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fear Theme Icon

The war between humans and zombies in the novel is a drawn-out one with several losses incurred by people against an enemy—the zombie horde—that only seems to grow in size. As a result, people not only struggle with death and destruction but also suffer from hopelessness and low morale. Many of the narrator’s interviewees point out that human beings feel fear, which is one of the chief differences between them and the hungry automatons that are attacking them. As this sense of fear proves to be a significant weakness, World War Z suggests that fear is the biggest disadvantage that people face while at war, and that it can be even more dangerous and claim more victims than a tangible enemy.

The overwhelming emotion that people all over the world feel during the outbreak is fear, and it causes them to become unfocused and vulnerable. This leaves them open to exploitation and attack. For instance, at the Battle of Yonkers, the U.S. Army is prepared for their fight against the zombies with every weapon in their arsenal and expect certain victory. However, the zombies keep coming, unafraid of the onslaught and the gadgetry, because they are not capable of feeling fear. One of the soldiers, Todd Wainio, tells the narrator that “real fighting isn’t about killing or even hurting the other guy, it’s about scaring him enough to call it a day.” Since zombies are biologically incapable of fear, they prove to be formidable opponents. The people who are fighting them become even more terrified when they realize that their enemy is completely fearless and will never give up.

Fear also weakens people and is exploited by unethical characters like Breckinridge Scott, the maker of Phalanx—a fake vaccine that he claims will be protection against a zombie bite. Scott tells the narrator that he understood early on that “fear is the most basic emotion we have.” He realizes that “Fear sells,” which is why he markets the vaccine at a time when the population is at its most fearful. He knows that at such a time, people will grab at solutions no matter how dubious they are. He becomes a millionaire by exploiting fear.

Some of the interviews in the novel show that fear can be so consuming that it is even more dangerous to a person’s well-being than imminent physical danger. During the war, suicide rates are very high since people are too afraid to face the future. At a castle in Holland where some are sheltering against the zombies, pneumonia breaks out and those inside feel so hopeless that they go “mad with desperation” and leap to their deaths from the windows, falling into moats that are crawling with zombies. Even though they might have survived if they’d carried on, they are too overwhelmed by fear. Also, many people succumb to a new mental illness during the war that the U.S. names Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome or Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome (ADS). Victims are physically healthy or have only minor illnesses or wounds, and they end up dying in their sleep without any other symptoms. They fear the future, so their bodies just seem to give up. ADS ends up “kill[ing] as many people in [the war’s] early stalemate months as hunger, disease, interhuman violence, or the living dead.”

Fear also affects people by causing them to behave uncharacteristically and lose their grip on reality. The narrator interviews Colonel Christina Eliopolis, who has an “outstanding war record” and a reputation for being capable and tough. She tells him about the time her plane blew up and she was stranded in an unknown area and surrounded by zombies. She made contact on her radio with a skywatcher named Mets, who guided her to safety. After Eliopolis was rescued, the authorities discovered that her radio had broken during her fall, and that there was no skywatcher named Mets. Eliopolis insists they are mistaken, but the narrator implies that Mets is a figment of her imagination. She had found herself in a lonely and horrific situation, and had invented a narrative that would help her survive it. Even after all this time, she is unwilling to confront reality.

Another way in which some people cope with their fear of zombies is by convincing themselves that they, too, are zombies. They wander around moaning like the monsters and attacking people by biting and trying to eat them. Security forces call them “quislings” and one of the security men says that some people “just can’t deal with a fight-or-die situation” and “are drawn to what they are afraid of. Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it.” These people lack the mental strength to push through these overwhelmingly difficult times and seem to have snapped. Through these examples, the novel suggests that fear is an integral part of human nature, and it is what weakens people most in times of crisis. By contrast, the zombies’ lack of fear is their biggest strength.

Related Themes from Other Texts
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Fear ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fear appears in each chapter of World War Z. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fear Quotes in World War Z

Below you will find the important quotes in World War Z related to the theme of Fear.
Chapter 1: Warnings Quotes

At first the villagers tried to hold me back. They warned me not to touch him, that he was “cursed.” I shrugged them off and reached for my mask and gloves. The boy’s skin was as cold and gray as the cement on which he lay. I could find neither his heartbeat nor his pulse. His eyes were wild, wide and sunken back in their sockets. They remained locked on me like a predatory beast. Throughout the examination he was inexplicably hostile, reaching for me with his bound hands and snapping at me through his gag. […]

I instinctively retreated several paces […]. I am embarrassed to admit this; I have been a doctor for most of my adult life. […] I’ve treated more than my share of combat injuries, faced my own death on more than one occasion, and now I was scared, truly scared, of this frail child.

Related Characters: Kwang Jingshu (speaker), Patient Zero
Related Symbols: Zombies
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

I realized I practically didn’t know anything about these people I’d hated my entire life. Everything I thought was true went up in smoke that day, supplanted by the face of our real enemy.

Related Characters: Saladin Kader (speaker)
Related Symbols: Zombies
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2: Blame Quotes

The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton. “Fear,” he used to say, “fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say. “What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” Fuckin’ A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra. “Fear sells.”

Related Characters: Breckinridge “Breck” Scott (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3: The Great Panic Quotes

The swarm continued among the cars, literally eating its way up the stalled lines, all those poor bastards just trying to get away. And that’s what haunts me most about it, they weren’t headed anywhere. This was the I-80, a strip of highway between Lincoln and North Platte. Both places were heavily infested, as well as all those little towns in between. What did they think they were doing? Who organized this exodus? Did anyone? Did people see a line of cars and join them without asking? I tried to imagine what it must have been like, stuck bumper to bumper, crying kids, barking dog, knowing what was coming just a few miles back, and hoping, praying that someone up ahead knows where he’s going.

Related Characters: Gavin Blaire (speaker)
Related Symbols: Zombies
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

So when I saw the searing, bright green signatures of several hundred runners, my throat tightened. Those weren’t living dead.

“There it is!” I heard them shout. “That’s the house on the news!” They were carrying ladders, guns, babies. A couple of them had these heavy satchels strapped to their backs. They were booking it for the front gate, big tough steel that was supposed to stop a thousand ghouls. The explosion tore them right off their hinges, sent them flipping into the house like giant ninja stars. “Fire!” the boss was screaming into the radio. “Knock ’em down! Kill ’em! Shootshootshoot!”

Related Characters: T. Sean Collins (speaker)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Sure, we were unprepared, our tools, our training, everything I just talked about, all one class-A, gold-standard clusterfuck, but the weapon that really failed wasn’t something that rolled off an assembly line. It’s as old as…I don’t know, I guess as old as war. It’s fear, dude, just fear and you don’t have to be Sun freakin Tzu to know that real fighting isn’t about killing or even hurting the other guy, it’s about scaring him enough to call it a day. Break their spirit, that’s what every successful army goes for, from tribal face paint to the “blitzkrieg.” […] But what if the enemy can’t be shocked and awed? Not just won’t, but biologically can’t! That’s what happened that day outside New York City, that’s the failure that almost lost us the whole damn war.

Related Characters: Todd Wainio (speaker)
Related Symbols: Zombies
Page Number: 103-104
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5: Home Front USA Quotes

Yes, they were lies and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used. The lies our government told us before the war, the ones that were supposed to keep us happy and blind, those were the ones that burned, because they prevented us from doing what had to be done. However, by the time I made Avalon, everyone was already doing everything they could possibly do to survive. The lies of the past were long gone and now the truth was everywhere, shambling down their streets, crashing through their doors, clawing at their throats. […] The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night.

Related Characters: Roy Elliot (speaker)
Related Symbols: Zombies
Page Number: 166-167
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7: Total War Quotes

They let us sleep as late as we wanted the next day. That was pretty sweet. Eventually the voices woke me up; everyone jawing, laughing, telling stories. It was a different vibe, one-eighty from two days ago. I couldn’t really put a finger on what I was feeling, maybe it was what the president said about “reclaiming our future.” I just knew I felt good, better than I had the entire war. I knew it was gonna be a real, long-ass road. I knew our campaign across America was just beginning, but, hey, as the prez said later that first night, it was finally the beginning of the end.

Related Characters: Todd Wainio (speaker), The American President
Related Symbols: Zombies
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8: Good-Byes Quotes

It’s comforting to see children again, I mean those who were born after the war, real children who know nothing but a world that includes the living dead. They know not to play near water, not to go out alone or after dark in the spring or summer. They don’t know to be afraid, and that is the greatest gift, the only gift we can leave to them.

[…] [I am] an old man who’s seen his country torn to shreds many times over. And yet, every time, we’ve managed to pull ourselves together, to rebuild and renew our nation. And so we will again—China, and the world.

Related Characters: Kwang Jingshu (speaker)
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis: