World War Z: Fear Like the Most Basic Emotion

“Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. We fear the unknown, possible harm and injury, or even our own vulnerability.” As humans, we fear cultures different from our own, or those who don’t fit into what we believe to be ‘normal’. We fear being judged by others, yet constantly judge ourselves. When we are under stress or sudden danger, we go into an automatic fight, flight, or freeze response that can show up in many ways. Fear can be the driving force that motivates us to succeed in life but can equally cloud our judgment and sense of morality. The novel World War Z by Max Brooks explores fear through the characters’ experiences and their impulse towards either a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. While the novel itself is fictitious, each experience portrayed symbolizes a real-life human reaction to fear.

When humans are faced with any form of fear, they seek the ultimate survival tactics, even if that survival involves sacrificing others. In World War Z, certain characters react to fear by taking action in a calculated, self-preserving manner. This reaction to fear, a freeze response, enables the character Redeker to stop thinking before reacting. His planned reaction, “our forces had to be consolidated, withdrawn to a special safe zone, which hopefully would be aided by natural obstacles,” represents his need to survive in a tactical way. Redeker’s premeditated plan shows how fear can lead to extreme actions that defy moral grounds. His plan in South Africa, in order to ensure the survival of government officials, saw the majority of the population used as bait to save a minority. Would he react the same way if his family were part of the majority being sacrificed? Would the fear of losing his family changes his reaction in this situation?

When under stress, some people can react calmly to effectively and efficiently solve their fear-based problems. However, this is not always the response. Fear of a larger magnitude is more likely to prompt the fight or flight response. The protagonist, Gerry Lane, chooses to fight, for fear that his family will be left unprotected if he doesn’t do everything in his power to keep them safe. He doesn’t want to leave them, but when faced with the knowledge that “there is no room on the ship for non-essential personnel,” he is forced to “do what he does best” and help the UN to find a way for humans to survive, against all odds. He is prepared to do what is necessary, by any means, including amputating his escort, Segan’s hand, when it is bitten by a zombie. The fight response also plays a big part when the plane he is on heading for the WHO in Cardiff is attacked. He really has two choices, surrender and become a zombie, or fight and have some hope that he will make it through. When he blows a hole in the side of the plane, forcing the plane to crash land, he is choosing to fight. Gerry’s fight response to fear continues through with his decision to inject himself with a deadly pathogen when he is blocked by a zombie at the vault. He doesn’t give up and his fight response confirms his theory that humans with a deadly disease are ‘camouflaged’ from the zombies. Nonetheless, Gerry does tell the people that the war is not yet over, “if you can fight, fight. Be prepared for anything. Our war has just begun”.

The fact that people settle to panic when faced with unusual circumstances is expansively explored in Max Brook’s book, World War Z. This is commonly understood as the ‘flight’ response. The actions of the Zombies represent extreme circumstances and show how humans run away from, or towards something without thought or means. When faced with fear, it’s the human instinct to survive at all costs. In the text, Doctor Kwang highlights that “the boy (zombie) began twisting in my direction, his arm ripping completely free”. In this case, the zombie was more concerned with eating flesh, than preserving its own flesh, a metaphor that shows when humans are faced with fear, they are prepared to do anything to survive, and at times, make decisions that harm themselves as well as others. The boy’s response offers a sharp critique of the weaknesses we all have as humans which makes us blindly respond to fear to follow a sometimes, noxious goal. When faced with fear and unusual circumstances, most people, just like the zombies, react merely in pursuit of a few specific lower-order goals.

In conclusion, fear is the most primal of all human emotions and is most commonly met with very automatic and fundamental reactions: fight, flight, or freeze modes. Jusue notes that “the greatest fear is not in the zombies, but in ourselves as human beings. We should fear the extreme actions that unconsciously take over as a result of fear.” Throughout World War Z these responses to fear become evident as the characters are faced with life or death situations and are forced to prioritize the survival of their families, themselves, or a small minority. Troy posts that “when faced with fear, human beings are resolute in their survival and may resolve to sacrifice and test out any available survival tactics, evident in the case of the character Gerry Lane.” Lane voluntarily kills the people infected with the virus, fearing they will infect him leaving his family unprotected while Redeker’s desire for self-preservation made him revert to thinking that violence and murder are acceptable if the desired outcome is achieved. Fear brings out an ability within ourselves to perform extraordinary actions or fear can make us lose all rational thought, the same mentality as the zombies, no mentality at all.

Works Cited

  1. Brooks, Max. World War Z. Turtleback Books, 2013.
07 July 2022
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