Reconsidering Quarantine in Invasion Narratives

Jacob Murphy

The academic and public interest in supernatural invasion narratives has increased exponentially in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Terrence Rafferty of The New York Times, the fascination with the zombie apocalypse and invasion narratives generally is due to ‘a general anxiety, particularly in the West, about the planet’s dwindling resources [and also] undocumented immigrants, say, or the entire populations of developing nations’ (Rafferty par. 7). As these tend to be predominantly speculative narratives, the exact reason as to why they have become so popular may always be unknown as a result of their exotic nature. This all leads to the problem of how to define the ‘invasion narrative’ itself: is it a specific genre or a sub-genre comprised of varying constituent parts? For example, the canonical invasion narratives include Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955). 

It should be noted that no canonical example of a ghostly invasion narrative has been given; as, from a hauntological perspective, the ghost is always an invading force (Derrida 3-5). Therefore, the invasion narrative can be understood as having a wide remit, portraying the supernatural – specifically the zombie apocalypse – the alien and the monstrous with the common aim of delineating an infection scenario. However, the key trope contained within the invasion narrative appears to be the search for a safe, almost utopian place. In line with a postcolonial reading, this appears to be a result of escaping the ‘uncanny Other’ – this term can be understood as meaning that which is different but at the same time, strikingly similar. Further, the search for a safe place or refuge can take place for both the infected and the uninfected, allowing one to theorise the notion of the ‘reverse-quarantine’ whereby the ill and the healthy segregate one another out of choice – although it is usually the choice of the healthy when they attain a higher status. This article focuses on debating a contemporary representation of quarantine in Max Brooks’ World War Z (2006).


Zombies have captivated the contemporary popular imagination – the ‘zombie walk’ craze is one example

[Image by Chris Zielecki under a CC BY-NC license]

The zombie apocalypse narrative is a literary and cultural phenomenon that has undergone a revival in popularity in recent years. As per the Rafferty quote at the start of this article, this may be due to myriad reasons. Due to the exponential growth of the genre’s popularity, it is likely that life is imitating art, albeit without the devouring of brains. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Max Brooks openly stated that ‘Zombies don’t act like a predator; they act like a virus […]. A predator is intelligent by nature, and knows not to over-hunt its feeding ground. A virus will just continue to spread, infect and consume, no matter what happens’ (Eaton 57). In direct opposition to the figure of the zombie, the consumerist attitude of the contemporary period allows one to see humanity as equally virulent. For example, in The Matrix (1999), Agent Smith goes as far as labelling humans as ‘A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet’ (The Wachowski Brothers n.pag). On the one hand this raises the mindless nature of the zombie, but also grants those within zombie narratives the need to engage in quarantine scenarios due to the virulent nature of the condition. This is further bolstered when considering the “Romero Zombie” – named after the director of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and subsequent Living Dead (1968-2010) films – described by Dave Strohecker as ‘a form of contagion: A single bite from a zombie will kill and turn one into a zombie […]’ (Strohecker 3).

Dubbed an ‘Oral History of the Zombie War’, World War Z is a fictional account of a global zombie outbreak event which takes place in an alternate, contemporary Earth. The novel describes the events before, during and after the war, from the discovery of ‘Patient Zero’ (Brooks 7), to the genesis of the global pandemic and the tactics employed by the uninfected to launch a counter-offensive against the zombie horde. Interestingly, the events of the war appear to have a rudimental triadic structure as outlined by Aristotle, who discussed the narrative terms of beginning, middle and end (Chatman 47). That disease and quarantine also have a similar structure of contraction, infection and cure, or isolation, recovery and release, is of note to literary and cultural scholars as the disease can be more easily mapped to a chronological narrative. This essay covers two distinct sections: the discovery of Patient Zero and his treatment and isolation, and the evolution of Iceland from island nation to quarantined island. Examining the initial outbreak through the discovery of Patient Zero will enable me to explore the reaction to the disease, and also the reasons to establish the various quarantines delineated in the novel.

As with many disease outbreaks and the following establishment of quarantine, the Patient Zero, or the index case has to be identified. According to Stephen Abedon, an index case is ‘the first case of a disease to be identified, either ever or at the start of an epidemic or a seasonal (or periodic) outbreak’ (Abedon n.pag). From this, it appears to be the case that the discovery of the index case is critical in tracing the genesis of the infection and undertaking adequate steps to prevent an epidemic. However, it has been shown that in reality, when treating a plague, the disease is so rare that the medical community can struggle to implement the correct measures. In August 2013, the BBC reported an outbreak of bubonic plague in Kyrgyzstan (Anon. [A] n.pag). In response to this, Eric Bertherat of the World Health Organisation revealed that ‘bubonic plague is such a rare event, local medical staff are not prepared to diagnose the disease and treat it appropriately […], [meaning] the first patient usually dies without even a diagnostic’ (Anon. [A] par.8). Therefore, when tracing the index case, the authorities will experience difficulty, prompting them to undertake quarantine measures that may not be necessary. With regards to literary studies, it is inevitable that the recording of an epidemic will be a narrative process due to the very nature of the medium.

Zombie attack

An attempt at escaping the ‘uncanny Other’ – zombie attack

[Image by clement127 under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

In the opening of World War Z, it is revealed by the narrator – a contributor to the ‘United Nation’s Postwar Commission Report’ (Brooks 1) – that the index case for the zombie pandemic was found in Chongqing, China. This can be understood initially as a depiction of the zombie plague as an exotic disease that did not originate from the West. However, it seems that this is exactly what Rafferty believes about zombies: that they can be metaphors for ‘undocumented immigrants […] or the entire populations of developing nations’ (Rafferty par.7).

It appears that the villagers have knowledge of quarantines to the extent that they understand that the infected must be isolated from the general populace. After tracking the index case to Chongqing, the narrator identifies the exact location as a village called New Dachang, where they find several infected villagers ‘all on cots, all barely conscious. The villagers had moved them [into] their new communal meeting hall’ (Brooks 6). Accompanying this, the novel’s tone changes from that of the journalist, to that of a medical examiner as the primary concern becomes cataloguing the symptoms of those infected. For example, the narrator notes that the first patient he comes across ‘was running a high fever, forty degrees centigrade [and] shivering violently’ (Brooks 6). This patient, however, is not the index case. It is revealed that in the same building is a child who demonstrates symptoms of advanced zombification. The implication is that the image of the monstrous undead figure is combined with its binary opposite of the innocent child, creating an uncanny focal point for the infection’s genesis that does not follow the conventional view of zombies as per Rafferty who asserts that ‘unlike vampires, […] zombies can’t plausibly be endowed with rich, complex inner lives’ (Rafferty par. 4). That the zombie is often portrayed as a mindless force we are unable to humanise further enforces the fears of infection as it supposedly starts with a very human origin. Further, the opening of the novel maintains one of the standard tropes of the zombie narrative: the outbreak. This is shown in the text by the child breaking its arm and freeing itself from its restraints, causing the narrator to ‘[hurry] outside, locking the door behind [him]’ (Brooks 8).

Japan apocalypse

Zombie narratives engage in quarantine scenarios due to the virulent nature of the ‘zombie condition’

[Image by Thierry Ehrmann under a CC BY license]

As with any discovery of an infectious disease, the narrator appears to follow the correct quarantine procedures – possibly a result of their attachment to the United Nations – by contacting an expert in disease outbreaks. In the text, Doctor Gu Wen Kuei of the Institute of Infectious Diseases at Chongqing University says in a ‘flat, robotic’ tone that the narrator should ‘take the names of all who have had contact with the infected. Restrain those already infected. If any have passed into coma, vacate the room and secure the exit’ (Brooks 8-9). Aside from implying that the medical and political communities have prior knowledge of the infection, Doctor Kuei orders the establishment of an ad hoc quarantine within current guidelines. The mimetic function of World War Z‘s quarantine is of note as it establishes the primary remit for every other type of detention used in the novel. However, due to the nature of the disease, the quarantine will most likely not work. Current healthcare theorists such as Debbie Weston raise the issue of quarantines not always being effective:

[…] isolating patients can prove to be a challenge […]. In these situations, a careful risk assessment must be undertaken, taking into account the organism causing the infection, its route of transmission, the risk to other patients and staff and the patient’s overall condition, and the advice of the infection prevention and control team should be sought (Weston 83).

Therefore, in World War Z, it appears that in addressing the initial outbreak, the correct quarantine procedures are followed, strengthening the realist mode employed in this particular example of speculative fiction. As with any real-world epidemic though, it is extremely difficult to contain and remove the threat of transmitting the infection to others. Though World War Z is an example of speculative fiction, the quarantines depicted in the novel are typical of real-world quarantine procedures. This has the effect of increasing the realism of the narrative, granting the text authority instead of fictionalising every aspect of the epidemic.

In the novel, the distinctions between quarantine and prison overlap, especially when considering if the quarantine is used for the safety of the external group or the imprisonment of the infected. This perspective is not without real-world precedents as there are a range of islands in Oceania that functioned originally as quarantines which were transformed into ‘jails for prisoners of war and ‘enemy aliens’ in periods of conflict (Anon. [B] par.1). As a result of this, it appears that historical quarantine procedures are enforced and adapted in World War Z. For example, the novel’s version of Iceland is said to have become a desolate country with no living population. In this instance, while establishing a quarantined base for the good of the rest of the world, the international community has created a prison for the infected as a result of their monstrous nature. This is best demonstrated when Seryosha Garcia Alvarez reveals that ‘when the American military withdrew, [Iceland] became a cauldron of frozen blood, and […] it is still the most heavily infested White Zone on the planet’ (Brooks 229). Further, it is shown in the text that each landmass on Earth is forced into a pseudo-quarantined state due to zombies on the ocean beds: ‘[The] refugees who’d been too unlucky to make it to the open ocean now formed a lethal barrier along every stretch of coastline’ (Brooks 245). This shows that in line with current thoughts on quarantine (Anon. [C] n.pag), the one presented in the text is completely inescapable, which is diametrically opposed to the ideal outcome of the use of a medical quarantine due to the nature of the infection presented in the novel.

CITATION: Jacob Murphy, “Reconsidering Quarantine in Invasion Narratives,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2015): n. pag. Web. 27 February 2015,

Jacob Murphy holds an MA in 21st Century Literature from the University of Lincoln. His research interests include existentialism, martial arts, depictions of real and unreal spaces in literature, the literary mashup, post-apocalyptic and dystopian narratives and the videogame as a legitimate narrative form. Jacob is an alumnus member of the 21st Century Research Group at the University of Lincoln.

Works Cited:

Abedon, Stephen T., ‘Epidemiology’. Stephen T. Abedon [online] [accessed 19 July 2013].

Anon. [A], ‘Boy dies of bubonic plague in Kyrgyzstan’. BBC [online] 27 August 2013 [accessed 18 January 2015].

Anon. [B], ‘Story: Nearshore islands’. TeAra [online] [accessed 20 July 2013].

Anon. [C], ‘Rabies Information’. Williamson County & Cities Health District [online] [accessed 24 July 2013].

Brooks, Max, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd, 2010).

Chatman, Seymour, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978).

Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx. trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (London: Routledge, 1994).

Eaton, Lance, ‘Zombies Spreading like a Virus’. Publishers Weekly, 253.39 (10 February 2006), p.57.

Finney, Jack, The Body Snatchers. (1955).

Rafferty, Terrence, ‘The State of Zombie Literature: An Autopsy’. The New York Times [online] 05 August 2011 [accessed 18 January 2015].

Stoker, Bram, Dracula. (1897).

Strohecker, Dave Paul, ‘The Zombie in Film (Part 2: Romero & the Politicized Zombie)’. The Society Pages [online] 06 February 2012 [accessed 18 July 2013].

The Wachowskis (dirs.), The Matrix. (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999).

Weston, Debbie, Infection Prevention and Control: Theory and Practice for Healthcare Professionals. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2008).

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