“I Am Legend,” and The Ever-Evolving Vampire
The tale of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is probably the most familiar story of the vampire, but those looking for a historical “real” Dracula often cite Romanian prince Vlad Tepes (1431–1476), after whom Stoker is said to have modeled some aspects of his Dracula character (Radford). The fascination with the vampire has been engraved in our culture, from icons such as Bela Lugosi playing Dracula in Universal’s 1931 film of the same name, to the love them or hate them glittery vampires of the popular young adult “Twilight” series. But it is the book “I am Legend” by Richard Matheson, first published in 1954, that really changed the way in which we viewed vampires. “I Am Legend” reinvented the vampire, and inspired future writers and film makers, such as, Stephen King, and George Romero (Saperstein). The book is often credited as the first modern vampire novel because of the way it transformed pop culture, and how it changed our views and ideas on how a vampire is supposed to feel, look and think (Laming).
Dracula has been known by many as this sort of parasitic, male seducer of women. “Here, we deﬁne a parasitic relationship as one in which the emotional and sexual needs of one partner are met at the expense of the other” (Toni Cascio). In the novella “I Am Legend,” the sexual role of the vampire is reversed as the women become the tormenter to protagonist, Robert Neville. During the first chapter of the novel, we are briefed on the vampires, but it is the women, not the men, that torment Robert the most: “He never looked at them anymore. In the beginning he’d made a peephole in the front window and watched them. But then the women had seen him and had started striking vile postures in order to entice him out of the house. He didn’t want to look at that. It was the women who made it so difficult, he thought, the women posing like lewd puppets in the night on the possibility that he’d see them and decide to come out (Matheson 7).”
The book was written during the 1950’s, when women were still not considered equals to men. “The 1950s is often viewed as a period of conformity, when both men and women observed strict gender roles and complied with society’s expectations” (Women in the 1950s). This idea, that the man was the breadwinner and the woman, a sex object, a temptress, goes back to the story of Adam and Eve. Robert Neville is the modern version of Adam in the novel, while the vampirettes are our modern versions of Eve, constantly enticing Robert to take the bait and come outside.
Another way “I am Legend” distances itself from other vampire stories is by creating a horde of vampires. The vampire has mostly been a solitary figure, a lone male vampire in most cases, who sometimes traveled with a small group of vampirettes (Staff). But Richard Matheson combined the vampires in his novella with zombie tendencies, only faster and smarter than the walking dead. The idea of becoming a vampire has always been a sexy and intriguing thought: the sexual bite, immortality, knowledge of centuries ago. If one had to choose, I believe most, if not everyone, would choose being a vampire over a zombie. Meanwhile, no one in their right mind wants to be a zombie. Zombies are decaying and brainless creatures. “I am legend” works well because it is a combination of these two diseased figures that makes the story so unique, and a first for fans of the horror genre: A vampire apocalypse.
Although Richard Matheson revamped the vampire, he never forgot the book that inspired it all: Dracula. “When I was a teenager I went to see Dracula with Bela Lugosi and at that time, as a teenager, the thought occurred to me that if one vampire is scary, what if all the world were full of vampires” (Flood)? The vampires that Matheson created were unlike anything that literature had ever seen before. They were no longer slow seducers that could transform into bats, but fast, vicious creatures who would fight their own kind if need be. The character of Ruth is also a first in literature, because it describes her character, who despite being inflicted with vampirism, has evolved into an intelligent being, surviving on medicine, and cleverly outwitting the daylight with makeup.
“I am Legend” deconstructs the vampire myth with modern methods, attempting to explain many of its legendary aspects with science, such as why non-Christian vampires would fear the cross — they don’t, why a stake kills a vampire but not a bullet — a stake allows corrupting air into the bodily glue of a vampire (although the silver bullet myth is untouched), why vampires can metamorphose into bats or wolves- they can’t, why some vampires turn to dust at death- their already long-dead bodies instantly decompose while living vampires’ bodies don’t, why mirrors repel them- psychological traumas, and a number of others” (Schneider).
Although “Dracula” may have been the inspiration for the novella “I am Legend,” the ending is quite different. Dracula is destroyed at the end of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” but the vampire race lives on in “I am Legend.” This was bold move on Richard Matheson’s part because during this time most things described as “The Other” were destroyed at the end of almost every Hollywood film and novel (The Other). “Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed” (Matheson 159). Neville who belonged to the old society had no existence in the new: he was a foreign fear to the vampires.
There is no denying the impact that “I am Legend” had on film and literature. Everything from “Night of the Living Dead” to “From Dusk till Dawn,” owe some of their success to the man who flipped the traditional Vampire on its head: Richard Matheson. The vampire lore seems to be here to stay, whether we like it or not, but when it is rehashed in a new and exciting way; this fan won’t mind, not one bit.
Flood, Alison. “I Am Legend is named vampire novel of the century .” 3 April 2012. The Gaurdian. WEB. 4 April 2018.
Laming, Scott. “A Brief History of Vampires in Literature .” n.d. AbeBooks. Web. 3 April 2018.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. Rosetta Books, 1954. Book. 2 April 2018.
Radford, Benjamin. “Vampires: Fact, Fiction and Folklore.” 22 October 2014. LiveScience. Web. 2 April 2018.
Saperstein, Pat. “George A. Romero, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Director, Dies at 77.” 16 July 2017. Variety. Web. 3 April 2018.
Schneider, Dan. “Riachard Matheson.” Jan 2005. HackWriters. Web. 3 April 2018.
Staff, History.com. “Vampire History.” 2017. History.com. web. 4 April 2018.
“The Other.” n.d. Academic.Brooklyn.Cruny.Edu. Web. 4 April 2018.
Toni Cascio, Ph.D., Janice Gasker, DSW. “The Vampire’s Seduction: Using Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a Metaphor in Treating Parasitic Relationships.” 2001. SpringerLink. Web. 3 April 2018.
“Women in the 1950s.” n.d. Khan Academy. WEB. 2 April 2018.