Vampires & Prejudice in “I Am Legend”

As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I read I am Legend, by Richard Matheson, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.

These days, I’m not a fan of vampires. They sparkle. And for the right girl, they’ll turn away from their nature and stop drinking humans. You sicken me, pretty vamps! I want my vampires to be monsters. If they’re seductive, it’s only to get closer to your throat. Those are the vampires I love.

In my opinion, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, didn’t deliver the type of vampire I claim to want. I loved it anyway. Although the vampires were brutal beings, the only monster in this story was human.

Someone once told me that I Am Legend is about prejudice. Until now, I’d only seen the movie (the one starring Will Smith), and for that version of the story, I saw no connection to the concept of prejudice. But in the book, I couldn’t miss the message. In the same way that Neville, the main character, assumes vampires are evil monsters—simply because they’re vampires—I made the same assumption. Shame on me!

The vampires in this book are victims. Not only are they infected with a disease that puts them into a coma during daytime, and not only do they yearn for blood, but they also suffer from psychological issues. The most interesting aspect of their psychological issues is that these infected humans think they are vampires.

“He remembered the man who one night had climbed to the top of the light post in front of the house and, while Robert Neville had watched through the peephole, had leaped into space, waving his arms frantically. Neville hadn’t been able to explain it at the time, but now the answer seemed obvious. The man had though he was a bat.” (Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: ORB, 1995. 116. Print.)

But all Neville sees in these poor creatures is that they’re trying to kill him. In response, he hunts them all, and he does it while they are sleeping. He murders defenseless creatures who behave as they do only because they’re sick. He doesn’t murder only the ones who came after him. There are three variations of vampires in this story: the dead ones, the living ones, and the living ones who can stay awake for a few hours during the daytime. Neville has been wronged by some of the vampires, so he seeks to kill all of them. All individuals, of all three variations. He does this because, in his mind, they are all the same. They are all monsters. In short, Neville is prejudiced against these creatures.

In flashbacks, the reader is told about how Neville’s family became sick and died. I wish I could have seen more of what happened between the death of his family and the story’s present. I’d like to see Neville’s initial interactions with the vampires. I wonder if he ever gave them a chance to prove that they weren’t mindless monsters. You may read this and think: What was he supposed to do, when all he saw was the vampires trying to kill him?

But in I Am Legend, we never once see a vampire kill someone, and even in Neville’s flashbacks, the vampires never kill. It’s the vampire bacteria that kills. More importantly, in real life, it’s our duty as human beings to give every person a chance to prove himself.

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2 Responses to Vampires & Prejudice in “I Am Legend”

  1. Jay Smith says:

    One of the cool things about this book, to me, is how its meaning differs based on the reader. It can even change meaning over time and across generations. I grew up reading it thinking it was a story about someone resisting the urge to conform or grow up. All the vampires were different and hostile, but they were the same in a lot of ways. They kept pressuring Robert to become one with them. He resisted until it became clear he would never conform and was then deal with according to their rules.

    As an older man, I see it from my perspective living in a world that is changing and representing something I no longer understand or even like. The way people treat one another, the loudness, the vulgarity, the meanness… all of these things can drive a person to want to lock themselves away, or perhaps strike back in some way. Here is perhaps a male power fantasy (like Charlton Heston’s take in “Omega Man”) where he IS the establishment trying to take down the weird albino hippies threatening God and Country. In the end we realize that we’re going to die and this odd, hostile world will go on without him.

    So your comment about what the vampires want is quite telling. Neville perceived that they wanted to kill him. But they were driven by their sickness or perhaps they believed that being like them was the only way Neville could be saved.

    • Alicia W. says:

      I completely agree with you that this story can be seen as a commentary on many things. Unlike most stories I read, I like this one more and more the further removed I am from my reading of it. The more I turn it over in my mind, the deeper it becomes.

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