I Am Legend And Commentary On Nuclear War

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The vampire myth is an old legend from Eastern Europe that describes vampires as the dead who have returned to life usually because they are marked from birth, they were not baptized or given correct funeral rights, they are bitten by a vampire or otherwise associated with a vampire, or in life their actions were evil. The vampires of I am Legend fallow the idea of Eastern European vampire myths but their disease is caused by the nuclear war referenced to in the book. This is a commentary on nuclear weapons as being such a terrible weapon and inhuman thing to do to another country that it should cause the misfortune of vampirism on an entire country and even the world.

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There are many similarities between the old myths of Europe that predate the story of Dracula, and the vampires of I am Legend. One of these similarities is stalking at night. In the book the vampires hide and fall into a coma. This allows the main character to travel and fix his house. The reason in this for the book is that the bacteria cannot live in the sun. While in the legends about vampires they are not restricted to returning at night in all countries, most stories have them leaving the grave then. Many would return to harass and kill family members and villagers at night while they sleep. The reason that vampires return at night in legend is likely because that is when people with no modern light cannot see and understand the world easily. Vampires return then as an explanation both for strange things happening in the dark and for the fear of people felt at night. In this way the vampire represented peoples fear of evil.

Another large similarity between the creatures of the book and legend is that the vampires return from the dead. In the book one the disease destroys the host and kills them the body is taken over by the bacteria and completely powers the vampire and in search of blood and becoming “one of the true vampires; the living dead”. This is also the theme that holds almost all vampire legends together as “the basic feature of vampirism: the dead leave their graves to walk amongst the living” . This feature of vampire stories is also connected to a fear, the fear both of loved ones being monsters and that evil people will not cease their evil even when killed. This fear is shown to great effect in Robert Neville’s character as he had to kill his own wife when she returned as a vampire in search of blood. This fact haunts him through the entire novel.

The ability to contract vampirism through bites also ties the book and legends together. Robert Neville says when he is scratched badly by a vampire that he is immune to their disease showing that it can be spread in that way. He also mentions that the disease could not have been spread through bites alone during the early period of the disease. This shows that it was common before the time of the book that the bacteria was spread through more than dust storms, but also by vampires stalking people. Similarly, in legends of vampires it was thought that “Those who are destroyed by them[vampires], after their death, become Vampyres”. This part of the legend plays on the fear that we ourselves could become monsters, doing harm to those we love. The fear of becoming the what we fear.

Both the vampires of the book and of legend have weaknesses. In the book crosses and Garlic are used by Robert Neville in order to ward away the vampires. He learns that the garlic is an “allergen causing anaphylaxis” to the vampires because of the interaction between the body and the bacteria. However, when he investigates the cross, he learns that it is psychosomatic and only the live vampires fear it because of the religious frenzy before the disease completely took over. Both of these had similar affects in legends. In some stories “the curse of a priest is sufficient to seal a vampire in its tomb.” and in others presenting a vampire with holy objects will completely destroy it. The vampires also dislike garlic similar to the book as “it is known that a man is a vampire if he does not eat garlic” just like when Neville presents Ruth with the garlic and she becomes sick.

The reason vampires have weaknesses in these stories is likely because people need to feel like they have power over something they don’t understand, even if what they are doing is unlikely to work. This is partially explored in the book when Robert Neville discovers why the cross works: it is not a natural reaction like the garlic but in the minds of the people who became vampires.

Many vampire stories were important because they upheld social norms. Even though some of the myth added other ways to become vampires then going against the community, what made the stories important is that they helped to keep people from practicing destructive behaviors. The fact that suicides and criminal behavior caused a person to become a vampire would prevent many people from fallowing those actions. And since vampires would cause a negative impact on a family and community, deviation into taboo behavior would not be tolerated.

“Narratives convey cultural capital- including representations of the supernatural world, social relations, and cultural practices- to members of a community. Through vampire stories, the community transmits not only cultural traditions about vampires, but also the norms of local culture that the vampires illustrate by antithesis. When deceased person becomes a vampire, this generates both discussion about and a social crisis that is capable of reordering the position of the affected family within the community. As a result, the members of the group become acquainted with, or refresh their memories of, the local value system and cultural capital is reproduced in the process.”

If both the book and old legends share very similar vampires could they also share this allegorical element? I am Legend does seem to have this aspect. The setting of the book takes place after the use of nuclear weapons to win a war. This seems to have created large dust storms and mutated insects, but most importantly it seems to have created the bacteria that has caused the vampire apocalypse. This is obviously a warning about what can happen if nuclear bombs are used and how little we know about the results of their use, especially in 1954 when they were a very new weapon that no one truly understood yet. But on top of the apocalypse the use of vampires such as the ones in Eastern European legends adds another layer of criticism to nuclear weapons.

As this paper has discussed so far vampires can represent the fear people have as well as use that fear to uphold socially acceptable behavior. The crossing of taboo boundaries causes people to become vampires and it seems that by using the absolutely destructive weapons that are atomic bombs, the entire society passed that line. Just like the vampires of myths that those who acted in evil ways were damned to become vampires, but the destruction of another culture to win a war damned a whole country and likely the world. Every person is turned into a physical representation of the atrocity that was committed for victory. In this case the lesson is even more absolute, while in most vampire stories once the vampire is killed the community can go on with little change other than a memory and fear of vampires, In the book however, the damage done is so great that society must be restarted with vampires themselves.

Richard Matheson, by using creatures that are similar to Eastern European legends in both name and attributes, creates a commentary on nuclear weapons and their relationship to our society. The commentary he creates is not only that atomic weapons of mass destruction are dangerous and have unknown effects, but also that they are to be viewed as a taboo that turns the whole society that uses them into evil creatures.

“Earlier, when people were virtuous and had faith, they were often attacked by exotiká [things from the outside, such as vampires]. Now people no longer believe in God; they perform all sorts of horrible acts. They have gone to the Devil. There is no need for the Devil to come in search of them.” (Avdikos 307) 

10 Jun 2021

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