A Biocultural Critique of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend – Mathias Clasen


I am interested in how bioliterary criticism is applied, so this article caught my eye…. I am also interested in the narrative treatment of fear, so… Mathias Clasen writes:

“Richard Matheson seeded several weird fish in the deep and dark waters of the American myth pool, not least as a prominent screenwriter for the legendary 1960s TV series The Twilight Zone. I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic science fiction/horror novel, published in
1954 and set in 1976, remains one of his best known works. It shows up persistently on “Best of Horror” lists and is generally regarded as a milestone in modern Gothic fiction. What is it about this novel that has invested it with canonical status? It tells a surpassingly bleak story, one that seems to encode very specific and largely outdated cultural anxieties. And as prophecy, it falls rather flat: Matheson depicts a vampire holocaust, and the seventies came and went with no noticeable increase in the population of vampires, except perhaps on television. So why should anyone want to read this novel?
The historian David J. Skal rightly observes that “very little about the underlying structure of horror images really changes” over time. I Am Legend is the product of a troubled man in troubled times, at once intensely personal and highly dependent on local, sociohistorical anxieties. Yet, the story retains its power to engage and to disturb in contexts far removed from that of its production. I think an evolutionary perspective offers the best explanation for the underlying continuity in horror fiction. It also offers the best way to get at the continued fascination Matheson’s novel exercises on readers. Using an analytic scheme put into play by Joseph Carroll, Brian Boyd, and other evolutionary critics, I get a fix on the novel by triangulating between universal human fears, local cultural conditions, and peculiarities of individual identity.” (p.313)

One striking and presumably unique aspect of human mental architecture is decoupled cognition, our capacity for mentally producing and hosting elaborate imagined worlds. Decoupled cognition gives rise to a [-p.315] range of imaginative behaviors, from pretend play in young children to futuristic science fiction stories. It is perhaps unsurprising that natural selection has favored an ability to construct imaginative scenarios, but an ability to go from imaginations of future food sources and hunting strategies to imaginations of life on Mars and zombie invasions is more striking.
However, not each and every single one of the literally endless imaginative scenarios that could be produced by the human mind would have the power to fascinate a substantial number of persons: the what if’s that interest people are severely limited, and so is the possibility space of viable speculative narratives. As Brett Cooke observes, since science fiction “so readily outruns human experience, it typically probes the limits of human interest.” In turn, human interest is circumscribed by our evolutionary heritage. I Am Legend offers a speculative account of what happens when basic human needs are suppressed. Matheson portrays the struggles of a man completely cut off from fellow human beings and trapped in a severely threatening environment. In this way, Matheson taps into an intuitive understanding of human nature—an evolved folk psychology—to make his tale believable and interesting.” (pp.314-315)

Apparently, Richard Matheson “has pointed out, “the leitmotif of all my work . . . is as follows: The individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive”” (p.316) and it is from this perspective that Clasen approaches I Am Legend:

Fear is probably the key word in Matheson’s work, and the defining affective feature of horror fiction. It is a striking fact of human anxiety that the things we fear are non-randomly distributed: humans acquire fear not just of any old thing, but of things dangerous in our evolutionary past. That does not mean that we are born pre-programmed with a completely inflexible fear system. Like so many other human capacities (such as language), the innate fear system depends on interaction with the environment for its development and optimal functioning. This [-p.317] makes sense in an evolutionary perspective, since our environments have been changing rapidly and frequently during the last several tens of thousands of years, especially due to human migration. Thus, while certain dangers have remained constant in various environments, others have changed. The threat from snakes, spiders and other people—so often the objects of phobias—probably constituted a constant selective pressure, whereas a variety of large mammals have preyed on humans during our evolutionary history. Hence, fierce predators with sharp teeth and claws play a prominent role in modern horror fiction, even as they are now, in industrialized civilization, relegated to zoo cages and televised nature programming.

“The abstract fear of death can be fleshed out in locally specific, context-dependent ways. In one context it’s the fear of a large carnivore attacking at night; in another, the fear of bombings. The adaptive fear response is largely generalized, and the physiological fear response is triggered by a range of diverse threats, from thunderstorms to predators, from darkness to social separation.” (pp.316-317)

“…we should not lose sight of the vampire’s literal presence: the vampire is, first and foremost, a predator….” (p.318) “Predation is the central theme in horror fiction. Being threatened by powerful forces, whether ghosts, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, or vampires, is a powerful motif, probably because the selection pressure from predation has been a ubiquitous fact of human existence for millennia. However, I Am Legend is slightly atypical as a horror story in that the horror of the monster is pushed somewhat to the rear. The vampires prowl relentlessly in the periphery, craving Neville’s blood, but the reader is not treated to lengthy descriptions of the bloodsuckers.” (p.318)

“For members of a social species such as ours, the horror of isolation is very real and very rational. Solitary isolation in the criminal justice system is considered an especially severe form of punishment. […] Other people have for millions of years been a crucial component of our species’ ecological niche; we are highly adapted to social life and depend on culture for our mental development. Sociality is and has been crucial to human ontogenetic and phylogenetic development. We depend on other people not just for reproduction and survival, but for psychological and emotional growth and fulfillment. This is the common-sense observation that is conveyed by I Am Legend….” (p.320)

“It is reasonable to regard sub- or para-human horror monsters as meditations on the human: zombies and body-snatchers, for example, offer apt metaphors for the masses and mindless humanity, whereas the vampire—a vastly overdetermined figure—has somewhat different connotations. The horror critic Mark Jancovich identifies a group of 1950s horror texts, I Am Legend included, that are characterized by a “preoccupation with the figure of the outsider, and their experience of alienation, estrangement and powerlessness.” As he notes, the concept of conformity in 1950s USA was not just highly prevalent in social discourse, but highly ambivalent. The paradoxical motif of being alone among others is one that finds currency in a paranoid Cold War cultural climate.” (p.321)

(While he is perhaps oversimplifying the traditional role and reception of folklore,) Clasen also comments on the figure of the vampire: “As the historian Paul Barber has convincingly argued, the modern vampire has its origin as a pre-scientific explanation for infectious disease. Before the germ theory of disease, a vampire was as good an explanation for the outbreak of lethal disease (such as tuberculosis) as any….” (p.323)

The contagious aspect of vampirism remains an essential characteristic of the archetype.” (p.323)

In fact, one of the most disturbing and dramatically effective qualities of several traditional horror monsters—vampires, werewolves, and zombies—is their contagiousness. Characters battle not just ferocious beasts, but monstrous germs, as well.” (p.324)

The vampire has adapted cunningly and with panache to ever-changing cultural ecologies over the centuries, yet never losing its essential predatory nature and its defining violation of biology, its undeadness.” (p.324)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Mathias Clasen (2010) Vampire Apocalypse: A Biocultural Critique of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.  Philosophy and Literature 34(2)October, pp. 313-328


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