Under the garb of the vampire or the witch or the unimaginable monster, gothic dystopias reshuffle our understanding of who we are; the monster without seems to manifest the monster within. Diganta Ray inscribes his take on one of the more popular vampire fictions…
In primitive cultures as well as in religious rituals, the blood has always played the role of a symbol and a very potent reminder of the mortality of beings in general. While the ritual of sacrifice considered the blood as the ultimate offering to the divine, within the Eucharist tradition of Christianity, the drinking of the wine, which symbolized Jesus’s blood, fostered a sense of union with the Almighty, and a reenactment of the Last Supper. The blood, as a medium, therefore, coagulates together, notions of purity and impurity, and the living and the dead. The legend of the vampire toys around with this religiously loaded symbol of the blood to construct a mythical creature that would embody the concept of suffering in the ‘fallen’ world. The legend of blood-sucking creatures who return from the dead has existed in folklore across the world. However, with the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819 and subsequently, Bram Stoker’s publication of Dracula in 1897, the vampire finally gets its exclusive Christian garb, and with it, a towering Catholic reverence, that causes it to dread the physical symbol of the Cross.
Richard Matheson in his 1954 vampire tale I am Legend challenges this Christian, or more specifically, Catholic, a transformation of the vampire legend. Writing in the second half of the twentieth century, Matheson shifts the slide of blood from the discourse of religion to the discourse of medicine, examining the vampire outbreak as an epidemic of bacterial infection. Having attributed a biological cause to the vampire outbreak he then proceeds to ask, “Why should a vampire who had been a Jew fear it [the cross]…neither a Jew nor a Hindu nor a Mohammedan nor an atheist, for that matter, would fear the cross.” Thus he finally manages to give a psychological explanation for symptoms of the vampire which could not be physiologically accounted for.
Matheson’s contribution to the vampire sub-genre however, lies beyond this attempt at rationalizing an apparently supernatural legend. I am Legend, through the eyes of the last survivor of the vampire epidemic on earth, Robert Neville, tackles simultaneously, philosophical questions of existence and sociological questions of community-building in an unprecedented way. In one of the deepest moments of despair, having lost his wife and child, and being forced to defend himself against the blood-sucking creatures on a daily basis, he begins to question the reason why he has chosen to live, and not just given himself up to those monsters. Neville’s will to live amidst hopelessness brings out the elementary desire of all life forms to survive. Be it through instinct or through choice, the life force tries to perpetuate itself. Thus it is in these lowest points of Neville’s existence that we as readers find answers to life’s most fundamental questions. In another low point of the story where the members of the new social approach to capture Neville, we realize how, despite his irritation with the vampire Cortman who called him out daily, Neville couldn’t erase the bond they shared as neighbors when they lived a ‘normal’ life. Neville’s sympathy for Cortman, and for the vampires in general when they were killed mercilessly by the assassins, shows how, even in the absence of a functioning society, Neville had begun to feel a sense of community bonding with the vampires. Although I am Legend treats the vampires as sub-human creatures, unlike the suave Count Dracula of Stoker, in its own way it humanizes the monster to the extent that the conventional boundaries of pure and impure, good and evil, monster and hero, that are so pronounced in most vampire literature, breaks down.
In problematizing the category of the monster, Matheson questions the ethics of ostracizing the Other on the basis of difference. As Matheson is captured by the members of the new race, he realizes that he himself has become a legend for the members of the vampire family who have seen their kin murdered by Neville. Standing at this juncture, he no longer has any hatred or feeling of enmity towards this new race. The numb, sensationalized, desensitized bloodlust which is common in the vampire or monster genre has been replaced by a more accommodative and humane response at the end of the novel. The last request which Neville has for Ruth, a ranking officer in this new society is “Don’t let it get—too brutal. Too heartless.” I am Legend thus goes beyond exploiting the tropes of horror for a dramatic effect. Instead, it raises deeper questions about our society, a society where, as Neville says, “murder was easier than hope”. The premise of a society built through violence provides a greater source of horror than the legendary creatures of the night.
Title Art by Subarnarekha Pal