(Content Warning: Racist propaganda images are used to explain dehumanization, PTSD and other mental health conditions discussed, Alcoholism)
What would it take for you to be able to kill a person? What conditions would be necessary? What would you need to believe to become capable of ending of the life of another?
Despite the long history of violence in human society, killing other people doesn’t come easily to us. We know that even soldiers experience extreme distress when they kill another person in combat, and those that believe they have killed experience higher rates of PTSD (Jones, 2006; Van Winkle & Safer, 2011). In many cases, soldiers have difficulty even attacking the enemy without the social pressures of unit cohesion and modern military organizational methods (Jordan, 2002). While there is controversy surrounding S.L.A. Marshall’s (2000) claim that less than 25% of soldiers in World War II fired their weapons upon encountering an enemy, called the “ratio of fire,” there are now multiple strands of evidence from the social sciences that reinforce the claim that people find it difficult to commit lethal violence against other people without sociological and psychological interventions (Collins, 2008).
How people justify and legitimize violence is a central question in Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend, and it manifests itself in each of its three direct film adaptations: Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007). This undying story was one of the first to imagine a cataclysmic plague, with a natural cause, that raises the deceased as undead monsters that overtake the Earth (Abbott, 2016). These ideas have spawned an entire subgenre in the form of the modern zombie film, which have been infected by the germ of Matheson’s story through their influence upon their sire, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (Hajducky, 2013). Diverse readings of this story have seen it speaking to racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and suburbia, all operating to enable the main character’s violence and the violence he experiences in turn. This is because the central metaphor of the story is how people become dehumanized and how this enables us to rationalize and legitimate our violence.
This essay will explore this story as it has appeared in Matheson’s original novel, as well as it’s three primary film adaptations, to help us understand what dehumanization is, the role of enemy images, and how it enables violence.
Consumed by Violence
The story almost always begins the same. Robert Neville (called “Robert Morgan” in the 1964 adaptation) appears to be the lone survivor of a plague that has killed everyone he knows and loves – and raised them as vampires. Unlike the vampires of supernatural gothic literature, these vampires have lost much of their intelligence and are no stronger than the corpse of the person they once were. They have no supernatural powers, though they are allergic to garlic and the superstitions they had in life cause them to fear religious symbols. Neville spends his days repairing the defenses of his fortified home, hunting vampires block by block, and doing what he can to cope with the isolation and trauma of his neverending battle. At night, he hides inside his home, attempting to drown out the cries of the undead masses besieging his home, as well as painful memories of what he’s lost, with music and alcohol.
Neville’s violence is portrayed differently in each adaptation. Unlike the movies, the novel begins only a few months after society has collapsed. We watch Neville slowly become numb to the violence he commits over the years, finding it hard to kill the vampires at first, but letting it eventually become routine and normalized as he buries his reservations within the “shell” of his trauma. This does not mean his violence comes without a cost though, as we see him abusing alcohol and smoking heavily in order to cope. One can’t help but wonder if Matheson’s own experience as a veteran of World War II made it possible for him to speak to the psychological cost of violence and PTSD.
In The Last Man on Earth, we see a sensitive and theatrical performance by Vincent Price, as Robert Morgan. Early in the film, he remarks while packing wooden stakes into a bag for his daily hunt that, “They want my blood. It’s their lives or mine. But I still get squeamish.” He has been struggling to survive for three years now, and believes he must hunt the vampires in order to reduce their numbers and clear the city before they overwhelm his barricades. Even so, the killing does not come easy to him, as we see his pained grimace as he engages in the act during a montage of hunting down the slumbering vampires, which hide indoors during the daytime. In this movie, we see recognizably human faces on the vampires and hear their all-too-human screams as he kills them. The soundtrack is tense and ominous, suggesting that we, as the audience, should also be distressed at what Morgan does to survive.
Charleston Heston as Robert Neville, on the other hand, takes to this violence much more enthusiastically in The Omega Man. We first see him joy-riding in a sports car through the desolated streets of the city, only to stop suddenly when he sees movement in a window. Even though nothing more than a silhouette is visible, he opens fire with his machine gun, shooting blindly into the building. Each day, like Price’s Morgan, Neville searches the city block by block looking for the lair of “the Family,” this film’s variation on the vampires. Throughout the film, it seems we are supposed to celebrate his violence, with a soundtrack that belongs on an episode of the A-Team or an 70s action movie, and Heston’s performance generally expressing comfort with his own actions.
The most recent rendition of Neville, as played by Will Smith in the 2007 film sharing the same name as Matheson’s novel, isn’t as gung-ho as Heston’s Neville, but also doesn’t seem to still be “squeamish” about his violence, like Price’s version. There is a playful inventiveness in the traps he sets for the “Darkseekers” and a seeming numbness to some of things he does. It seems Neville already in his shell of trauma and is largely dispassionate in capturing individual Darkseekers as specimens for the scientific experiments he conducts in search of a cure to the disease. This is similar to where we find Neville in the novel after three years, experimenting on vampires to try to understand scientifically how the disease works, having become largely cold and numb to the violence.
In each of these portrayals, Neville finds a way to make it possible for himself to normalize the daily killing of the vampires. What is it that make him capable of doing this?
(Note: some of the text from this section is adapted from my 2018 essay on the use of enemy images in political rhetoric)
“Dehumanization is a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration…Any harm that befalls such individuals seems warranted, and perhaps even morally justified. Those excluded from the scope of morality are typically perceived as psychologically distant, expendable, and deserving of treatment that would not be acceptable for those included in one’s moral community.”
As Maiese explains above, dehumanization is what enables us to place a group of people psychologically outside moral consideration in order to legitimize violence against them. This is, in part, done through the creation of an enemy image, which often represents the targeted out-group as less than human and inherently dangerous. Interestingly, this is a process that occurs across cultural, religious, and national borders, and is seen time and time again during periods of violence and conflict in human history.
“The first thing that caught my attention was that all nations use basically the same visual metaphors, the same hostile clichés, to characterize and dehumanize their enemies. It was like all these propaganda artists had gone to the same art school.”
This process begins by picturing one’s own group as the victim or as being threatened, with another group of people being framed as the dangerous aggressor that must be defended against. Importantly though, the enemy image is constructed out of frequently repeated tropes that are easy to recognize.
First, the targeted group is portrayed as subhuman. A common way to imply people are less than human is to represent them as animals. Often, the chosen animal is vermin, such as cockroaches or rodents. Sometimes they are an octopus or a spider, stretching their tendrils and tangled webs across the world. This is done because most people find it easier to kill animals than they do to kill human beings. This is especially true when the animals chosen are dangerous or carry disease. After all, you don’t sit down and have a dialogue with an infestation of insects or rats, you probably will call an exterminator to kill them. It should be noted that this can be represented in other ways too, such as showing the Other as extremely dirty, unable to speak in human language, or behaving in a way that is perceived as animalistic.
Second, in what might seem almost like a contradition, the enemy is also more than human in some way. They might be a demon or a supernatural spirit. Maybe they are involved in a world–spanning conspiracy that makes their threat inescapable. For this reason, we cannot rely on conventional diplomacy or political tactics to protect ourselves – after all, guns don’t kill demons. Instead, we must prepare ourselves for extraordinary measures and extreme violence.
Third, the enemy is, by their very nature, dangerous and vicious. The enemy is shown to be violent, aggressive, and unreasonable. They are greedy and ravenous, wanting to devour the entire world. They are rapists, murderers, and criminals. They are not defending themselves from us, but are instead invading and stealing from us. If our own response is measured or peaceful, they will take advantage of us and harm us. As a result, even though we are by nature virtuous, we must become just as vicious in order to defeat this menace.
Many enemy images distill the out-group into all of these elements at once, such as the infamous image of the German Kaiser as a King-Kong-sized gorilla kidnapping a woman under the armor of “militarism” and carrying a bloodied weapon of “kultur.” Another example is the way the U.S. portrayed the Japanese as vampires, making them less than human, more than human, and inherently violent and threatening.
In every version of the I Am Legend story, the vampire plague functions as a contagious form of dehumanization, with people transforming upon infection into something that embodies all three of these elements of the enemy image. In both the novel and the 1964 film, the original screenplay for which was written by Matheson himself, the vampires that arise from the dead embody all of these traits. They are less than human, being unable to speak in more than simple, moaning sentences, and have no life beyond hunting and feeding. They are more than human, as the disease causes their bodies to develop a “glue” that seals shut wounds, like bullet holes, unless they are kept open to oxygen with an object like a stake. And, lastly, they are inherently dangerous and aggressive, being driven by their hunger to beseige Neville’s home each night so that they might kill and consume him.
The Omega Man diverges the most from the original vampires of the story, replacing them with “the Family,” a luddite cult of diseased, albino people. The disease causes them to become pale like a corpse and develop open wounds and sores, distancing them from their full humanity. This both makes them seem less than a living human, but also makes them ghostly, as if there is something superhuman about them. Their ideology leads them to conform by dressing in identical black robes, leading to deindividuation. This makes them all seem interchangeable and the same, another common process used to generalize the dehumanizing effects of enemy images to an entire group while making the enemy seemingly everywhere at once. Interestingly though, these infected retain the largest amount of their intellectual abilities. They organize complex plans to entrap Neville, they kidnap him and have entire conversations with him, and they are not driven by an animal thirst for blood, but by zealous devotion to an ideology that tells them to eliminate all traces of the civilization that destroyed the world.
In the 2007 film, the vampires have been overtaken by contemporary zombie images, with the Darkseekers being CGI monsters that look significantly less human than previous portrayals. They are not capable of proper speech either, though they do have enough intelligence to devise a trap for Neville that is inspired by his own designs. In this case, besides the individual known as the “Alpha Male,” a term we use to describe animals, the Darkseekers seem completely interchangeable and undifferentiated. Their only motivation appears to be to feed on Neville and ensure the survival of their group, though they do develop superhuman strength, which is unusual compared to the other versions.
The vampire of these stories is something that is less than human (muting our empathy), more than human (instilling fear), and inherently dangerous (so it’s our lives or theirs). In this way, the vampire stands in as the enemy image of every group that has ever been dehumanized in order to create psychological distance and enable violence. It should be noted this is not just a subtext, but something Matheson directly draws our attention to. A sardonic scene plays out where Neville has been reading, and criticizing, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which leads into him pretending to give a speech to a gathering in his salon that apes the double-faced nature of many White liberals of the era:
“Why, then, the unkind prejudice, this thoughtless bias? Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out? Why do you wish him destroyed? Ah, see, you have turned the poor guileless innocent into a haunted animal. He has no means of support, no measures for proper education, he has not the, voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence!
Robert Neville grunted a surly grunt. Sure, sure, he thought, but would you let your sister marry one?”
There is no negotiating with the vampires and there is no option but to kill in order to ensure our own survival. That is, until the day Neville encounters a mysterious woman.
What do you see in the face of the Enemy?
One day, while Neville is outside, he encounters a mysterious woman. In the 2007 film, she rescues him from a suicidal assault upon the Darkseekers following the death of his dog. In the other versions though, he sees her and calls out to her, only to have her run in fear or try to hide. In the novel and the 1964 film, he not only chases after her, but grabs her and hits her while trying to get her to stop running from him, and forces her to come with him back to his house. He is portrayed in these incarnations as being caught in a frenzy from his long isolation and the excitement of finding another living human being, but it is not hard to also read the situation as being a metaphor for domestic violence or sexual assault.
Her name is different each time, being called Ruth, Lisa, or Anna, depending on the movie, but she represents a challenge to Neville’s worldview and the dehumanization of the vampires he has engaged in. In almost every version, she is infected, but belongs to a community that has developed a method of treating the disease so it is manageable or for whom the disease has not yet progressed to its final stages. This is revealed slowly in the novel and the first film, as Ruth is sent by her group to spy on Neville and find out what he knows. In the 1971 film, Lisa and a young medical student, both of whom have early stages of the disease, take care of a group of children that have been in hiding. The 2007 film departs from this narrative the most, as Anna was part of a group of survivors that have been hiding in an outpost and she is driving across the country with her son to reach another outpost of survivors that they have heard of.
While the most recent film doesn’t explore this question as deeply, the other films all make the mysterious woman someone who has either been victimized or put at risk by Neville’s violence. In “The Omega Man,” Lisa remarks that between the Family attacking people at night and him firing off his gun blindly during the day, they had to hide from both to survive. Ruth, in “The Last Man on Earth,” reveals to Vincent Price that he has killed several members of her group that were infected, but still alive. The novel makes this even more intimate: Neville killed Ruth’s husband only two weeks before they met, as she looked on, under the impression that her husband was just another mindless vampire. In each of these versions though, this revelation suddenly humanizes the hundreds that Neville has killed and forces him to suddenly see his violence for what it really was.
The reaction to this information differs in each case. Vincent Price’s performance shows surprise, shock, and then regret and sympathy for the pain he has caused. In the book, his confrontation with the reality of his violence is complicated, as he resists acknowledging the full implications of what he has done at first, representing the difficulties of reckoning with systematic violence that one has engaged in and believed to be justified at the time. Heston, on the other hand, refuses to ever fully recognize humanity in the Family, responding to the suggestion by a previously infected character that he try to cure them by saying, “Fat chance….they’re homicidal maniacs, for God’s sake!” The 2007 movie has an alternate ending where Will Smith realizes that there is still sentience in the Darkseekers and comes to a nonverbal arrangement with the “Alpha Male,” returning a female Darkseeker to the group so they can protect her.
When this reveal occurs, Neville has been killing vampires every day for at least three years. This discovery suddenly challenges the dehumanization and rationalization that enabled this violence. Suddenly, it was not “kill or be killed,” nor were these mindless beasts, but human beings that were merely sick, which he has essentially been murdering. In different versions, he reacts alternatively with embracing this understanding and beginning to once more open his empathy to the infected or by rejecting this new information and retrenching with an even stronger dehumanization of them. In the case of the former, we even see him empathize with one of the vampires that is later killed during the climax of the story, as he knows this one by name and suddenly sees him as human once more.
This speaks to the difficulties of transforming a conflict once dehumanization and prejudice has come to dominate people’s lives. One way that practitioners attempt to overcome this problem is through intergroup contact, sometimes called the “contact hypothesis” (Dugan, 2004; Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006). Over five decades of research have demonstrated that, under the right conditions, contact between members of different groups has the ability to reduce prejudice and increase favorable attitudes. This is what we see happen when Neville and the mysterious woman get to know each other, as the vampire goes from a monstrous Other to a human woman with whom is able to connect to. Sometimes, when prejudices are particularly deep, people will engage in what is sometimes called “fence-mending,” where they count that person they have met as an exception while doubling-down on their original prejudices. We see this in the versions where Neville seems to say to himself, “Oh, yeah, you are okay, but you’re not like those other infected.” This is why the conditions under which intergroup contact are implemented can be very important.
The final answer to the question of dehumanization, and re-humanization, pivots in this story upon how the plot is finally resolved. This where we discover why Robert Neville is “Legend.”
Why “I Am Legend?”
The reason that Neville is called a “Legend” at the end of the story hinges upon the resolution that comes at the end in each version. The movies have favored an ending that departs completely from the novel, attempting to escape its bleakness and providing the audience with a sense of hope, but they also appear to undermine the purpose of the story as a result. Let me first lay out what the movies have come to tell us this story is ultimately about.
Starting in the 1964 version, Neville discovers that the antibodies his body has developed against the disease that makes him immune can be used to develop a cure and vaccination. Through this plot device, a vampire can be “saved” by taking in his blood, turning Neville into a Christ symbol for the post-apocalypse. This is reinforced further by the fact that in The Omega Man and I am Legend, he sacrifices himself in battle with the forces of evil to enable this cure to be brought to the infected (the fallen or sinful) by his followers. In the most recent film, we are literally told during a final narration, as Anna brings the “salvation” of Neville’s blood to an outpost of survivors, that he is a legend because he sacrificed himself to save the future of mankind. This martyrdom is even represented visually, as Price is killed with a spear at the altar of a church and Heston dies with his arms spread out, with a weeping, cloaked woman at his side.
The two later films, in pursuing the Christian symbolism, appear to justify everything Neville has done up until this point. He is not only an action hero, but also our savior in the wasteland! A person who has dehumanized an entire category of people because of their infection status is raised to the level of the divine.
I would argue this actually contradicts Matheson’s original message, as represented best in the novel, but also present in The Last Man on Earth. In these versions of the story, as mentioned above, Ruth is revealed to have come to Neville to spy on him on behalf of a new society of infected people. They have developed a treatment that allows them to manage the symptoms of the disease and prevent it from progressing, but which cannot cure them entirely of it. These vampires, being still alive when they were infected, view the other vampires, who are dead that were reanimated by the infection, through the same lens of dehumanization that Neville did. In fact, maybe because of this shared trait that risks creating a grounds for a common empathy, they take their violence against the dead vampires to an even further extreme, as they seek to eliminate them from the world entirely.
This is when we discover that part of Ruth’s mission is also to prevent Neville from escaping, as the militia of this new society has been ordered to come to his house and execute him. Because he has killed countless living vampires, they view him as having committed murder and a threat to them all. As a result, their leadership has sentenced him to execution and a militia is coming to commit “legitimate” violence against him. Suddenly, Neville has gone from being the last person in a world of monsters to becoming a monster that threatens every person that still survives.
In the novel, our protagonist reflects in his last moments, as he is dying from a gunshot wound:
“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. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in his pain…Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.”
In the movie version, Vincent Price dies in Ruth’s arms, saying, “They were afraid of me.” After he passes away, Ruth walks past the members of the new society that gathered to witness Price’s death, and turns to a crying baby to reassure it, “Don’t cry, there’s nothing to cry about. We’re all safe now.”
These versions of the story challenge us. The world is not saved and, in fact, we are making the same mistakes as the people of the past, dehumanizing those different from ourselves and justifying the use of violence to make ourselves feel secure against the fear we have taught ourselves. The reality is that any group of people can be dehumanized and we must learn to empathize even with those that might threaten us. Because if we don’t, the cycle of violence will continue, and we will become the very monsters of our fearful imaginations.
Abbott, S. (2016). The Legacy of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. In Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century (pp. 9-38). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Collins, R. (2008). Violence : a micro-sociological theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dugan, M (2004, January). Prejudice. Beyond Intractability, Retrieved from https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/prejudice
Hajducky, D. (2013, October 24). I Am Legend: Why Can’t Matheson’s Masterpiece be Done Justice on Film? Retrieved from https://www.denofgeek.com/us/books-comics/i-am-legend/204596/i-am-legend-why-cant-mathesons-masterpiece-be-done-justice-on-film
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