Monstrosity in Matheson's "I Am Legend" and Lawrence's Film Adaptation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013
30 Pages, Grade: 2,0


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. “ The monster always escapes” – The return of the undead

3. Richard Matheson´s I Am Legend
3.1 Reappearance of the monstrous
3.2 Racial issues and feminine sexuality
3.3 Shifting monstrosity

4. Francis Lawrence’s film adaptation
4.1 Reappearance of the monstrous
4.2 Terrorism and religion
4.3 Shifting monstrosity

5. Conclusion: cultural, social and political context
5.1 Postwar America
5.2 Post-9/11 America
5.3 Comparison between book and film adaptation

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

It is difficult to imagine our world without monsters. Their hideous appearance and scary behavior became integrated in our lives and culture. No culture can live without monsters. Children at an early age fear monsters under their beds and adolescents fight against monsters in computer games. We read about them in fictional literature and see them in classic movies as well as new publications. Monsters have always played an important role in culture.

But what are monsters? How do they find their way into our society and where do they come from? Not only are they defined by their deterrent appearance but also by qualities ascribed by the culture they appear in (cf. Murgatroyd 2007, p. 2). The anthropologist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen deals with monsters and their role in society. In his work called “Monster Theory” he proposes a method of understanding cultures through the monsters they invent by giving seven theses explaining the monster´s characterizations (cf. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome: Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In: Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Minneapolis 1996, p. 3f.). Cohen´s second thesis “The Monster Always Escapes” will be of special interest to us. Also referring to Cohen´s first thesis “The Monster´s Body Is A Cultural Body” we will examine how monsters are born into society and how they keep on living within the frames of cultural, political and social relations. Afterwards we will apply Cohen´s thesis to Richard Matheson´s “I Am Legend”, a Science Fiction and horror novel, which deals with monsters in form of vampires. In Matheson´s fictional work the protagonist Robert Neville, as the only human being, lives in a world of bloodthirsty vampires. Neville, trying to understand the germ which created the disease and to which he himself is immune, does scientific researches. He haunts the vampires and kills them, when ultimately he is captured by a pair of infected survivors. The novel is set in Los Angeles.

The book´s central focus is the phenomenon of the monstrous. We will explain the reappearance of the monstrous and answer the question when and how the monstrous escapes to appear again. Then we will discuss racial issues and feminine sexuality, which are also relevant themes in the novel. Then we will look at the shifting of monstrosity and its capability to appear somewhere else and in a new form.

The book has been turned into a movie three times. The newest film adaptation, directed by Francis Lawrence and published in 2007, will be paid particular attention to. It has the same title as Matheson´s book and is set in New York. Neville, starring Will Smith, aims at reversing the consequences of the virus and concentrates on working on an antidote. The infected monsters observe Neville and haunt him as well. Again, we will look at the reappearance of monstrosity and the possibility of its shifting. Aspects of terrorism and religion, which are portrayed in the movie, will also be discussed.

In both works the monsters are being labeled as the Other and marginalized (cf. Unterthurner, Gerhard: Abnormality and monstrosity in Foucault. In: Monstrosity in literature, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. Wien 2012, p. 201). Social, political and cultural relations are important to understand monstrosity and its escape and reappearance in culture (cf. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome: Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In: Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Minneapolis 1996, p. 5). We will compare the book with the film adaptation, especially when it comes to social, political and cultural backgrounds prevailing in the times of their publications and therefore pay attention to Postwar and Post-9/11 America. We will examine how the portrayal of monstrosity differs and how it is seen differently depending on the times and circumstances people live in.

2. “The Monster Always Escapes” – The return of the undead

Monsters disclose a lot about the culture that creates them. Ages ago Greeks and Romans produced many Classical monsters that symbolized the culture´s fears, fascination and worries. Monsters demonstrate what is normal in society and what is not. The fact that monsters reveal the human situation and a culture´s attitude toward its fears and horrors has not changed until today (cf. Murgatroyd 2007, p. 29).

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen proposes seven theses which all deal with the relationship between the monstrous and the culture it lives in. Just like history consists of many fragments and should not be understood as a closed entity, Cohen also offers single fragments regarding monstrosity in search of certain cultural moments (cf. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome: Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In: Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Minneapolis 1996, p. 3f.).

The first fragment Cohen talks about is how the monster´s body represents a cultural body. Monsters personify a specific cultural moment. The time, the place as well as the feelings surrounding the moment determine the birth of the monster. The monster´s body includes desire, fear, anxiety and also fantasy. It is always constructed and projected and it exists to be read and decoded. Its body always means something other than itself (cf. ibid., p. 4). The illustration of the first thesis is significant for a better understanding of Cohen´s second thesis, which represents our central issue here.

Cohen´s following thesis “The Monster Always Escapes“ explains the monster´s quality to escape and reappear somewhere else and in a different place. From Ancient times until today monsters found their way into society again and again. The topic of the monstrous is constantly taken up and appears in many novels since Bram Stoker´s Dracula, where the invention of the vampire took place (cf. ibid., p. 4f.).

The monster causes damages and we see the remaining material. We recognize the consequences of his behavior as, for example, the footprint the yeti leaves on the snow. The monster itself though becomes immaterial and disappears. The monster cannot be destroyed and he is never caught nor understood completely. It escapes death and its finality. Its body is corporeal and incorporeal at the same time. The anxiety regarding the monster can be dissolved temporarily, but it always returns in a slightly different form depending on its definition (cf. ibid.).

Monsters must be examined and understood in relation to social, cultural and literary historical parameters of a culture as, for example, sexuality, gender problems, homophobia, xenophobia, homosexuality or AIDS. Those relations that generate the monsters change constantly. Therefore the definition of the monsters resurfacing in different cultures and in different times shifts (cf. ibid., p. 4f.). Social and cultural phenomena come up and change. Their importance and topicality change. Every time that happens and every time the monster appears again, it needs to be read against contemporary social movements or determining events. Monsters take on those characteristics that represent their society and as Cohen claims: “Each time [...], the undead returns in slightly different clothing. [...]” (ibid., p. 5). Monstrosity and social movements or events are always connected. Every single reappearance of the monstrous needs to be analyzed in regard to cultural movements. The act of construction and reconstitution of the monster constantly takes place. Although “(n)o monster tastes of death but once” (ibid., p. 5), it always threatens to shift. It is impossible to stop it, kill it and bury it forever (cf. ibid., p. 6). Cohen also says that the analysis and interpretation of the monster must content itself with fragments that stand for the monstrous body. The monstrous signs and symptoms give us clues how to read and decode the monstrous body (cf. ibid., p. 5f.).

As it already has been pointed out, monsters are symbols of what society does not tolerate (cf. Murgatroyd 2007, p. 29). Not only do they stand out because of their missing attractiveness, but also because of their spatial positioning. They are excluded from society and depicted as the Other. Whoever is being categorized as the Other acts contrary to what society expects or demands. Society´s idea of normality defines right and wrong behavior and whatever is monstrous is the difference and deviance of normality (cf. Kyora, Sabine/Schwagmeier, Uwe: How to make a monster. Zur Konstruktion des Monströsen. Einführende Überlegungen. In: How to make a monster. Zur Konstruktion des Monströsen. Band 37. Würzburg 2011, p. 14f.). As Walker states, the definition of normality changes with time: “Wie jenes ist das Monströse nichts, was einmalig festgeschrieben wäre, sondern das zeitlichen Rahmenbedingungen und historischen Bezügen unterliegt” (Walker, Andreas: Die Idiotie des Monsters. Auf den Spuren des Monsterzoos in zeitgenössischen Fernsehserien. In: How to make a monster. Zur Konstruktion des Monströsen. Band 37. Würzburg 2011, p. 235). Just as Cohen, Walker also talks about the repetition of the monstrous from a temporal point of view. He also claims that it must at least have the potential to reappear, so it can be defined as monstrous and not just be a lapse or a slip-up (cf. ibid.).

It is now obvious that the reappearance of the monster defines him as such. “Monsters return from their momentary expulsion enriched with new meaning [...]” (Zeller, Joela: The Function of Monsters: Loci of Border Crossing and the In-Between. In: Monstrosity in literature, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. Wien 2012, p. 73) and illustrate desires, fears and dreams of a culture in new contexts and new philosophies of life. Their meaning as well as their looks are historically and culturally flexible (cf. Ackermann, Christiane: Von “pösen heiden” und “mahumetischen bluthunden”. Die Politisierung des Monsters in der Vormoderne. In: How to make a monster. Zur Konstruktion des Monströsen. Band 37. Würzburg 2011, p. 41).

Monsters are representative for boundaries and limits, which separate an inside from an outside (cf. Unterthurner, Gerhard: Abnormality and monstrosity in Foucault. In: Monstrosity in literature, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. Wien 2012, p. 203) and the meaning from the nonsense in society. Monsters are hybrids that make and unmake those boundaries constantly. They are figures of in-betweenness (cf. Uebel, Michael: Unthinking the monster: Twelfth-Century Responses to Saracen Alterity. In: Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Minneapolis 1996, p. 266), and cannot be fully established. The theorist Homi Bhabha defines hybridity as a intermediate, third space that is ambivalent and contradictory. That space contains unsolvable contradictions (cf. Bronfen, Elisabeth: Vorwort. In: Die Verortung der Kultur. Tübingen 2011, p. Xff.) The monstrous body is a hybrid body that cannot be solved nor completely understood. It changes, shifts and returns every time in a new clothing being something else than last time before it vanished (cf. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome: Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In: Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Minneapolis 1996, p. 5f.)

3. Richard Matheson´s “I Am Legend”

3.1 Reappearance of the monstrous

The monsters in Richard Matheson´s novel I Am Legend appear and disappear many times to haunt the protagonist Robert Neville anew. They keep coming back to his house every single night: “In another hour they´d be at the house again. [...] As soon as the light was gone” (Matheson 2010, p. 4). One of the vampires that Neville knew personally before the illness spead, a neighbor of his called Ben Cortmann, keeps yelling for Neville to come out of the house “´Come out, Neville!`” (ibid., p.8). He appears throughout the novel again and again. One time Neville fires a bullet trying to kill him, but Cortmann, after being hit, stands up and again calls for Neville (cf. ibid., p. 55).

Neville tries hard to kill the vampires and get rid of them. As soon as he finds out that hitting the hearts of the monsters with stakes kills them effectively, he makes more and more of them. No matter how many of the vampires he kills though, there always seem to be more. He founds them either in the basements of stores (cf. ibid., p.15) or on the cemetery, where he buried his wife (cf. ibid., p. 28). We see in the novel that the monstrous itself, disregarding the death of individual vampires, never disappears. The vampires are always there. They cannot be killed and they never disappear entirely from Neville´s world: “[...] the same ones he shot came rushing at him again” (ibid., p. 36).

According to Cohen´s claim in his second thesis “The Monster Always Escapes”, we also see the reappearance of the monstrous in the novel. Not only does Cortmann appear together with the rest of the monsters every single night, but he also cannot be killed nor destroyed. The stopping of the monstrous is impossible: “And always returning, patient and bruised” (ibid., p. 55).

In the third chapter of Matheson´s book the name of Dracula is mentioned by Neville. By making a reference to Bram Stoker´s novel about vampires he makes also a reference to the early understanding of vampires of Stoker´s times (cf. ibid., p. 17). The vampires now appear again to be read anew in Matheson´s times. By referring to Cohen, who says that: “[...] the revenant by definition returns” (Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome: Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In: Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Minneapolis 1996, p. 5), we can say that the monsters in “I Am Legend” reappear in different clothing. Again monstrosity does not die, but shifts from earlier times to the present in Matheson´s novel. As Robert Neville says: “Something black and of the night had come crawling out of the Middle Ages. [...] A tenuous legend passed from century to century” (Matheson 2010, p. 17), the monstrous appears again in different times and a different place.

When Robert meets Ruth, he cannot make up his mind, if she is infected and one of the vampires or if she is a normal human being like him. She retches when smelling garlic, but at the same time she is awake and not in a coma like the other vampires (cf. ibid., p. 118f.). As soon as the reader understands that Ruth is a mixture of both, namely an infected human being, it becomes obvious that in her the monstrous appears in a different form again. Cohen speaks of the monstrous body as a hybrid body and that is exactly what Ruth represents in the novel. On the one hand she wants to save Neville´s life when the new society that she belongs to wants to kill him and on the other hand she betrays him and spies on him (cf. ibid., p. 144). The ambivalence and the contradictions in her being come to light.

With the help of Ruth the monstrous breaks up the limits and boundaries of its existence and finds a new way of surviving. It lives on in Ruth. The monstrous not only reappears in bodies the society considers as ugly, but also in bodies that are not typical of that of a monster. The monstrosity exists in a different form in Ruth. Additionally, it appears in the executioners who are murdering the monsters at the end of the novel and therefore monstrosity reappears in the members of the new society as well (cf. ibid., p. 148f.).

Another form of reappearance takes place on the last pages of the novel. Neville, as soon as he realizes that he behaved monstrous himself by killing the vampires, commits suicide (cf. ibid., p. 160). The monstrosity in him, which will be discussed in detail in the following chapters, escapes, but survives and reappears as a legend. The legend of the vampires reappears as the legend of the last uninfected man on earth.


Excerpt out of 30 pages


Monstrosity in Matheson's "I Am Legend" and Lawrence's Film Adaptation
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (American Studies)
The Virus as Political Metaphor in 20th Century American Literature and Film
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ISBN (Book)
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Monstrosity, Monster, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Richard Matheson, I Am Legend, Film adaptation, Francis Lawrence, Monstrous, Comparison
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BA Kinga Gmiat (Author), 2013, Monstrosity in Matheson's "I Am Legend" and Lawrence's Film Adaptation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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