The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 9: Atom-Age Vampires

Vampyre's Legacy banner

As far back as the nineteenth century, certain writers had tried to demystify vampires by coming up with scientific explanations for their condition and behaviour. James Malcolm Rymer’s ramshackle Varney the Vampire introduced – and later abandoned – the notion that its main character was a man resurrected through galvanism. Charles Wilkins Webber’s Spiritual Vampirism and Florence Marryat’s Blood of the Vampire drew upon the pseudoscientific topic of psychic power to depict vampires who fed on something less tangible than blood. But it was not until the postwar years that the idea of the scientific vampire reached its peak popularity.

The trend began in earnest with the film House of Dracula (1945), where the Count was portrayed as a victim of an exotic blood parasite who could conceivably be cured by medical science. More often than not, vampire films of the 1950s associated vampires with mad scientists: sometimes they were the product of mad science; other times the vampires were themselves mad scientists, operating laboratories and unleashing monsters as in [list]. It was not until Hammer’s 1958 Dracula starring Christopher Lee that the traditional supernatural vampire came back into vogue.

Nothing dates as badly as a botched modernisation, and the 1950s trend for science fiction vampires is not particularly well-remembered today. That said, the cycle does have one shining success to its name: it produced a novel that can lay claim to being the first true classic of twentieth century vampire literature.

I Am Legend cover

1954: I Am Legend

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend has a then-futuristic setting of the 1970s and depicts a world that has been conquered by vampires. Their condition is caused by an infection, one that has been present throughout history – hence the existence of vampire legends – but which has now achieved epidemic proportions.

One man, Robert Neville, has managed to survive both the infection and the onslaught of the infected. By day he heads out into the desolate city, picking off unconscious vampires and raiding abandoned shops for supplies. By night he retreats into his house, fully fortified against the hordes of vampires that wait outside. His main goal in life is to find survivors; but he also has a secondary goal: to understand exactly how the vampires work.

It is this spirit of scientific inquiry that separates I Am Legend from the more superficial attempts to translate vampires to science fiction. The made-up disease in Dreadful Hollow and the mad scientist experiments of b-movies are so fanciful that they might as well be magic – the writers’ decisions to use pseudoscientific rather than supernatural explanations for vampirism constitute a mere change of dress. But in I Am Legend, Matheson has worked out a reasonably coherent model for scientific vampirism – and, in a tried-and-true approach to science fiction, articulates it through the research of his protagonist.
Like a scientist working in an impromptu laboratory, Neville gathers together garlic, crosses, blood samples and other relevant objects in his home. With the aid of a microscope, he finds that vampirism is caused by a germ:

‘It’s a bacillus,’ he said, ‘a cylindrical bacterium. It creates an isotonic solution in the blood, circulates the blood slower than normal, activates all bodily functions, lives on fresh blood, and provides energy. Deprived of blood, it makes self-killing bacteriophages or else sporulates.’

Neville dismisses as superstition certain purported traits of the vampire, such as its ability to turn into a bat and its fear of running water. But other characteristics turn out to be authentic. The infection weakens the skin’s resistance to sunlight, and causes an allergy to garlic. The bacterium causes the production of a “powerful body glue” that allows vampires to regenerate wounds; but prolonged exposure to oxygen causes the germ to become parasitic, eating the host – hence why vampires perish so quickly when a wound is held open by a stake.

Some of the vampires’ weaknesses, Neville reasons, are psychological in origin – vampires have a self-loathing that is triggered by certain stimuli. The sight of a mirror is one, sending a vampire into a state of hysterical blindness. Another is the sight of symbols pertaining to whatever religious faith they followed in life, hence why many vampires are afraid of the cross. The novel also establishes that vampires from non-Christian backgrounds are affected by different symbols, an idea that has caught on even in stories about the more traditional variety of vampire. Films like The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) and Dracula 2000 (1999) have since made use of the concept, which can serve to separate the vampire genre from specifically Christian cosmology.

Like the assumed reader, Neville is familiar – indeed, over-familiar – with existing vampire fiction. Not only does he read a copy of Dracula, he alludes to comedian Lenny Bruce, whose stand-up routine depicted Dracula as a henpecked husband with wife and kids (“Mamma, when I grow up I wanna be a wampir like Dada. Why, bless you, hon, of course you shall.”) I Am Legend was written at a time when vampires had been thoroughly stereotyped and parodied, making the time ripe for a drastic re-invention.

The novel ran the risk of demystifying the vampire so thoroughly that the theme lost its appeal, a little like a magician revealing how a trick is performed; but in fact, Matheson managed to retain some of the romance of vampire fiction. The novel hints at a larger narrative, as when Neville speculates that vampires may have been behind such smaller-scale apocalypses as the fall of Athens and the black death, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imagined stories. Crucially, the novel also captures the themes of love and loss that Bram Stoker conjured with the fate of Lucy Westenra. Neville is haunted by the memories of his wife Virginia and daughter Kathy, each of whom fell to the vampire plague; and the arrival of another woman – apparently a survivor like him – throws him into further emotional turmoil.

I Am Legend enjoyed a considerable cinematic afterlife, being adapted for the screen with stars as varied as Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, Will Smith and Homer Simpson. But its most significant cinematic offspring is Night of the Living Dead (1968), whose director George A. Romero has cited Matheson’s novel as a key influence. As Romero’s film went on to redefine zombie cinema, it could be said that this subgenre owes its genesis to I Am Legend.

This is curiously appropriate. In Night of the Living Dead, the walking corpses are never referred to as zombies, but rather as ghouls. Throughout literary history, ghouls – typically thought of as beings that eat human flesh – have been close relatives to vampires. In Byron’s The Giaour from 1813, vampires and ghouls each belong to the poem’s pseudo-Islamic cosmology. Théophile Gautier’s “La morte amoureuse” uses the terms “vampire” and “female ghoul” as though they are interchangeable. Paul Féval’s novel Le Chevalier Ténèbre mentions both blood-drinking vampires and flesh-eating oupire – a ghoul by any other name. Finally, between Matheson’s vampires and Romero’s ghouls, we see the same companionship extended into atom-age science fiction. I Am Legend attempted to update vampires for a new era; but ironically, its lasting legacy was to give a new lease of life to ghouls.

But if the novel’s innovations were ultimately displaced onto another class of monster, where did that leave vampires in the 1950s?

Cover of Imagination magazine April 1951

As it happens, Matheson had already foreseen the future of the vampire genre in a short story published a few years before I Am Legend. Originally entitled “Drink My Red Blood…” this brief but prescient tale made its debut in the April 1951 issue of Imagination magazine before being subsequently reprinted in various anthologies, sometimes under the title of “Blood Son”. The main character in the story is a misfit schoolboy named Jules:

He made people shiver with his blank stare. His coarse guttural tongue sounded unnatural in his frail body. The paleness of his skin upset many children. It seemed to hang loose around his flesh. He hated sunlight.

And his ideas were a little out of place for the people who lived on the block.

Jules yearns to articulate his desires and predilections, showing a fondness for inventing new words (“Like nighttouch. Or – killove. They were really several words that melted into each other. They were things Jules felt but couldn’t explain with other words.”) He steals a copy of Dracula from a library, and becomes obsessed with it – despite his mother’s attempt to dispose of the book. At school, he adopts the name Jules Dracula and reads a composition on how he wants to be a vampire when he grows up (“I want to be all cold and have rotten flesh with stolen blood in the veins”). A social pariah, Jules’ only companion is a vampire bat housed in the local zoo; he visits the animal regularly, nicknaming it the Count. He eventually frees it, and allows it to drink his blood. When the thirsty bat overpowers the boy, Jules finally gets his wish:

He tried to call out for help.

But no sounds save a bubbling mockery of words came from his lips.

He heard the fluttering wings.

Then, suddenly, they were gone.

Strong fingers lifted him gently. Through dying eyes Jules saw the tall dark man whose eyes shone like rubies.

‘My son,’ the man said.

In creating the character of Jules Dracula, Matheson captured the juvenile horror fan in archetypal form. Jules is an outcast, mistrusted by teachers, classmates and parents alike for his ghoulish interests and odd behaviour – but he is also creative, even poetic, and longs for a place where he is accepted.

The Goth subculture would not develop until decades later, but the “monster kid” generation was close at hand. 1958 saw the launch of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which became a bible to countless young lovers of the macabre. That same year Hammer’s full-colour adaptation of Dracula finally ended the reign of sci-fi gimmickry. Scientifically-minded Robert Neville may not have approved, but Jules Dracula would have loved it.

Matheson had realised something that would soon make the genre as a whole sit up and take notice: increasing numbers of readers were seeing vampires not as monsters to be destroyed, but as beings to be sympathised with, perhaps even emulated.

It was time for the vampire to become the hero.

Series Navigation<< The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 8: In the Shadow of HollywoodThe Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 10: Sympathy for the Devil >>
Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit or