I Am Legend Historical Context 📖

‘I Am Legend’ was written sometime in the 1950s during the Cold War era when the United States and the Soviet Union fought some wars against one another.

I Am Legend

Richard Matheson

Robert Neville

The ‘I Am Legend’ title reflects the novel’s final part. In the past, vampires were terrifying creatures who hunted and murdered humans at night. In this new world, although the vampires have dominated it, they are killed by the last man on earth.

As a work of fiction, this novel is on modern evolution in technology and science. It is based on pronounced social changes. Published in 1954, the story is set in 1976 when a vampiric germ has infected humans.


Although Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend‘ is set in Los Angeles, California, in the mid to late 1970s, the story surrounding the Protagonist, Robert Neville, is based on 1950s Los Angeles when there were countless fires and the city encountered an increase in violent crimes. These fires destroyed amenities and infrastructure like refineries and ships. A series of fires again started sometime in 1955. The devastation lasted for five days. The condition of the road and restricted access to water made it hard for fire fighters to repress the fire outbreak.

A year later, illegality increased in Los Angeles by thirty-five percent. The Chief of Police at the time ascribed this upsurge in crime to the shortage of staff in the police force, laws that protected criminals, and low rates of prosecution by the district attorney’s office. Just as the reoccurrence of fire and violence tried to destroy Los Angeles in the 1950s, so did the vampire plague greatly reduce the population of humans in ‘I Am Legend.’

A History of Vampires

In 1764, Horace Walpole re-established supernatural elements into serious literature. In ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ elements like terrifying monsters, haunted castles, and so on were infused. This led to English gothic literature prospering in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Vampire stories, an aspect of horror, were first introduced into human consciousness in 1819 when the New Monthly Magazine published “The Vampyre” by Dr. John William Polidori. This was before the creation of the more popular ‘Dracula.’ When Richard Matheson first watched the adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, he reasoned that if one vampire was frightening, then a world conquered by them would be even scarier and more dreadful.

Gothic vampires were usually classy, but pale creatures with the ability to hypnotize their victims with motion or a look. They possessed extraordinary strength and fangs that they used to pierce their victims’ necks. These features were enhanced by Bram Stoker. He included the detestation of mirrors and garlic, telepathy, and affinity with bats and wolves. Vampire hunters were also created. Currently, Stoker’s portrayal of vampires has become the most accepted in popular culture. However, Richard Matheson promoted another beast in his horror fiction known as a zombie.

To Matheson, vampires were living victims of the germ that infected them or dead victims. While the walking dead were moronic and only cared about feeding, the living dead retained parts of their intellect. They invested in pills to help curb the excesses of vampirism. They also did not feel closely knitted to the dead vampires. Matheson’s work is believed to be the beginning of the modern zombie genre. It led to the creation of films like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead.’


After he graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, Richard Matheson served with the army during World War II. His adventures were told in ‘I Am Legend.’ The protagonist behaved like a traumatized veteran. This behavior is evident in the explanations of Neville’s vampire-hunting scenes, which mirrored how trained soldiers may have responded in an identical situation. 

‘I Am Legend’ was also published nine years after the United States released atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed over 120,000 people. Tens of thousands later died from the radiation of the bombings. The bombings were astounding and brought about a new method of war.

In chapter ten of this horror fiction, Robert Neville is sad because of the emptiness and quietness of a library. He thinks of all the knowledge the books possess, yet they cannot stop men from destruction. He also thinks of how the staff carefully arranged the library, unaware that death was lurking. Using these lines, Richard Matheson addressed the reader’s fear of nuclear war. Post-catastrophic fiction usually analyzes the dependency on technology and science that eventually leads to damaging effects. Also, the repercussions of nuclear war are explored.


After vampiric fiction got planted in Richard Matheson’s mind through the ‘Dracula’ film and book, it took more than six years before he wrote and published ‘I Am Legend.’ This short, but interesting book is regarded as an achievement because it was Richard Matheson’s first science fiction novel.

Published on August 1954 by Gold Medal Books, ‘I Am Legend’ feels notably modern for a book dating as far back as when it was released.


Being a highly successful book influenced the adaptation of ‘I am Legend’ into three movies: ‘The Last Man on Earth’ which was created in 1964, ten years after the book was released, ‘The Omega Man’ released in 1971 and ‘I Am Legend’ created in 2007. Before the production of the 2007 adaptation of ‘I Am Legend,’ a nine-part shortened reading of the novel was performed by Angus MacInnes. It got repeated in 2018. ‘I Am Legend’ was also adapted into a comic book mini-series created by Elman Brown and Steve Niles in 1991.


This influential book not only intrigued readers, but also inspired many filmmakers and horrific fiction authors. Ray Bradbury referred to Matheson as “one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.” Movie critics observed that the British film ’28 Days Later’ and ’38 Weeks Later’ created in 2002 talked about a plague ruining Britain, a feature first used in ‘I Am Legend.’ Critics also noted similarities between ‘Night of the Living Dead’ created in 1968 and ‘The Last Man on Earth,’ a 1964 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel. A lead programmer and designer of the 1997 computer game Fallout, Tom Cain, also named ‘I Am Legend’ and ‘The Omega Man’ as his inspiration.

Brian Lumley, an English author of horror fiction, said, “A long time ago, I read the book, and I started writing horror at about the same time. Been at it ever since. Matheson inspires, it’s as simple as that.” Stephen King said Matheson is “the author who influenced me the most as a writer.” He also said ‘I Am Legend’ was an inspiration to him.

In 2012, the Horror Writers Association named ‘I Am Legend’ the Vampire Novel of the Century, ahead of ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘Interview with a Vampire.’ Accepting her defeat, Anne Rice said it wasn’t hard to be defeated by “a man whose stories were inspiring me when I was still a kid writing everything with a ballpoint pen in a school notebook.” The American film director Steven Spielberg also said, “Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for ‘Duel.’ His Twilight Zones were among my favorites, and he recently worked with us on ‘Real Steel.’ For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction referred to ‘I Am Legend’ saying “perhaps the very peak of all paranoid Science Fiction.”


Is ‘I Am Legend’ a dystopian book?

Elements of dystopia are present in ‘I Am Legend.’ When the wave of the vampiric plague hits Los Angeles, the population of humans is wiped out. As human society slips into a post-apocalypse, vampires inhabit the earth. Only one man is immune to the virus. At the end of the novel, however, he dies.

Why did Richard Matheson not like ‘Last Man On Earth’ adaptation?

Even though Richard Matheson felt that ‘Last man On Earth’ was the most faithful adaptation of ‘I Am Legend,’ he disagreed with the choice of the protagonist and director of the movie. He said he was disappointed in the film and that the direction was poor and inept.

What effect did Richard Matheson have on the horror genre?

Richard Matheson served as an inspiration for many authors and filmmakers. Authors like Anne Rice and Stephen King speak of him and his work in ‘I Am Legend’ as an influence on their careers. His work as a scriptwriter for films and television series, especially The Twilight Zone, inspired the careers of great filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg.

What are the similarities between ‘Dracula’ and ‘I Am Legend?’

Bram Stoker and Richard Matheson recognize religious symbols and garlic as repellants to vampires. Richard Matheson, however, implies that not every vampire finds the sight of a cross repulsive. Both books emphasize that vampires need blood to survive. Finally, in ‘Dracula’ and ‘I Am Legend,’ vampires are enemies of real human beings.

Fave Ehimwenma
About Fave Ehimwenma
Fave Ehimwenma is a proficient writer, researcher, and content creator whose love for art and books drives her passion for literature reviews.
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