I Am Legend: how the vampire horror became an anti-vaxxer movie

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W hen it comes to the pandemic, plenty of films have had their turn in the spotlight. Contagion was one of them, for contextualising the scale of the virus and teaching everybody what an R number was. So was Jaws, with Amity Island’s safety-denying mayor, Larry Vaughn, serving as an analogue for any authority figure who was skeptical about the concept of lockdown.

To some extent, those films make sense. In times of great uncertainty, we reach for the familiar to guide us. But sometimes that’s a bad idea. Because sometimes what they reach for is the Will Smith movie I Am Legend.

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You will remember I Am Legend. Coming towards the tail end of his turn as the world’s biggest movie star, the film saw a lone Smith struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic New York that had been ravaged by mutant vampires (that look more like zombies). I Am Legend has entered the pandemic conversation because a small but insistent group has started to ask a simple question: “Wait, did those nice people turn into mutant vampires because they took the Covid vaccine?”

This isn’t necessarily a new development. Back in December, when vaccine trials were nearing their completion, the rumours that vaccines created vampires became so insistent that Reuters had to publish a factcheck article to deny it. The mutant vampires in I Am Legend became mutant vampires because they were exposed to a genetically re-engineered strain of the measles virus in order to cure cancer (courtesy of Emma Thompson’s ambitious doctor). No vaccines were involved whatsoever. But still, the damage had been done. When a globally respected news organisation has to use its precious resources to explain the plot of a disappointing Christmas movie from a decade and a half ago, you sense the battle has already been lost.

Still, though, the I Am Legend theory regained momentum this week when the New York Times ran a story about anti-vaxxers, claiming that an employee at an eyewear store had refused the vaccine because “she thought a vaccine had caused the characters in the film I Am Legend to turn into zombies”. This, in turn, caused the film’s co-writer Akiva Goldsman to tweet: “Oh. My. God. It’s a movie. I made that up. It’s. Not. Real.”

In truth, it is very hard to find any movie at all where the vaccine is the bad guy. In World War Z, for example, the zombies are created with a virus and the hero has to find a vaccine. In The Omega Man (the first adaptation of I Am Legend), Charlton Heston only survives a vampire-zombie wave because he is vaccinated. In Outbreak, a virus spreads and the heroes race to find a vaccine. The 1980 Japanese movie Virus ends with the protagonist embracing some vaccinated strangers and declaring: “Life is wonderful.” True, there is the 1973 horror movie Sssssss, where Dirk Benedict is put on a course of injections that tragically turn him into a snake, but unfortunately those injections are not vaccinations. They were designed to turn Dirk Benedict into a snake all along. Once again, it ultimately exists as proof that medicine does its job.

Arguably the only mainstream movie to ever depict vaccinations as a force for evil, in fact, is 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, in which a wealthy industrialist discovers an inoculation that targets the gene that gives mutants their abilities. And even that doesn’t work, for a couple of reasons. First, the vaccine in the film is designed to deny mutants their truest versions of themselves, and not even the most frothing anti-vaxxer would claim that the coronavirus was an integral part of their personality. And second, you will remember that X-Men: The Last Stand climaxed with an out of control unvaccinated mutant threatening to tear apart the entire fabric of the universe as we know it, so maybe the idea of a vaccination isn’t that silly after all.

Not that any of this matters, of course. If anti-vaxxers can convince themselves that some half-remembered Will Smith film from 2007 can act as a watertight scientific explanation for not wanting to get jabbed, then they can basically use that rationale on any film. Their arguments are unforgivable for any number of reasons, not least that it sort of makes me want to watch I Am Legend again.

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