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The Portrayal of Jungian Archetypes in I Am Legend

Updated on August 19, 2018
Elyse Thomas profile image

Elyse has taught middle school for four years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.

Carl Jung, the Swiss founder of the field of analytical psychology, developed the idea of the collective unconscious, the notion that there is a level of the unconscious that is shared throughout the entire species, stemming originally from ancestral and evolutionary memories. These memories ultimately manifest themselves into what is known as archetypes, which are ideas or personas that have universal meaning across cultures and time. The idea is that the symbols that hold universal meaning have emerged from one of these archetypes.

While Jung referenced many archetypes, there are five main focuses that he outlined specifically:

  1. The Self—similar to self-actualization, the Self represents a unified personality, attainable through a process called individuation.
  2. The Shadow—the repressed psyche, representing chaos, weakness and evil.
  3. The Anima—the feminine image in a man’s psyche
  4. The Animus—the masculine image in a woman’s psyche
  5. The Persona—often indicated by a mask, this is how we present ourselves to the world.

Along with the main five, there are other recurring archetypal images, which tend to be a bit more self-explanatory. These include The Child, The Hero, The Good Mother, The Bad Mother, The Sage and The Trickster.

The movie I Am Legend is a particular favorite of mine, and one that, I believe, displays more than one of the archetypes Jung has described. The movie has a very apocalyptic theme to it, which is one that has become very popular recently, and portrays a virus that wipes out much of the world’s population, only to be resurrected as man-eating monsters. Will Smith, the central character, with the exception of his dog, is alone uninfected in all of New York City, and is unaware as to if there are any other survivors elsewhere.

What I find especially interesting in this movie are the infected. What were once normal and functioning human beings have become insanely demonic. They still seem to possess human qualities, such as cunning, as demonstrated by the traps they constructed to catch Will Smith’s character, Dr. Robert Neville, and they still have a basic human form and evidence of ways to communicate. However, they flee from the sun and display a lot of violence and destructiveness, seeking to consume anything with a pulse, even someone they might have known prior to infection. These creatures are a perfect portrayal of Jung’s Shadow archetype. All humans possess the ability to be shockingly evil, but most choose not to identify with this side. The Shadow is a symbol of the side of human nature that we all fear, both from ourselves and from others. These monsters represent our own personal demons, the potential for evil in us all, unleashed.

Dr. Robert Neville is the clear Hero in this plot, as he shows great strength in the face of seriously unfortunate circumstances, and continuously works for a cure for the virus despite the dangers presented to him by the plagued city. In fact, he chose to remain behind when New York was first being quarantined to help work on the case at great personal risk. At the very end of the movie, he discovers the cure—his own blood—and sacrifices his life so that it could be delivered to a settlement beyond New York, which led to the saving of the world. He is quick-minded, strong, selfless and otherwise pure of heart—the clear hero in this plotline.

There are some lesser characters as well that display some other common archetypes. There’s the doctor who caused the epidemic to begin with, for one. Believing she had discovered the cure for cancer, she inoculated the world without waiting to determine the long-term side effects, which caused everything to go terribly wrong. She seems to fall under a witch-like archetype, having meddled in nature and causing disaster but, as her intentions were more selfish than evil, she is more like a Bad Mother. Also, as there are two different children in this movie, Dr. Neville’s constant companion is a dog that once belonged to his since-deceased daughter. This dog seems to have filled the void that his daughter’s death has left, as Neville cares for him just as carefully and certainly tenderly. This not only establishes the dog as the Child archetype, but it also reveal’s Neville’s Anima. When it comes to this dog, he is not the grief-hardened man that he is displayed as otherwise, and instead takes on a much more sensitive, maternal persona, that is revealing to the character’s more feminine side.

Overall, the movie’s theme deals with one of Jung’s theories, in that it speaks to a universal struggle, which he would refer to as the collective unconscious, of persona versus shadow. The infected, or the shadows, represent the evil that is suspected to be possessed by everyone, and the epidemic speaks to the universal fear of such evil breaking loose and taking control. This is a theme that goes beyond the simplicity of good versus evil, in that the people in question are helpless to defend against their own bodies, their own evil, and this lack of control takes over them until they are reduced into nothing but monstrosity. As mentioned before, this sort of apocalyptic theme is becoming more and more prevalent very recently in literature, film and television, shown in popular shows like The Walking Dead. This almost seems to hint at a growing discomfort and fear of an epidemic of evil, a revealing of Shadows that is out of everyone’s control. In I Am Legend, Will Smith’s character, the Hero, is all that is good within the human potential, and, the ending—finding the cure—assures the audience that the good will be strong enough to overcome whatever darkness lies within us.

Works Cited

  • Warner Bros. Pictures presents Village Roadshow Pictures in association with Weed Road ; Overbrook Entertainment ; 3 Arts Entertainment ; Heyday Films ; Original Film ; produced by Akiva Goldsman, David Heyman, James Lassiter, Neal H. Mortiz, Erwin Stoff ; screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman ; directed by Francis Lawrence. I Am Legend. Burbank, CA :Warner Home Video, 2008. Print.
  • Waude, Adam. “How Carl Jung's Archetypes And Collective Consciousness Affect Our Psyche.” Psychologist World, 22 Jan. 2016, www.psychologistworld.com/cognitive/carl-jung-analytical-psychology.

© 2018 Elyse Maupin-Thomas

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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting and well thought out article.

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