The Macabre Magic of Richard Matheson’s Stories – Part One

Richard Matheson was a master of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. His stories and novels have inspired countless films, TV shows, and writers, from The Twilight Zone to Steven Spielberg, from Stephen King to George A. Romero. He wrote about vampires, shrinking men, haunted houses, time travelers, and more. In this two-part blog series, we will explore his career and his connections to three of the collections at the American Heritage Center. In this first part, we will focus on his early life and his works in the 1950s.

Matheson with his son Richard Christian Matheson on the cover of the June 1986 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine. Photo from blog “The Twilight Zone Vortex.”

Born in 1926 to Norwegian immigrants in Allendale, New Jersey, Matheson was raised in Brooklyn by his mother after his parents divorced. As a youngster he first set his sights on a musical career, a love of fantasy books lit up his imagination and energized his creativity; he was only eight when a story he wrote appeared in a local newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1943 and then served in World War II as an infantry soldier. In 1949, he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and moved to California. His writing career spanned over six decades, during which he wrote novels, short stories, film scripts, and adaptations.

Matheson once said: “I think we’re yearning for something beyond the every day. And I will tell you that I don’t believe in the ‘supernatural,’ I believe in the ‘supernormal.’

Horror-thriller author Stephen King wrote in a tribute to Matheson, “He fired my imagination by placing his horrors not in European castles and Lovecraftian universes, but in American scenes I knew and could relate to. ‘I want to do that,’ I thought. ‘I must do that.’ Matheson showed the way.” 

As a young child, Matheson had been transfixed by seeing Dracula (1931) at a local cinema and by his teens had the idea for the vampire story I Am Legend. In 1954, he published I Am Legend, a novel about a pandemic that has wiped out most of the human population and turned the remaining infected into vampires. Described as being “influential in the modern development of zombie and vampire literature in popularizing the concept of a worldwide apocalypse due to disease.”

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in the 1931 film stealthily approaches the beside of Lucy Weston (played by Frances Dade). This film had a great influence on the young Richard Matheson.

I Am Legend has been adapted to film three times – as The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price and co-written by Matheson under the pseudonym “Logan Swanson;” as The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston; and as I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith. It was also the inspiration for the groundbreaking horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968). The AHC has the papers of Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, which include posters and stills for both The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man.

The Last Man on Earth (1964). Box 140, Forrest J. Ackerman papers, Collection No. 2358, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
The Omega Man (1971). Box 123, Forrest J. Ackerman papers, Collection No. 2358, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In the late 1950s, Matheson began a working relationship with film producer Albert Zugsmith, whose papers are at the AHC. The first of their collaborations was the science-fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) about a man named Scott Carey who gradually shrinks to microscopic size after being exposed to a radioactive mist and an insecticide. He faces many dangers and challenges as he tries to survive in an ever-changing environment.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Box 117, Forrest J. Ackerman papers, Collection No. 2358, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The film was adapted by Matheson from his 1956 novel The Shrinking Man. The author explained, “I had gotten the idea several years earlier while attending a movie in a Redondo Beach theater. In this particular scene, Ray Milland, leaving Jane Wyman’s apartment in a huff, accidentally put on Aldo Ray’s hat, which sank down around his ears. Something in me asked, ‘What would happen if a man put on a hat which he knew was his and the same thing happened?’ Thus, the notion came.” A poster and multiple stills from the film are in the Ackerman papers, and drafts of Matheson’s screenplay are in the Zugsmith papers.

Matheson is also credited with co-writing the 1959 crime film The Beat Generation, which Zugsmith produced. The film offers a sensationalized portrayal of the rebellious counterculture of the “Beat Generation.” The movie also had the alternative title, This Rebel Age.

He also wrote two unproduced scripts for Zugsmith – “The Fantastic Shrinking Girl,” a follow-up to The Incredible Shrinking Man, and “A Voyage to Lilliput,” based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The Zugsmith papers include script drafts for these projects.

Richard Matheson was a prolific and influential writer who left a lasting mark on the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy in the 1950s. His stories have been adapted into films that have entertained and terrified generations of audiences. His legacy is also preserved in the collections at the American Heritage Center, where you can find more information about his life and work.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog series, where we will cover Matheson’s works in the 1960s.

Happy Halloween!

Post contributed by Processing Archivist and AHC film expert Roger Simon.


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