Without Richard Matheson’s seminal novel I Am Legend, Night of the Living Dead might not exist. Without that film, who’s to say what the horror landscape would look like today? Romero admitted that I Am Legend was a key influence behind his groundbreaking 1968 classic, and Matheson himself felt that Romero’s film was the best onscreen representation of his novel’s core ideas and themes.
Needless to say, I Am Legend’s influence on horror and science fiction storytelling is enormous. Hence why the story has been directly adapted several times by different filmmakers looking to bring Matheson’s vision to life, while others have borrowed its ideas and repackaged them to create their own brand of terror tales. Matheson’s fingerprints are all over our beloved genre fare — past, present, and future — and that’s worth celebrating.
Ahead of her upcoming talk at London’s Horse Hospital on March 15, Diabolique caught up with horror scholar Stacey Abbott to discuss Matheson’s work and its everlasting effect on pop culture’s darkest realms.
Diabolique: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Abbot: I have been passionate about cinema for my entire life. My family were all very interested in film and my parents encouraged us to watch all kinds of films from a very young age. This included all genres of cinema, but I always had a taste for horror. I remember watching Halloween, The Exorcist, and Frankenstein (and so many more) on television at a young age. I had a TV in my room so I tended to stay up late watching movies. From the age of seventeen, I started studying and researching film when I went to college and then University, and have never really stopped. I did my undergraduate, MA and PHD in film studies, first in Canada and then in the UK. My interest in horror began to really develop through my MA and PhD where I began to write about vampire films and this passion has grown exponentially as I get older. For some horror is an area that they outgrow but for me I seem to appreciate the genre aesthetically and thematically all the more as I get older. I do write about other genres of cinema and television. I guess I consider myself a genre specialist so I have written on science fiction and romantic comedies but I keep coming back to horror as a subject of interest.
Diabolique: When did you first discover Matheson’s work?
Abbot: I was aware of Matheson first because of his writing for The Twilight Zone. He was such a significant writer for that series and I loved his episodes like ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’. But I also was a fan of his work for a long time without really being aware of him as an individual. I was a fan of films like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Somewhere in Time, as well as TV movies such as The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror. But I hadn’t really put these together as all being based on one man’s work. I think it was when I was doing my MA that I read I Am Legend and I began to piece together that he was this amazing author who had written so many of my favourite stories in literary, cinematic and televisual terms. I Am Legend, in particular, made a big impact on me as it was so different from the other vampire literature I was reading from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice. And I keep coming back to the book. I have read it many times and recommend it to all of my students. The more I thought of the book the more I realised that it is a hugely significant text for horror and science fiction. Which is why when I began working on my most recent book on vampires and zombies in the 21st Century, I began to see this novel as a key origin text.
Diabolique: What can visitors expect from your upcoming class?
Abbot: The aim of the class will be to consider how Matheson’s novel offered a fresh re-imagining of the vampire story and a vision of the post-apocalyptic narrative that would have significant impact on both horror and science fiction. More importantly I will be discussing how the book embodies a changing conception horror that would only really manifest in cinema in the 1970s and in particular through the impact of a George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a film that was inspired by Matheson’s book as well as the first cinematic adaptation, Last Man on Earth. I will be talking about Matheson’s own script adaptation of his novel, which he wrote for Hammer Studios in the late 1950s but which was rejected by the censors. I have gone through all of the BBFC documentation on the various versions of the script and so I will be talking through the censors’ issues and examining this tension between what the censors considered acceptable in horror and what Matheson and Hammer wanted to do with this script. What does this say about cultural attitudes to the horror genre and changing conceptions of horror? This failed attempt to adapt the novel speaks volumes to a schism between audiences/filmmakers and cultural institutions like the censors and the critics. There will also be lots of great clips of post-apocalyptic fun.
Diabolique: What’s your favourite Matheson adaptation and why?
Abbot: Frustratingly, while I enjoy the various adaptations of I Am Legend for different reasons, none of them have really captured the novel….although they all bring their own flavour to his story. While not as bleak and hard hitting as Matheson’s script, Last Man on Earth does capture the horror and mundanity of isolation. But I have to say that I, like Matheson, probably think that the best adaptation is an unlicensed one which is Night of the Living Dead. While it tells its own story – set over one night rather than three years – it captures Matheson’s preoccupation with the idea of the end of human civilisation in favour of a new world order. But I also think that there are numerous films that possess echoes of Matheson, which I like. Daybreakers presents us with the vision of what a vampire society would like like – something that Matheson hints at but we don’t see. Similarly Jorge Olguin’s Descendents (aka Solos) tells the story of a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a group of mutant children who are immune to the virus and the zombies as they struggle for survival in an adult world where humans and zombies are equally a threat. Neither of these are adaptations of Matheson but both clearly indicate their debt to his novel.
Diabolique: Finally, do you have any other projects or events coming up you can tell us about?
Abbot: Building on this work around Matheson, I have become increasingly interested in how horror as a genre is re-conceived through different media. Is what we expect from horror in literature and on film or television the same. So I have been researching and writing about horror adaptation, in the first instance about the adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novels to film and then television. But I am developing, with my co-writer Simon Brown, a project on horror adaptation. In this we will be considering horror on film, TV, literature, theatre, videogames, etc. Its a big project and we are in the early stages of this. Watch this space.
For more information about the event, head on over to the website.