Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Let This Hell Be Our Heaven: Richard Matheson's Spirituality and Its Hollywood Distortions

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Let This Hell Be Our Heaven: Richard Matheson's Spirituality and Its Hollywood Distortions

Article excerpt

Introduction

Richard Matheson's revolutionary take on the vampire has been underappreciated in the scholarship on horror and on vampires especially. (1) In this paper, I will examine the three Hollywood adaptations of Matheson's story and how they differ significantly from his novel. These flawed adaptations blur Matheson's message to the point of propounding a moral that is quite antithetical to that of the original novel. Matheson's text can be seen as foreshadowing the societal transformations of the 1960s counterculture in its criticism of traditional authority structures, including institutionalized religion and scientific rationalization--part of a process that Christopher Partridge (2004) describes as "occulturation." All three Hollywood adaptations of the book have, however, significantly altered the story in such a way that they demonize the alternative spirituality espoused by Matheson, and which exploded in the 1960s, in favour of conservative Christian moralizing.

Matheson's I Am Legend

Richard Matheson has been a hugely influential author, and I Am Legend has been recognized, though perhaps not widely known, as a turning point in written horror. Stephen King (2006) writes that "without Richard Matheson I wouldn't be around," and explains that "[h]e single-handedly regenerated a stagnant genre, rejecting the conventions of the pulps that were already dying." Nina Auerbach (1995, 213-14, n. 53) positions I Am Legend at the crux of what became the new normal in vampire fiction, identifying two "disturbing innovations," being: (1) the lone monster/hero who embodies humanity's final days and (2) the collective vampirism of a new species which has become normalized. Gregory Waller (1986) notes a more profound departure from standard vampire mythology in I Am Legend's portrayal of its protagonist's existence in a Sysiphean "monotonous horror" in which the monsters are "threatening only because of their persistence and their numbers"--"an oxymoron that Stoker [...] could not even imagine" (257). Despite its impact, however, Matheson's novel has not received the scholarly attention it deserves, especially in the context of his other work. I Am Legend has proven a lasting popularity with filmmakers, having spawned three official Hollywood adaptations, starring such actors as Vincent Price (The Last Man on Earth, 1964), Charlton Heston (The Omega Man, 1971), and most recently Will Smith (I Am Legend, 2007). Despite the novel's attraction, each of these adaptations has purposefully changed pivotal themes, thereby obscuring the very innovations for which the original text is recognized.

The novel centres on the story of a man, Robert Neville, who is the lone survivor of a virus that has transformed everyone else into vampires. Neville barricades himself within his house by night, protected by the traditional weapons effective in warding off vampires: garlic, mirrors, and crucifixes adorn the exterior of his home. As he tries to get through each night, swarms of vampires surround his house, taunting, teasing, and throwing rocks. By day, Neville scours the city's dilapidated buildings in search of sleeping vampires, armed with a mallet and home-made wooden stakes. The story draws to an end when, after three years in solitude with only nightly visits by the monstrous vampires to keep him company, Neville encounters a woman. Despite her appearance in the full light of day, a feat outside the bounds of normal vampiric biology, Neville remains skeptical of her provenance. He brings her to his fortified home and inflicts a number of tests upon her. She is revolted when he presents her with garlic, for instance. Through the night, the two develop an emotional bond as Neville's need for companionship and his long-dormant sense of human empathy overcomes his skeptical survival instinct. When he finally decides to run a blood test on his guest he discovers that she is, in fact, infected by the vampire virus. …

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