8 Fascinating Facts About Richard Matheson

A sketch of author Richard Matheson.
A sketch of author Richard Matheson. / Kieran Guckian, Flickr // CC by SA 2.0

Author Richard Matheson is often remembered for penning the iconic post-apocalyptic novel I Am Legend (1954)—which certainly changed the face of horror—but his influence on literature, film, and TV reaches much further than that. Here are eight fascinating facts about his life and works.

1. Dracula (1931) inspired Richard Matheson to write I Am Legend.

Dracula (Bela Lugosi) gets close to a sleeping Mina (Helen Chandler).
Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in 'Dracula.' / United Archives/GettyImages

Matheson, who was born in 1926, saw Bela Lugosi as Bram Stoker’s infamous blood-sucker when he was a teenager. In a 2012 speech accepting the Vampire Novel of the Century Award, he remembered that “the thought occurred to me: if one vampire is scary, what if the whole world were full of vampires?” But, he said, “at least 10 years” passed before he took that seed of inspiration and began work on I Am Legend.

Matheson was a published writer before even having this career defining idea, though; he was only 8 when he had a poem printed in the Brooklyn Eagle.

2. He served during World War II.

Matheson joined the army after graduating high school in 1943. “During basic training,” he later recalled, “I would go down to the latrine at night while other soldiers were sleeping, and I would sit there reading Dracula … never knowing I was gonna write a book about vampires.” His experience of fighting in Europe during WWII served as the basis for his war novel The Beardless Warriors (1960).

3. Matheson’s writing career began with short stories.

A year after graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, Matheson’s first short story was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “Born of Man and Woman” (1950) is told from the perspective of a monstrous child chained to the basement wall by its equally monstrous parents, who routinely beat the child when it tries to escape. Matheson told Mystery Scene magazine that the story was “odd enough and different enough to call attention to me and I got an agent through it.”

4. Many of his works were adapted into films.  

Matheson wrote screenplays for many movies based on his works, including The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Duel (1971), and The Legend of Hell House (1973), an adaptation of his 1971 novel Hell House. Adaptations made without his involvement include What Dreams May Come (1998) and Stir of Echoes (1999). The latter he thought was “marvelous”; the former he would not comment upon “except to say that a major producer in Hollywood said to me, ‘They should have shot your book.’ Amen.”

5. Matheson was disappointed with the movies based on I Am Legend.

Matheson felt that The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007) all failed to capture his novel. Matheson co-wrote the screenplay for the first adaptation, but thought Vincent Price was miscast and that “the direction was kind of poor”; he used the pseudonym Logan Swanson in the credits to avoid being associated with it. (He also sometimes used this pen name in his writing, including for the 1982 novel Earthbound.) Matheson called The Omega Man “ludicrous” and noted that it “was so removed from my book that it didn’t even bother me!”

Of the adaptation starring Will Smith, Matheson said in 2011 that “it was so well done that I had to go along with it, though I had to realize that, once again, they were not following my book,” adding, “I don't know why they keep buying my books. They might as well have written something entirely new.”

6. He was a prolific television and screenwriter, notably for The Twilight Zone.

Matheson wrote 16 episodes of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone, including “The Invaders” and “Nick of Time.” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” one of the show’s most famous episodes, was based on Matheson’s short story from the anthology Alone by Night (1961). “Button, Button” (from the ‘80s Twilight Zone revival) and “Steel” were also based on his short stories, and were later adapted into the movies The Box (2009) and Real Steel (2011).

He also wrote teleplays for other shows, like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (1985–1987) and Star Trek: The Original Series (1966–1969), and for movies, such as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Jaws 3-D (1983).

7. I Am Legend inspired Stephen King, Anne Rice, and George A. Romero.

King of horror Stephen King said that Matheson was “the author who influenced me the most as a writer,” while Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire (1976), stated that he had “been an inspiration to me and to so many.”

George A. Romero, father of the modern-day zombie genre, confirmed that I Am Legend was the inspiration for his hugely influential Night of the Living Dead (1968). Matheson even cited Romero’s film as the “closest anyone ever came” to accurately adapting his novel.

8. Three of Matheson’s four children became writers.

Chris Matheson is renowned for creating the Bill & Ted movies with Ed Solomon. Ali Matheson penned ‘90s episodes of Rugrats and co-wrote Halloweentown (1998). Richard Christian Matheson followed most closely in his father’s footsteps, writing horror fiction and screenplays, including an Amazing Stories episode. He collaborated with his father on Loose Cannons (1990) and they were writing a new adaptation of The Shrinking Man (1956) before the elder Matheson died in 2013.