A large part of the scariest, creepiest, most intensive part of my childhood can be traced to the TV shows and movies written by Richard Matheson, and I bet I’m not alone. While some of these experiences have had lifelong consequences, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I loved being scared by what Matheson wrote.
To this day I am deathly afraid of spiders, a fear that I trace to seeing a Saturday matinee showing of the original movie version of the Matheson-penned “The Incredible Shrinking Man” at the old Stadium theater on Pico Boulevard near Robertson Boulevard in West Los Angeles. In one horrifyingly frightening sequence, Scott Carey (played by Grant Williams), having shrunk to a size where he is smaller than a spider, battles one of the ugliest, scariest spiders I had ever seen.
To this day, if I’m surprised by a spider, or if it moves in a way I’m not expecting, I’ll scream like a banshee.
About 12 years ago I opened a cabinet in our living room and was surprised by a black widow spider just inches from my face. I screamed like a banshee and ran out of the house. Our oldest son, who was 5 years old at the time, was standing near me and started screaming with me as he followed me out of the house, though he had no idea why I was screaming and running out of the house. Today, at 17, he’s even more afraid of spiders than I am. And he’s never even seen “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” (Please email me later and I can share with you some of my other tips on great parenting…)
Another thing I’m scared to death of is turbulence. This one also comes from Matheson, circa 1963. The show was the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of “The Twilight Zone," starring a young, pre-“Star Trek” William Shatner. It was also one of the stories that made up the “Twilight Zone “ movie in 1983.
In the episode, Shatner’s character, Bob Wilson, while a passenger on an airliner, sees a monster on the wing, trying to make the airplane crash. Each time someone else looks out the window at the wing, the monster isn’t there.
So how bad is my fear of turbulence? Several years ago, when NATPE was still held in Las Vegas, I was on a plane to Vegas from L.A. It’s a very short flight. I was talking to the man next to me, who said he was also going to NATPE. The man turned away just as we hit a major patch of turbulence and a giant bump. I grabbed onto the arm of the man and squeezed for all I was worth. I’m sure I actually hurt him, as he quickly turned back to me and shouted, “My God, are you OK?” I sheepishly replied, “I am so sorry. I’m just scared to death of turbulence.”
All told, Matheson wrote 16 episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” I loved all of them, and fortunately, most have not led to lifelong phobias. He wrote another wonderful "Twilight Zone" episode that also starred Shatner, called “Nick of Time.” That’s the one with the fortune-telling machine in the local diner. Speaking of Shatner, Matheson wrote one of the best “Star Trek” episodes, called “The Enemy Within.” It’s the one where Shatner plays two Jim Kirks.
Getting back to “The Twilight Zone” for a moment, Matheson also wrote the episode where Agnes Moorehead, as an old lady in a cabin, fights off tiny aliens. And he wrote the one where the World War I fighter pilot lands in the future. And the list goes on.
Another Matheson project became one of the best TV movies ever made, directed by a then relatively unknown director named Steven Spielberg.
The year was 1971, and on Saturday night, Nov. 13, the “ABC Movie of the Week” was “Duel,” starring Dennis Weaver. The movie is about a tanker truck chasing a motorist. While that might sound like a poor TV version of “Smokey and the Bandit,” it’s actually almost as exciting as the feature film Spielberg was to direct several years later, “Jaws.”
Matheson died here in Los Angles on Sunday, June 23, 2013. He was 87.
Stephen King said Matheson was the “author who influenced me most as a writer." Ray Bradbury once said of Matheson that he was “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.”
Spielberg said in a statement: "Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for ‘Duel.’ His ‘Twilight Zones’ were among my favorites, and he recently worked with us on ‘Real Steel.’ For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and [writer Issac] Asimov."
Personally, Matheson is the writer who’s had the most visceral impact in my life. I think of him with horrifying pleasure as I try and imagine what the hell I would do if I were on a bumpy airplane ride and I saw a big hairy spider crawling up the seat in front of me…