Groceries, Guns, and Garlic: Richard Matheson and the Survival Horror Genre

On July 16th, 2017, I received three messages in rapid succession telling me that George A. Romero had died. If that name doesn’t ring any bells for you, know that Romero almost single-handedly created the modern zombie tale, as well as many of the conventions and tropes of the horror genre. In particular, Romero is associated with what I’ve heard called “survival horror.”

As designators go, survival horror might sound a little obvious. Any horror tale is likely to involve someone trying to survive something. But, whether you like that term or no, it does describe a particular subset of stories that focus on what characters must do and must have to survive in the face of a sustained threat. That might mean gathering ammunition and food supplies, barricading doors and windows, establishing roles and responsibilities, and creating systems and (eventually) societies.

The tension in a survival horror story stems from the struggle to achieve these measures and the threat to them that inevitably follows. What’s more, the source of that threat is very often internal. Yes, the zombies are getting more numerous out there, and those boards on the front door are only going to hold for so long, but what’s really worrying is that guy in the corner of the room who’s sweating profusely and muttering to himself.

At its core, survival horror is about the toll exacted on people psychologically when they’re placed in extraordinary circumstances. Very often, the pressure of unrelenting horror causes people’s worst attitudes and behaviours to take center stage. Quickly, some of the survivors opt to sacrifice their comrades, or even loved ones, to save their own lives. It’s a grim picture of human nature.

As Romero himself indicated, the greatest threat in these tales generally isn’t the obvious monster. To quote Charleton Heston: It’s people.

If you want to see concrete examples of what I’m describing, and you haven’t already seen any of Romero’s works, you should probably start with the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the original Dawn of the Dead. Just in case there’s any doubt in your minds, though, know that both are very graphic.

While George A Romero could easily be credited with establishing a lot of the tropes we see throughout the horror genre nowadays (and not just in zombie films in particular), he himself said that the inspiration for his work was Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. This being a literary blog, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to Romero to draw some attention to a work he clearly loved.

I Am Legend takes place in a world where human life has been almost completely eradicated. In its place, there are vampires; lots of vampires. The one living human we know about at the beginning is Robert Neville. The story revolves around Neville’s attempts to keep himself alive and sane. Both are a daily struggle.

The first part of the book details Neville’s survival regimen. Each day, Neville has to gather supplies to eat and to reinforce the defenses on his home (including mirrors and cloves of garlic, both of which repel vampires in the Western tradition). He also keeps himself physically fit and then drinks himself into a stupour as part of his daily routine.

maslow-pyramidI’m going to take a quick detour at this point and talk about one of my favourite psychologists for a moment. Abraham Maslow formulated this theory he referred to as “the hierarchy of needs.” I’m grossly oversimplifying his theory when I say that it describes how people prioritize their needs.

The illustration on the right shows the hierarchy, with physiological needs at the bottom and more abstract, conceptual needs as you progress toward the top, culminating with self-actualization.

I’m mentioning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because I think it’s relevant to the survival horror genre. Generally, you’ll see characters move up and down this hierarchy in the course of the narrative. The audience feels relief as physiological and safety needs are achieved, hope as love/belonging needs look like they might be met, and despair and terror as each is taken away again.

Let’s get back to poor Robert Neville. During the day, Neville is faced with the crushing reality that he’s the sole survivor of the human race. Alone, he locates and stakes vampires through the heart as they sleep. When darkness falls, he barricades himself at home, weathering the onslaught as best he can with a combination of alcohol and loud music.

In terms of the hierarchy of needs, as the story opens, Neville seems to have his physiological and safety needs mostly under control. He has food supplies and a protocol for regular upkeep of his home’s defenses. He’s worked out that garlic, crucifixes, and mirrors all offer a defense against the undead. So, feeling that those most primary needs are (at least temporarily) satisfied, Neville experiences the higher needs in the hierarchy, and that’s where he’s vulnerable as we meet him.

The vampires’ attacks are largely psychological, targeting Neville’s need for love/belonging. The jeering voice of his former neighbor, Ben Cortman, is a constant reminder of the sense of normalcy lost. (I don’t necessarily get the sense that Neville liked Cortman in life, but even the neighbor you avoid engaging with on your way to the mailbox offers an oddly comforting sense of the routine.)

Further, each night, female vampires perform lewd and grotesque acts on Neville’s front doorstep, simultaneously repulsing him and reminding him of the impossibility of normal relations with a love interest.

The audience is offered a glimmer of hope when Neville discovers and adopts a dog. In the dog, Neville has a companion again. He isn’t alone. That makes it all the more crushing when the dog dies, leaving Neville more broken than he was before. It’s the momentary gains that Neville experiences that make the losses so painful. Better to have loved and lost? I’m not so sure that’s the case.

The cumulative effect of all of these pressures makes Neville highly susceptible when he encounters Ruth, shattering his previous belief that he’s the last living human. Read no further in the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to know (and haven’t already guessed) what happens next.

With Ruth, we see Neville’s needs placing him in peril for the final time. His desire for human connection leaves the door open (quite literally) for Ruth’s betrayal. Neville is captured, imprisoned, and condemned to die. If those don’t sound like the actions of carnivourous monsters, you’ve caught on to the final twist of I Am Legend.

As it transpires, two strains of vampire have emerged: The one that torments Neville during the night and another that, as it turns out, is tormented by Neville during the day. Because Neville has made it his mission to find and kill vampires in the daylight, he has unknowingly become The Thing That Goes Bump in the Night himself.

In an inversion of the hierarchy I’ve been describing, Neville is now that thing that thwarts the efforts of an evolved, self-controlled population of living vampires to secure their own safety and well being. He’s their first boogeyman. Their first superstition. Their first legend.

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