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Despite the limited involvement in World War Two, many aspects of life in the United States were affected by it. The change in the culture of the youth was one of the more controversial topics of the 1950s, with rebellious characters disrespecting authority while doing dangerous stunts and going to seedy places. Richard Matheson’s short story “Dance of the Dead” takes these elements and puts them a few decades later, in a post-World War Three America. This paper will analyze the different elements of the story, as well as its relation to the real world.
Dark Fantasy Elements
Although the story mostly belongs to the science fiction genre, its central scene is focused on horror, and more specifically, the horror of the unknown that is emblematic of the dark fantasy genre according to one of its definitions (Killmeier 165). The scene of the “dance” itself is presented to the viewer without exposition, only with a few hints about its unnerving nature. The reader only knows that it has something to do with World War Three. When the dance starts, its unnerving and chaotic nature is accentuated by detailed descriptions of convulsions, spasms, and throws. The eyes of the so-called “loopy” are especially important as their dark and blank look is perhaps more unnerving than the movements of her body. While the event is described, the reader is left to wonder if this is a supernatural occurrence or perhaps something else. Its grotesque origin is revealed after the “dance” is over, and while the event has a scientific origin, the reasons are left unknown, keeping it mysterious.
The story presents a relatively rare view of a functioning society living after World War Three. Nevertheless, the world is presented in a very grim state. The effect of World War Three is seen in the landscape, the culture, and even the school curriculum. Clouds of poison air are a common sight for the characters of the story, even though they are only young adults (Matheson 206). Their slang is inspired by the culture during the war, and comic books are taught in schools. The latter would have been a much bigger worry in 1951 when the story was written, as comic books were seen as cheap entertainment for children (Round 339). The road to the bar is filled with imagery of desolation, and although it is clear that society has not fallen, the world was still strongly affected by the war. Some of these elements can be seen as a commentary on the youth of the 1950s, such as the racing culture (Lumsden 5), while others serve to give a glimpse of the world to the reader.
Science Fiction Elements
The main elements of the story belong to the science fiction category. These elements include a vision into the future, irresponsible weapon development, and the relatively advanced technology described in the story. The main element is the fact that the story takes place on planet earth but is set a long time after the date of writing. The story reflects the events of the real world to provide commentary, or just for the sake of authenticity. Issues do arise, as some of the descriptions of the future have become anachronistic. For example, the Popeye motif feels very off, even considering the explanation given to the book (Matheson 204). Terrifying advances in chemical weapons are briefly described by the narrator when the group says or encounters a concept that is new to the reader. The “loopy” and other LUPs are the direct results of chemical weapon use, and therefore show the consequences of such warfare. The story hints that the development of chemical weapons is still common in the world, meaning a new war could begin (Matheson 220). The group’s car is a strong example of science fiction. It is a vehicle that is able more with very fast speeds. It is also described in great detail, as well as some of its inner workings (Matheson 203).
Summary and the Message
The story revolves around a group of young people on a date. They travel to a bar where the titular “Dance of the Dead” is performed. Peggy, who serves as the protagonist of the story, is very nervous because she is a well-mannered girl, but her company consists of rebellious and rude delinquents. Eventually, the “dance” starts. A pale woman walks out on stage and starts flailing in an unnatural and violent manner. Her eyes are dark, and they terrify Peggy (Matheson 216). At the end of the “dance,” the woman falls on the group’s table and makes Peggy blackout from fear. She recovers much later and gains a better mood and confidence as she becomes a part of the group (Matheson 220).
The message of the story lies in the youth of post-World War Two America. Specifically on those that we’re obsessed with fast cars, motorcycles, and seedy activity. The characters of the story drink alcohol, take drugs, and drive dangerously fast. In fact, the story starts with one of the characters singing about reckless driving: “I wanna RIDE! With my Rota-Mota honey by my SIDE! As we whiz along the highway. We will HUG and SNUGGLE, and we’ll have a little STRUGGLE!” (Matheson 203). The song signifies that reckless behavior became romanticized and is pursued by the youth of America. As previously mentioned, World War Three had a strong influence on the communication and science portrayed in the story. Delinquents talk using slang that evolved during that time, and the event they are going to see is the direct result of that conflict.
The Connective Passage
The passage that directly connects the story to science fiction is close to the end of the story. As Peggy wakes up, the group reflects on the event they’ve just experienced, with one of them mentioning the abbreviation L.U.P. This prompts the narrator to describe the origin of the term, which reveals the nature of the event. It is told that L.U.P. stands for Living Undead Phenomenon and that it is an accidental byproduct of chemical warfare. While this on its own would serve as an exemplary science fiction connection, the last line of the passage talks about the ongoing research of the effect and that it is done under the “strictest of legal license and supervision” (Matheson 220). This is significant because earlier in the story, the same legal supervision is shown as lax and ineffective, giving the ending a dark twist (Matheson 210).
Richard Matheson managed to capture the fear of the youth culture and the consequences of war in a relatively short story. It encompasses elements of many sub-genres to achieve its goal. This makes the story feel fresh, despite its old age and anachronisms.
Killmeier, Matthew A. “More Than Monsters: Dark Fantasy, The Mystery-Thriller and Horror’s Heterogeneous History.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, vol. 20, no. 1, 2013, pp. 165-180.
Lumsden, Karen. Boy Racer Culture: Youth, Masculinity, and Deviance. Routledge, 2013.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. Tom Doherty, 1997.
Round, Julia. “Anglo-American Graphic Narrative.” From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, edited by Daniel Stein, and Jan-Noël Thon, Walter De Gruyter Gmbh & Co, 2017, pp. 325-346.