It is still unknown to this day how one of America’s greatest and darkest writers met his untimely fate. Edgar Allan Poe was found on the morning of October 3, 1849, wandering the streets of Baltimore in a state of delirium. It has been speculated that this was caused by any number of ailments stemming from overuse of alcohol, tuberculosis, cholera, rabies, or even murder at the hands of a poisoner. He was not conscious long enough to explain what happened, and was even wearing another man’s clothes when he was found. Before he died four days later on October 7, he supposedly yelled out the name “Reynolds!” and his last words were, “Lord help my poor soul”. However, any confirmation of this (as well as his actual death certificate) have been lost to history. Whatever the case, Poe’s death did not signal the end of his fame. Though depictions of him over the years have painted him as a tormented soul whose own inner depravities inspired his work—a man often alone and miserable, toiling away at his desk cranking out stories and poems to make just enough money to stay alive—these are actually quite the opposite of real life. Poe most likely did suffer from depression due to his childhood and death of loved ones over the years, but he actually lived quite comfortably. His works were seen as groundbreaking back then. He was a literary star in his own right. Unlike some authors and artists, it did not take his death or hundreds of years of hindsight to recognize the genius that was there.
Exactly 166 years after his death, Poe’s dark and morbid themes still haunt and inspire generations of students, authors, and filmmakers. Last spring, when I was long-term substituting in a middle school English class, I did a unit on Poe for the two weeks I was there. I tried to get across just how groundbreaking his writing was back then. It is hard for people of today to see a mere book or poem as “scary” when all they are is words. With horror movies and special effects designed to shock and terrify us, it is hard to imagine a world without that. For the people of the 1800’s, Poe’s writing would have been the equivalent because they had to use something much more nightmare-inducing than any Hollywood movie: the imagination. Some of his stories are more ambiguous than others, but his words conjured up images in people’s minds like no one else had never done before. While many of his stories included ghosts haunting locations or individuals, either real or imagined, Poe was able to capitalize on everyday fears people had such as being buried alive.
I explained to my students how premature burial was a central focus in many of Poe’s tales. Children and even adults today cannot fathom that, because it is almost impossible to be buried alive due to advancements in medical technology and a final embalming in the funeral home. But the world was different back then, and in some cases, people were interred prematurely. They did not have the instruments to detect faint breathing or heartbeats if a person was in a coma or had a serious illness that incapacitated them. The words in The Premature Burial if read the right way will slowly choke the life out of the reader. You could imagine back then that people must have lost sleep after reading some of his short stories. The Masque of the Red Death is perhaps the most timeless of them all, showing than no matter what bravado we have towards death or what precautions we may take, there is nothing we can do to stop our own eventual demise. Plagues and epidemics were also more likely to break out at the time, adding a double-whammy of sorts to one of his most straightforward works.
My favorite of all is The Tell-Tale Heart, which deals with Poe’s other favorite theme: madness and mental instability. In this story we are met with a nearly nonchalant telling of a murder committed by the murder himself. He starts out calm before becoming increasingly disturbed, admitting why he killed an old man who he loved, who lived with him, and that it was merely the man’s “evil eye” (most likely a cataract) which drove him to madness and the ensuing murder. It is one of Poe’s only stories that can be read to a younger audience without much need to pause and explain certain phrases that are now confusing or unused anymore in our modern vernacular. Illustrating this story the best was then showing my students the Vincent Price one-man-show adaptation titled An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. They loved it, and enjoyed almost all the stories and poems we read.
No unit on Poe could have been complete without an introductory discussion on death and dying in the 1800’s. Again, this was to tie in not only premature burial but how people viewed death in general. Today, we are very detached and try not to talk about it except for when we have to. Someone dies, they are carted away, the mortician embalms and makes them look good. They are then displayed as nice as possible before being buried. However, back then, our relationship was much different. Wakes were held in your own house (the term “funeral parlor” derives from viewings being held in the parlor) and many times people stayed up at night to keep an eye on the body in case it were to wake up. Embalming was not mainstream until the American Civil War, nearly two decades after these stories were written. Ghosts too were not talked about in public, and to discuss the dead at all was impolite. Poe’s works shattered all of that. He made death the star, and our greatest fears and insecurities the supporting cast.
As we get closer to Halloween, I know I will be reading plenty of Poe (also to prepare myself for the AHHS Poe-themed lantern tour) and watching those Price-Corman flicks from the 1960’s, which are still the best adaptations even if they tend to stray. Not many authors who stuck closely to one genre are still celebrated and revered so long after they have passed on. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe will most likely live on forever. As long as people want to be scared and let their imaginations run wild, he will always be there for us.
More articles in this special “Halloween Twenty-Fifteen” column can be found here.