Grace Manning ’21
Although his two-hundred-and-some birthday will take place in January, Edgar Allan Poe continues to be an incredibly prominent feature in American, and in world, literature. We most likely have all studied him, or at least one of his poems or stories, at some point over our school careers. But while undeniably still a part of our curriculum and our history, does Poe and his writing still actually matter today? Has he really had as great an influence on modern writing and storytelling as the hardcore Poe fans claim?
Take almost any horror movie of our generation, our parents’ generation or even our grandparents’ generation and there is undoubtably an element of Poe-inspired fear. The Lighthouse, a 2019 psychological thriller/horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, is directly based on Poe’s story “The Light-House” in which two lighthouse keepers are stranded on an island during a storm and begin to descend into the typical Poe “madness”. But while this slightly obscure film might not convince you of his relevance, take something more familiar: Saw V makes a reference to one of Poe’s tales “The Pit and the Pendulum”. These are only a few of the many films that make direct reference to Poe’s works, but countless others employ methods of scaring the audience, that Poe first invented. Arguably, shows like CSI, FBI and really any other crime or detective show wouldn’t exist, had Poe not written stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, involving a detective and his sidekick investigating crimes and using early forensic evidence and witnesses to piece together events.
I would argue that the reason we don’t consider Poe to have had as wide a reach in current popular culture as he has had, is because we separate him as a writer and his specific tales, from the aspects of his stories that have become quintessential characteristics of horror and thrill today. Why is it that we don’t think immediately of “The Premature Burial” or of “The Cask of the Amontillado” when we watch movies or TV shows involving being buried alive? Poe was among the first to acknowledge the human fear of confinement and celebrated writers and directors have taken on this fear as inspiration. Take one of the most famous horror writers of all time, Stephen King, for example. Carrie, both the film and the novel have scenes where Carrie is locked in a tiny closet and her panic is palpable for the audience and reader. Other Stephen King novels such as The Shining, explore themes including the descent into madness and explore the psyche, using this exploration to create an environment of psychological turmoil for the audience. Many of King’s characters struggle with mental health issues, addiction and abuse, just as several of Poe’s characters, take the narrator in “The Black Cat” as an example, do.
Finally, the infamous twist, an essential part of a psychological horror film, appears countless times in Poe’s writing, whether as a live woman or a cat, thought to be dead, but revealed at the end to be entombed in a wall, or a false lead in a detective story whose revelation shocks the reader. A film like The Sixth Sense, for example, exemplifies the use of this final, unexpected twist to cinch the viewer’s or the reader’s attention right up until the end and to completely change our perspective on the work. But this method of grabbing and holding on to the audience is characteristic of Poe’s tales and poems.
All this to say that we, although perhaps subconsciously or dubiously, are obsessed with Poe. Or at least with the genre and the methods of inducing fear and anxiety, that he created and that we continue to relish and revere today.