What I Learned from Poe and Stoker

Well October is officially over, and I’m extremely grateful for the end in my obligation to watch horror films. But I must admit, my foray into the realm of horror fiction was much more fruitful than I imagined. This year, my spooky Halloween reads included The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and Dracula. The reason I chose these two books was that they were all stories I was familiar with, and that have been adopted in countless ways by popular culture. In a way, the originals have become a bit overdone due to the continuing adaptations made from them (especially Dracula) and the fact that they are studied by just about every student in the country (this is more Poe).

I wanted to go back to basics, study the pure original beasts of these tales, shedding any expectation and anything I knew about them. I wanted to read them for the first time again.

It wasn’t easy, especially when reading Poe who was by far my favorite poet when I was in High School. I was so familiar with his work that I didn’t find it scary…rather, I found it beautiful. I was able to focus more on the cultural notions and emotions behind the work, and not just their fear factor. Here’s what I discovered:

1. Unlike Jonathan Harker, people today are generally good at recognizing danger. Ask anyone, especially any woman, about any time they ever had to walk alone at night. Maybe they had to stay late at the library in college, maybe walking back from the subway station…It’s creepy! Every shadow between you and your door could be housing a potential attacker or thief…unless you’re Jonathan Harker. I’m sorry, Mister, but you had plenty of chances to escape the clutches of the Count. Your need for adventure is a bit too large…and you are in serious need of a RAD class.

2. There are only three basic things that we truly actually fear: Darkness, Distance, and Death. Perhaps you could argue these things are all connected. After all…being dead means you’re likely in a dark place far away from others. Maybe not, I couldn’t tell you. Think of any Edgar Allan Poe work that you’ve read. Any at all. Chances are that all three of these themes are represented there. Upon reading these works intentionally this time around, I realized it would be foolish to view his tales and poems are scary. I don’t plan on cutting up relatives and putting them in the floorboards, nor do I plan on knowing anyone names Lenore…so I can pretty much avoid those scenarios. Poe’s excellent use of imagery and playing on our fears, rather than reality, is what makes his work so scary. I think in general these fears boil down to one overall worry in life: being alone.

3. Opening locked doors is never a good idea. Seriously Jonathan Harker! It’s locked for a reason!

4. Animals are pretty darn smart. If you are traveling in an unknown land, with a driver who won’t show his face, after plenty of people have told you to turn back (yes, Jonathan, I’m talking to you!)…and for some reason need another sign that you shouldn’t be here, pay attention to the animals. So the ferocious, wild wolves are afraid of your host? Chances are you should be too.

5. Do everything you can to avoid large old stone buildings/castles, especially when located near the sea or in the mountains. This is the real nature of fear and stupidity all in one. Today we are privileged enough to have most of our buildings be made of high-grade materials…not stone. But take for instance, Dracula’s castle: Stone. Recall Poe’s poem “The City in the Sea”: stone. And what about the lovely poem: “The Valley of Unrest”: Stone! And don’t forget about Annabel Lee and her kingdom by the sea.

I know it’s not an exact science, but I must admit, my October reads were a bit more instructive than they were chilling. I can certainly appreciate how scary they were to their original audience. After all, if I had never heard of Dracula before and read this book, I’d be pretty freaked out (though I’d still know before Jonathan Harker did that it was a bad idea to spent the night with a mysterious wolf-controlling night crawler). And Poe…no doubt nobody in his time had ever fathomed such horrors. They were more concerned with things like War and disease and crop failures…not rogue birds and masquerade parties. Still…the fact that we can learn a lot from “outdated horror” teaches us that fear is not always cultural: there are something that everyone fears, and that may not ever change.


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