My head was resting on the interior frame of a small SUV, behind the driver’s seat, parked outside an outlet mall in California. I held a book that I can say without a doubt, has influenced who I have become today. Not to say that I am mad… I was 15 years old when I read Poe’s short story, The Tell Tale Heart. It’s a quick-paced tale of terror that begins with the confession of a cold-blooded murder. I’d read various poems from Poe earlier on, and I could have honestly called myself a fan of his work, but it was after this reading that I fell in love with the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
The Tell Tale Heart is about a man who may not be alright in the head. It’s a first-person account of a man’s descent through madness as he recounts the tale of his murder of a man he loved. Despite his deep care, the old man’s vulture eye was responsible for our lead character’s misery. “a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” All throughout the intro, our lead attempts to relieve the reader’s anxiety of his madness, yet we get the feeling that the madness existed long before he decided to rid himself of the eye forever. Poe’s crafting of this story is captivating from the opening lines. He’s at a level that many writers today aspire to. His readers are never in a dull moment.
The story of this madman falls proudly into the horror genre. One thing that makes it so terrifying, even 176 years after it was written, is that this entire account could happen today. That comfort in knowing that if this did happen, it happened a long time ago, doesn’t come out much. You could almost see this entire account being replayed in a Netflix documentary in a court or interrogation room. Looking at how mental illness is handled in the US right now, this actually hits pretty close to home.
Naturally, this particular story forces us to ask the question, what is madness? Over the years, the term “madness” has decreased in popularity, and for good reason. It was used as a blanket statement for any person with any sort of mental illness. We’ve come a long way in the fields of mental science, but I wouldn’t dare say that we’ve arrived where we need to be. Films like Psycho, Carnival of Souls, Repulsion, Silence of the Lambs, and the more recent Joker, prod at a problem with the way we regard mental illness today. Previous generations have looked at ‘madness’ as something shameful that should be locked away. Even now, there are so many of us who refuse to speak of the hell in our psyche for fear of what others might think and how they will judge.
I know we’re dealing with fiction, but more often than not, fiction gives us a pretty solid view of what a culture is facing when it is written. What would this story look like if this man wasn’t made to fear the label of madness? How different would it have been if this one man faced his demon in the eye and communicated the grief that he held the old man responsible for? It’s hard to say because the same thing is still happening today. People aren’t getting the help that they need for fear of rejection from others, and we don’t make it that easy to get help either. Though we have made tremendous strides in the world of mental health, it’s still widely seen as its own issue, unrelated to physical health and general well-being.
I’m tempted to admit that I’ve digressed into a topic for another write-up, but I don’t believe that I have. I believe that what makes Poe so powerful is his ability to make his readers confront a subject that they would otherwise avoid, much like horror as a whole. Mental illness, malevolence, birth defects, and the murder of a seemingly good man become conversational. In a utopian world, I would argue that horror may not exist. There would be no reason for it. In our world, the horror genre exists as a light into the shadows of the uncomfortable and the unknown. We find comfort in those shadows, knowing that we’re not alone. When we see somebody like Poe writing a story like this, we’re not the only ones who see how fucked up things can get. I think that Poe believed that this genre calls out for a response. I believe that it’s up to us to look at the issues being addressed and make our response known.
195 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe put his voice to work in a way that’s still active and relevant today. For this reason, and more to go, hail horror. Hail Poe!
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