So much commentary has been written about Edgar Allan Poe over the last century and a half that it seems unnecessary to add more. Unless, of course, one has something new to say, which is unlikely, though that’s never stopped academic writers.
This is my way of saying that I’m not going to try to outshine the Poe scholars who delve deep into the mind and writings of Edgar Allan Poe and who allude to Jung, Freud, and the collective unconsciousness. Not to mention mythopoeic inevitability. Instead, I’m going to fall back on the safety of a personal narrative, which recounts my introduction to Edgar Allan Poe.
This story begins in 1954 when I was eleven years old, so if the details seem fuzzy, you’ll understand.
Three-D movies were big in the mid-1950s, and I made it a point not to miss any of them, no matter how badly they’d been reviewed by my peers who’d scraped up the twenty-five cents before I did. In 1954 the hot 3-D movie that everyone was raving about was Phantom of the Rue Morgue. I didn’t know what a rue morgue was, but I did know that The Phantom was a good comic strip. I’d also never heard of Edgar Allan Poe, and I didn’t know that Poe’s short story, upon which the movie was loosely based, had been titled “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” That was irrelevant to me, and apparently, also to Hollywood. In any case, my classmates who’d seen the movie set me straight on the meaning of the title (a rue is like a street) and gave the movie a solid rating of “piss your pants.”
I grew up in Elmont, a small community on Long Island, New York, which consisted mostly of postwar housing tracts. Within this community was a new movie theater within walking distance of my house, which in those days meant two miles. Lying between the theater and my house was-spooky music, please-a cemetery. But this was not the kind of horror-flick churchyard cemetery that I associated with ghosts, ghouls, zombies, werewolves, vampires, or any other species of the living dead; this was a nice Jewish cemetery, and who ever heard of a Jewish vampire? The cemetery, Beth David by name, actually bordered the backyard of my house, and lying as it did in the center of the town, it was a good shortcut to and from a lot of places, including the movie theater.
I had lived peacefully with this cemetery since we’d moved into the house, about six or seven years before, and from my second-floor bedroom window I could see the neat green acres of Beth David and rows and rows of polished granite tombstones. During the day the cemetery was filled with funeral processions, workers, and visitors, and my only fear in crossing this burial ground was the possibility of getting chased by the cemetery guards who patrolled in marked cars. I never got caught, and years later I became the star sprinter (one-hundred-yard dash in ten flat) of the Elmont Memorial High School track team.
My only experience with the cemetery at night was to stare at it now and then from my bedroom window. In five or six years of looking, I never once saw anything come out of a grave, or move that shouldn’t move; the trees moved in the wind, the headlights of patrol cars moved on the roads. That was about it. So my proximity to, and trespassing in, the cemetery in my backyard made it a familiar place that held no terrors for me and caused no childhood mental trauma that needed to be addressed, then or now.
Except for that one time when I took the shortcut through the cemetery following a late-Saturday-afternoon showing of Phantom of the Rue Morgue in 3-D color.
The movie, by today’s standards, would barely raise a hair on the back of anyone’s neck. But in 1954, when you’re eleven, weird makeup, creepy music, and blood-splatter patterns can easily send you sprinting up the aisle to the popcorn stand.
A quick Internet search of Edgar Allan Poe filmography informs me that Karl Malden, before he learned how to act, played the part of the Rue Morgue mad scientist, Dr. Marais. Logging in a better performance was a trained gorilla, whose name is lost to cinema history, and also Merv Griffin, of all people, who played a French medical student. I remember the mad scientist and the gorilla, but not Merv. The plot, such as it is, is simple: Dr. Marais uses the gorilla to exact revenge on various beautiful women who have spurned him. Each of these ladies has been given a jingling bracelet that attracts the killer gorilla. I know you want more of this plot, but I don’t want to spoil your next Netflix selection. Suffice it to say, whenever these young ladies walk along a street, alone, at night, the tinkling bracelet is heard by the sharp-eared, preprogrammed gorilla. Why no one notices this gorilla is not something to be examined too closely; I never gave it much thought myself, and neither did the adults who made the movie. We’re talking here of a major suspension of disbelief, and kids are good at that. Kids are also good at Pavlovian response and getting themselves scared out of their susceptible little minds, so when those pretty ladies jangled their bracelets, the movie theater let out a collective gasp and a few involuntary squeals. The future do-gooders among the mostly preadolescent crowd yelled out warnings to the strutting tarts.
The really scary parts of the movie, however, were the 3-D shock effects. You just never knew when something was going to hurtle at you from the screen, and if you can remember this, you’ll verify that literally the entire audience in a 3-D shocker screamed and ducked. I mean, popcorn flying, Cokes splashing, and 3-D glasses being ripped from faces by the G-forces created by rapidly moving heads, arms, and bodies.
Bottom line on Phantom of the Rue Morgue is, it sucked. But it was scary.
It was fall or maybe winter, and by the time I and a few friends left the theater about 5:00 P.M., it was getting dark. The rule was, “Get home as soon as the streetlights come on.” They’d come on, and I was late. My cell phone hadn’t been invented yet, and the pay phone on the corner cost a nickel, or maybe a dime, and no one wanted to splurge on that just to say we were alive and running late. We mostly walked or biked wherever we went, and the concept of a parent coming to pick us up was not part of the zeitgeist of that simpler, safer, and unpampered age. Our parents had taught us well: however you got there, get back the same way.
Well, I’d walked to the movie theater, and now I had to walk home.
From the corner of Elmont Road and Hempstead Turnpike, where the theater was, it was about two miles, if I took the circuitous street route. However, if I took the direct route through the cemetery…
Two of the three guys I was with lived in the opposite direction, so the cemetery was not part of their plan. But the third guy-who I’ll call Jack so as not to embarrass him a half century later or call into question the size of his developing cojones-lived down the block from me, so quite naturally I thought I’d have company on my quick trip through the land of the living dead. Jack, however, had other ideas and informed me that he’d rather be late for dinner than be dinner for a werewolf.
I should have followed his line of reasoning, but I was in the early stages of mastering the art of the bad decision-really nothing more than macho recklessness-that would later reach its crowning stupidity when I quit college, joined the Army, and volunteered for Vietnam.
At this point in my life, however, I really wanted company on my road toward discovering the limits of my courage and idiocy, so I said to Jack, “You’re a chicken!”
“Chicken, chicken!” And I imitated a chicken.
Today, Jack would tell me to go f**k myself, but I think he replied, “Ah, you’re nuts!” and ran off toward the safety of home along lighted streets, slowing only long enough to turn and deliver a Parthian shot. “You’re gonna diiiie!”
Of course, I should have reconsidered my route home and sprinted after him, and when I caught up with him, I could have pushed him on his face, then challenged him to a race home. But the idea I held on to was to cut about half a mile or more off my route and beat him home, stopping only long enough to ring his bell and tell his parents that Jack had stopped at the candy store to gorge on Snickers before dinner.
My other motivation for the cemetery route was less spiteful; I needed to get home as soon after the streetlight curfew as possible. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t, and I didn’t want to find out.
I crossed Elmont Road and ran along the sidewalk that bordered the cemetery, which was enclosed by a wrought-iron fence about eight feet high, posted at intervals with signs that said KEEP OUT.
The streetlights always came on before it was really dark, so there was some light left in the sky, but it was fading fast. A half mile up ahead were the main gates and the guard booth of the cemetery, and I needed to scale the fence well before I reached the gates in order to benefit from the most direct route, which I’d used many times in the daylight. So, without giving it much thought, I scrambled up the wrought-iron fence and dropped into Beth David Cemetery.
I knelt, motionless, listening for any sign that I’d been seen or heard. I gave it ten seconds, then I was up and running.
It was fun at first. I stuck to the rows between the gravestones, avoiding the roads, which were patrolled by guard vehicles. I needed to cover about a mile and a half, and at the speed I was moving, I could do that in less than fifteen minutes. One time I did it in under twelve minutes. In the daylight.
The obvious problem was the sinking sun, and I found it was becoming more difficult to see. I spotted a few freshly dug open graves, covered only by green tarps, awaiting occupants, and I didn’t want to fall into one of those six-foot holes. So I slowed up, cursed Jack, and within a few minutes realized I was disoriented. In fact, I was f**king lost.
It was almost pitch-dark now, and I couldn’t recognize any landmarks. It was also cold, and I wished I’d taken my mother’s advice about wearing a hat.
To cut to the chase, I was becoming frightened. I mean, really, really scared. Everybody in that place, except for me and a few guards, was dead. Or undead.
Because it was such an open space, there was a wind that I hadn’t noticed back on the road, and the wind was making things move-tree limbs, dead leaves, litter, and the white shrouds that cover Jewish tombstones until the day of unveiling. And along with these movements came sounds and shadows that startled me every few seconds.
To make matters worse, if that were possible, I now heard something I’d never heard before in the cemetery-dogs.
The guards had one or two dogs, but these dogs that I heard were not those well-trained guard animals; these were wild dogs, and a lot of them, baying and barking into the black night. Or were they werewolves?
I mean, if you still believe in Santa Claus at age eleven, and you believe in good fairies, then it stands to reason that you will also believe in ghosts, witches, warlocks, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and flesh-eating ghouls, and if you’re particularly gullible, killer mummies.
I could stretch things here and say I had visions of the killer gorilla and the creepy Dr. Marais, but I really didn’t; those guys were wimps compared to the undead. I was, however, pre-spooked by the 3-D shock effects, and my spine had tingled about ten times already in the movie theater. So whatever it is in our psyches that causes us to become frightened by a horror flick, this feeling stays with us for a while, and when we go to bed, we pull the sheets over our heads and listen for vampires trying to get in the window or zombies banging on the door.
This, in retrospect, may have been why my imagination was running wild in the cemetery and why I froze with fear as I crouched in the dark, listening to the wind blowing between the tombstones and the dogs, or werewolves, barking in the distance.
So, quick segue to Edgar Allan Poe, master of the macabre, manipulator of our minds, and a very elegant writer. Long before the study of the mind became a quasi-scientific discipline, Poe was able to grasp what frightened us, and he transformed that understanding into spooky and entertaining tales that were far ahead of their time and which have endured through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the twenty-first-which is more than I can say about that 3-D schlocker shocker I saw fifty years ago.
You could analyze this guy to death, and people have-and maybe Poe had that coming-but in the final non-analysis, just read this extraordinary writer, enjoy his prose with a glass of sherry, and read aloud the poetry-especially “The Raven”-to some kid in a dimly lit room. Don’t forget the sound effects.
Cut to Beth David Cemetery, 1954, exterior, evening.
A calm, fatalistic sensation passed over me. I knew I was going to die, and I’d accepted that. I just wasn’t sure if I was going to get eaten by dogs or werewolves. I wasn’t thinking much about the killer gorilla, though somewhere in the back of my mind I could still see him jumping at me out of the movie screen.
I stood and began walking toward my Fate, wondering what I had missed for dinner.
Eventually, I came across a familiar road, and I allowed myself a small glimmer of hope. I pointed myself in the right direction and ran like hell. I could see house lights now, and I knew I was less than a minute from the chain-link fence that separated the living from the dead.
I honestly don’t even remember climbing the fence; I think I ran up it. Then I remember being in someone’s backyard and dashing down their driveway, then running on the sidewalk, then home.
My mother said, “Jack’s mother called and said you were cutting through the cemetery. We were worried.”
I replied, “It’s a shortcut, Mom.”
My father said, “Don’t cut through the cemetery again.” He explained, “The ghosts come out at night.”
Thanks, Pop. I’ll remember that.