American author Edgar Allan Poe accomplished astonishing things during his short, troubled life — he died in 1849 at age 40 under circumstances still cloaked in mystery. During those four decades, he codified the modern horror tale, invented detective fiction, and penned dozens of the most enduring poems and stories in Western literature. Beyond the written word, his influence continued through the rise of cinema, television, and even streaming entertainment.

Providing more evidence of Poe’s appeal, streaming giant Netflix will soon unveil “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a miniseries based on Poe’s story of the same title and other works. “I think Poe’s stories make us shiver because they remind us how very thin the line between ‘normalcy’ and ‘madness’ can be,” said Ashley Reed, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. She answered questions about Poe’s evolving impacts on literature and film.

Q: What keeps Poe’s stories relevant 175 years after their first publication?

“There are so many reasons. One is that his characters are simultaneously relatable and foreign to us. For example, the protagonist of his most famous poem, ‘The Raven,’ starts out as a pretty normal guy: he's reading a book in his study and missing someone he’s lost. But by the end of the poem, an odd but not unheard-of occurrence — a bird flew in his open window and squawked a word it had learned — has driven him to the edge of his sanity. Many of the narrators of his stories sound entirely rational even as they’re committing heinous acts or engaging in self-destructive behaviors.”

Q: How was Poe’s influence first felt in motion pictures?

“For a long time, adaptations of Poe really focused on the gore or the terror of his works. Think of the Universal Studios films starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi or the Hammer Horror pictures starring Vincent Price: the goal was to creep you out with lurid, monster-filled, and, eventually, Technicolor variations on Poe’s most terrifying stories.”

Q: Are terror and gore still the main focus?

“Some recent films demonstrate a fascination with Poe himself, not just as tortured artist, but as thinker. Netflix's recent original movie ‘The Pale Blue Eye’ featured Poe solving a murder at West Point. This movie collapsed his actual life story — he did attend West Point briefly — with his fictional creations: he famously invented the detective story genre with his Auguste Dupin stories.”

Q: How else have adaptations of Poe’s works evolved?

“There’s a deeper engagement with the psychological aspects of his stories. While the gore and the creepiness are often what lure readers into Poe's tales, there's real psychological complexity to them. In many ways Poe was trying to puzzle through psychological states for which there wasn't yet medical or psychiatric terminology. Here’s one we might recognize: in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ a group of people have to decide whether to recognize and respond to an ongoing pandemic or continue with life as usual.”

Q: What trends might the Netflix adaptation follow?

“The new show seems to be combining some of these trends. Scenes in the trailer are covered in literal blood and filled with broken bodies, but there's also family drama and psychological horror. And like the old Hammer and Universal pictures, director Mike Flanagan seems to use the story as a jumping-off point rather than a blueprint. The trailer references not only ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ but ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’”

About Reed
Ashley Reed is an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches courses in American literature and digital humanities. She is the author of Heaven’s Interpreters: Women Writers and Religious Agency in Nineteenth-Century America, published in 2020 by Cornell University Press. Her articles have appeared in J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century AmericanistsESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and CultureReligion Compass, Essays in Romanticism, and Digital Humanities Quarterly. She’s also a lifelong film fan and a former producer for Turner Classic Movies.

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