Lessons from the Macabre

With the reappearance of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks, the row upon row of Halloween candy at Walmart, and the pop-up stores full of Halloween costumes and decorations, I am reminded of one of my favorite teaching units.  Every year for Halloween, I would take my students on a trip thru the macabre.  I would fill my classroom with skeletons, chains, and black candelabra and greet my students at the door dressed in a black cape and masquerade mask, with a small trowel at my hip.  Then I would gross my students out by drinking pink lemonade out of a black martini glass filled with rubber eyeballs.  Depending on the grade level, we would read Cask of Amontillado, Masque of the Red Death, or The Tell-Tale Heart.  Edgar Allan Poe was a genius when it came to suspense and gore.  Just consider his plots: man buries neighbor alive for unknown offense; death infiltrates costume party disguised as himself; man goes crazy, starts hearing things, and confesses to murder, etc. Every one of his stories is uniquely different, yet similarly disturbing. It was one of the few days of the school year that I could count on unbridled enthusiasm from my students.  They, and I, held a morbid fascination for all things Poe.

What is it that makes us so drawn to Poe and his work? Why are we, his readers, so morbidly fascinated with death and despair?  Are we suppressing our own violent tendencies? Are we reading them to get ideas of how to off the neighbor?  Is my neighbor right this moment kicking back, reading some Poe, and considering my demise?  It almost makes you start looking at those around you with suspicion.

Why was every single one of Poe’s stories so dark . . . and where did he find his inspiration?  Was he depressed?  Finding an outlet for his extensive rage? Was his fixation on death due to losing his parents at such an early age?  Was he so upset with his surrogate father that he invented stories of murder and mayhem as way to vent? Perhaps it was being dumped by his fiance that caused his mood to sour so.  Maybe he was rebelling against authority and found pleasure in shocking those who attempted to restrain him.  Certainly, he faced challenges.  With so many losses, he was bound to be a bit melancholy from time to time, but was that the basis of his entire career?  

Considering the popularity of Poe’s work, it leads me to wonder whether suffering is destined to spawn success.  If that is the case, there should be a hoard of wildly successful people in the world.  After all, you don’t have to look very hard to find people who are suffering.  Let’s hope that, unlike Poe, those of us currently suffering realize our success prior to our demise.  Then again, that would be one more travesty.  I wonder . . . should we list an heir in our wills for the monetary gains of our posthumous success, and will leaving said heir such a fortune preclude him from achieving his own success?  If we follow that vein, one can turn trials into triumph but never live to see recognition or one can benefit from a predecessor’s pain but not be accomplished in his own right.  It’s a vicious cycle.  How depressing!

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