Tuesday, November 7, 2023

A Pit, a Pendulum, and a Dark Auditorium

I don’t have a favorite author; I have favorite authors. One of those authors is Edgar Allen Poe. Like most, I discovered horror books in fifth or sixth grade. Later on, I had a literature teacher who turned us on to more horror and Gothic horror stories, which is when I truly discovered the depth of Edgar Allen Poe’s work. His books are magnificent, of course. I’m not the only one who thinks so. In college, I eagerly enrolled in a literature class entitled An Examination of the Works of Edgar Allen Poe, but the actual content had little to do with its title.

Not only did we not examine the works of Poe, we barely examined anything at all. The professor had designed the class around the critiques Poe had written about other authors and their works. Apparently, criticism was Poe’s main income vehicle back in the day. To ensure that we knew what Poe was actually criticizing, we read dozens of other authors’ work before reading what Poe thought about them. This was not the class I thought I had signed up for. 

To make things worse, the professor had a very monotonous voice, and he’d insist on reading long passages from the book that I could not have given a damn about. Did I mention this class was my first of the day at the ungodly hour of 7:30 in the morning? Since I was still a freshman, I didn’t know I could drop a class simply because I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I stuck it out. In the end, I got a B with the only lesson being learned that sometimes writers do things to make money when their time would’ve been better spent creating.

During my first year at Central Junior High School in Lawton, Oklahoma (Go Cougars!), I was introduced to the concept of school social activities. Once every other month, the school held a dance with a live band in the gym while they showed a movie in the auditorium. On later reflection, I think this was to please those with religious restrictions on dancing and to help shy teenagers who didn’t want to dance in public. It was an elegant solution, but I never ran into another school that followed that protocol. Like most seventh graders, dating was a foreign concept, so I arrived at the first dance and quickly met up with a group of my friends.

We stood around the fringes of the empty dance floor for quite a while before someone took a leap and danced. Soon, the floor was completely full. That included me, because my friend Mark’s girlfriend had several other friends and timing met opportunity. After one dance, across the gym floor I saw her. I’d seen her in class and thought she was cute. She had long dark hair flowing across her shoulders, and the darkest naturally red lips I’d ever seen in my life. Her bangs accented her eyes, which I found hypnotic. I guess that high contrast look and accent on the eyes this might've influenced my later attraction to Goth girls. 

As I stood watching other people dance, she quietly sauntered up beside me. We held a brief conversation that included that she didn’t dance. She then asked if I’d accompany her to the auditorium to watch the movie, which was about to start. I agreed and off we went.

The movie was The Pit and the Pendulum starring Vincent Price. I’d seen Vincent Price in several movies adapted from Edgar Allen Poe’s work before this and always enjoyed his performances. Price had the creepiest voice and aristocratic mannerisms that always seemed haunting. 

As we watched the movie, I gathered my courage and held her hand in the dark. The movie included themes that were perfect for our age group (adultery, murder, revenge, madness––the usual). She’d occasionally squeeze my hand during the scarier parts, but other than that we sat there silently - sweaty palm pressed to sweaty palm. 

I vividly remember two things from the movie. While walking down an abandoned passageway, Vincent Price walked into a wall of cobwebs face first. Years later, he mentioned this scene and how he asked the director if it was meant to scare the ladies. The director replied, “No. The men.”   Also indelibly etched into my mind was a scene that also gave me sleepless nights for the rest of that week. It was the very last one in the film. I won’t reveal it here, but I’ll say the director of Carrie and M. Night Shyamalan probably learned the concept of the glance back twist ending from this film. 

After the shock at the end, it was time for a shock of my own-- she leaned forward and kissed me as the credits scrolled. She wasn’t the first girl I ever kissed, but she was the first girl I was ever attracted to who I kissed. The shocking end of the movie and the subsequent kiss left me flabbergasted. Since it was Friday night and I would not see her again until Monday, I had to wait to see if I’d get a repeat opportunity––maybe somewhere in the halls of my school. But alas, it was not to be. 

She went home and told her mother about our evening, which resulted in her being up grounded. She was forbidden any sort of non-platonic relationship with anyone outside of her faith and until she was twenty-one. I was forbidden fruit at thirteen? It left me feeling a little Romeoesque. 

I’ll always have great admiration for the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve since learned that a lot of the urban legend surrounding him… his madness, and drug abuse were just that—– urban legend. That’s okay. I think it adds to his stories. If you believed he produced some of the most amazing tales while mentally altered, you have to admire him more. 

After all, how could he craft such perfectly written tales while not being in full control of his faculties? He takes you along as a tormentor is permanently bricked into a wine cellar wall. You imagine hearing the cries of a cat and the beat of a heart, even though both are impossible. Then a bird — a Raven — who knows and repeats but one word. 

All that isn’t from one being tortured, but one who wants to torture the reader, leaving them enjoyably unsettled. 


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