Poe’s work has had a sweeping effect on the generations of writers that followed him, but his life story has likewise been massively influential, obscured though the facts often are. Rarely are there direct Poe biographies, but he often appears as a supporting character. He has served as a sort of morbid cautionary tale of the artist consumed by his creations. Most fact-driven written biographies of Poe, such as The Reason for The Darkness of the Night by John Tresch, portray the man as brilliant but whose sporadic nature was in no small part caused by poverty and job inconsistency which plagued him throughout his life.
Indeed, Poe was a man with many interests in life who was compelled to write humor and scientific articles alongside his work as a horror story writer. This ideating but troubled man is lost under a legend that leans heavily into the most traumatic moments of his adult life alongside his tendency to self-medicate with alcohol. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much nuance is lost along the way. Still, there is something to be said for the role this exaggeration of the man serves for audiences and more importantly, for the creators he inspired.
Silent Era Biopics Were Pretty Rough
One of the first known biopics is Edgar Allan Poe, directed by the infamous D.W. Griffith in 1909. Even fans of silent films might skip over this entry, which is helmed by one of Hollywood’s most notorious white supremacists and is inaccurate to boot, but it’s worth mentioning as a historical footnote. The story shows Poe leaving to sell “The Raven” only to return home to discover his wife Virginia had passed away.
In 1915, another pseudo-biopic about Poe called The Raven was made, which paid significant stylistic tribute to Griffith’s follow-up Poe-related feature, The Avenging Conscience, an early adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee.” The Raven is worth mentioning here primarily for how its more problematic elements reflect several larger issues with Poe as a character. It features a scene in which Poe “heroically” purchases a Black man’s freedom with an IOU, then welches on the debt, at which time Poe becomes the victim since it leads to his ejection from his stepfather’s home. This is one of the only times race is even remotely addressed in any of these films, if not from a particularly enlightened perspective.
Over the years, it’s been widely debated what exactly Poe’s beliefs around slavery were, though he very much came of age in a slaveholder’s home. He was known to have bonded with Black servants in his youth and taken much from the stories they told him as a boy, yet he publicly sympathized with slaveholders in his adulthood. Racist themes appear in works like the continent-hopping The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. This is important to note, as stories in which he appears as a character seldom mention slavery at all despite it being a looming atrocity that affected everyone that lived during his lifetime. Most crucially to this series, we have already seen that those that have taken reference from Poe have cast white people almost exclusively, except for a couple of characters in Two Evil Eyes and in issues of extreme anti-Black aggression, such as in Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key.
This is to say that Poe biopics almost can’t help but be inaccurate. Even as a drunken, manic caricature, horrors were playing out every day that generally go unaddressed, meaning we’re getting a fragment of a fragment, even at the best of times. What goes unsaid in the following selections often overpowers the story, with a young woman noting in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe that she wishes “Thomas Jefferson could think of something else to do with his time other than going around starting universities.” This is a pretty scary thing to say given what we know of how Jefferson spent his time. Hard as many of these films try to avoid any mention of racism, the truth is always there, and it’s much more insidious than anything in an Edgar Allan Poe story.
Let’s Talk About Virginia
Edgar Allan Poe and The Raven kick off a theme in which Poe is posited as the ultimate tragic hero, undermined by alcoholism that sprang from his hardship in life. Virginia Poe is a nonentity who lives only for her love. As is generally well-known, Virginia was 13 when she and Poe married, but he began staying with her and his aunt (her mother) when she was only 9. Though the reaction to Poe’s marriage to Virginia is generally that it was of a time, as Tresch notes in his biography, it was considered pretty weird to marry a child in the mid-1800s, too. As with so many things, the times were different, but not so different that nobody thought it was strange a broke 27-year-old with serious alcohol addiction issues fell in love with a little kid.
In The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, a highly romanticized version of Poe is played by Shepperd Strudwick, while Linda Darnell portrays Virginia. Linda was 19 in 1942, while Strudwick was 35, but by casting a young adult and adding an epic love story element to the matchup, Loves continues the work of the silent era in all but erasing much of Poe’s vice. Indeed, Poe generally appears as a genius whose capacity for love undoes him, which is a dangerous way to think of a man who married a child who was subject to the emotional fallout from his lengthy disappearances during alcoholic binges throughout most of her life.
There’s a Man with A Cloak in The Torture Garden
Attempting to create a heroic narrative for Poe is an inherently flawed approach that can’t help but throw Virginia and a lot of other people under the bus. However, there are films that have indirectly taken Poe to account for his creepy behavior. Shimako Satō’s Tale of a Vampire is often forgotten among the vampire canon. This is a shame because, while it is not particularly earthshattering in its concept, it pulls in a dangerous vibe while painting a meaningful portrait of how those that seek to possess others can so often lead to the destruction of that which they claim to love.
Julian Sands plays a vampire named Alex who believes a librarian named Jane is his lost love, Virginia, reincarnated. When another character named Edgar appears on the scene, it’s easy to guess who he’s supposed to be, but a subtle twist in the narrative tells us that their mutual fixation on Jane was more than just a little misguided. Alex is sympathetic, but not so much that we forget he is a ruthless murderer and stalker. Seeking to sexualize these women and pin love stories on them, both men are equally unable to handle it when Jane attempts to assert herself. Though Jane and Virginia are both portrayed as adults in the story, the inability to accept women as their own beings outside of their roles as tragic and unreachable objects of desire is what makes this such a fascinating film.
In Twixt, Val Kilmer plays a struggling novelist named Hall Baltimore who holes up in a small town to pursue a new angle as a writer only to be disturbed by visions of Poe and a young woman named Virginia, played by Elle Fanning. While this is not the Virginia that Poe married and Poe serves as a cryptic, illusory helper for Baltimore, Virginia is also thirteen. When a mystery implicating a religious figure and pedophile in Virginia’s death is unearthed, the local sheriff says a number of disturbingly sexually charged things about young women. The text that there is something very wrong with applying adult sexuality to teen girls is reflected in Hall’s disgusted response. Easily one of Francis Ford Coppola’s most underrated pieces, Twixt is disturbing, but its sympathy towards Virginia and its insistence on treating her as the child that she is remains a defining characteristic of its script.
Meanwhile, the horror anthology Torture Garden casts Poe as a somber, cautionary figure in its final short, “The Man Who Collected Poe.” The film has a great cast, with performances from Burgess Meredith, Jack Palance, Peter Cushing, and others, and is fairly solid for a late sixties B-movie. Palance’s character murders Cushing’s in order to gain ownership of an incredibly rare Poe-related item in his collection only to discover that he has unlocked Poe himself. This ultimately causes his doom, but not before Poe gets in a few ominous one-liners. Meta textually, this short isn’t terribly deep, but it very much implies that there is a real danger in glorifying Poe.
Embracing the Absurd with The Raven
The Man with the Cloak leans into Poe as a heroic figure once again, conjuring a brief intermission in his later life in which he helps a young woman while slinking around a tavern using the fake name of Dupin (his detective from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). This film is mostly forgettable outside of a compelling performance from Barbara Stanwyck and some brilliantly written dialogue for Joseph Cotton as Poe, but it establishes another dangerous trope that pops up often with Poe, which is the glorification of alcoholism.
Many of these films emphasize his “love for the drink” and his inability to settle a tab while neglecting the negative effects of alcohol abuse and poverty. Constant references to his drinking appear in these films, but he’s handsome, roguish, charming, and never appears to be drunk. In most recent Poe biographies, there is a much more detailed accounting of Poe’s habit to alienate and offend others while on drinking binges, but even without that context, the implication in these films is that Poe drank perpetually and saw no ill effect from it. This continues in The Raven (2012), which sees John Cusack as Poe enlisted by the police to help solve a crime in which a serial killer is reenacting murders from his short stories.
The Raven is easily one of the most ridiculous films based on Poe or his work, which is honestly saying something. The premise is that in the mysterious three days before his death, Poe became super lucid, had an affair with a wealthy lady, helped the police solve a series of murders, and left this world after the heroic act of saving his love from being buried alive. We were very much still in the era of the big-budget horror blockbuster, and the polish alongside the bare-bones plot and loose historical basis makes it feel like the National Treasure of horror films, complete with a remarkably low-chemistry romance at its center. Guilty of nearly every problem identified in this article, from glorifying alcoholism to casting only white people to romanticizing his marriage with Virginia while assigning him a hero’s quest, it can make for an entertaining watch if all critical parts of one’s brain are disarmed in advance.
In glorifying Poe’s legend, stories only draw attention to the ugliest parts of his character. Indeed, Poe was a deeply flawed man, and it’s for the best that we never try to rewrite that part of his legacy. As with so many influential people throughout history, his brilliance took a toll on those around him, and the coldness of his protagonists wasn’t something left only to the page. This need not be a moral judgment on a man who died well over 150 years ago, but his legacy as a character in film reflects a sincere desire from many of his fans to engage in hero worship when the record shows that the man himself was seldom if ever heroic. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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