Spend Halloween in a Real Haunted House With Edgar Allan Poe
John Kevin Jones discusses Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, his latest solo show at the Merchant's House Museum.
Gertrude Tredwell lived her entire 93 years in the same house at 29 East Fourth Street in Manhattan. When she died in 1933, the five-floor townhouse was furnished much as it always had been — and it remains that way today as the Merchant's House Museum, the only fully preserved Victorian home in New York City. The items in the home were not selected by a curator, but actually belonged to the Tredwell family. Is it any wonder, then, that the house has frequent reports of paranormal activity? Surrounded by their old possessions kept exactly where they left them, the ghosts feel right at home.
John Kevin Jones also feels at home in the Merchant's House. He has spent the last six years there presenting his one-man version of A Christmas Carol. This year, just in time for Halloween, Jones and director Rhonda Dodd have created a new show for the Merchant's House, Killing an Evening With Edgar Allan Poe. Starting October 12 and running right up through the 31st, 40 audience members will gather in the Tredwells' old parlor to see Jones perform theatrical versions of the classic poem "The Raven," as well as short stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado."
The Merchant's House is a particularly good location for Poe, considering he is thought to have written "Amontillado" just blocks away in a house on Amity Street (now West Third Street). Appropriately, the facade of that former Poe residence is now entombed within a brick wall of NYU's Law School.
Jones spoke to TheaterMania about Poe's unhappy time in the village, the enduring terror undergirding his work, and the ethereal energy that makes the Merchant's House an ideal spot to hear his words. There may be seats for only 40 bodies per performance, but we can expect a few extra souls in the ethereal standing room.
When did you have the idea to do a Halloween show around Edgar Allan Poe?
I've wanted to do Poe for a very long time. I thought that "The Tell-Tale Heart" especially lent itself to dramatization. It's such a roller coaster! My collaborator, Rhonda Dodd and I thought it would be fun to put it together for Halloween. Although, Poe's work is not so much spooky as it is psychologically horrifying.
The Merchant's House Museum decorates in a typically Victorian fashion for Christmas. Do they do the same for Halloween?
They don't decorate for Halloween per se, but they do a theme of Victorian macabre with a coffin in the main parlor, like you might see in a house in mourning; they also do ghost tours. The guide says right at the top of the tour that there won't be any actors popping out from behind doors or projections floating down the stairs, because the Merchant's House truly is haunted. Once we had a psychic in the audience of A Christmas Carol, and afterward they told Rhonda that there was a woman standing next to me looking out the window during the performance. I said, "Well, that can't be. If she was really there, she would have been watching the show!"
You've been performing at the Merchant's House for six years. Have you ever experienced a supernatural encounter?
During the Christmas Carol season, I nap upstairs before each show. For several performances in a row during my nap I had a recurring dream where I'm on my cot and there is a woman in full Victorian dress speaking to somebody just over the wall of my little enclosure. After the third time I had this dream, it felt like this was a person who was supposed to be there. I always experience a feeling of warmth and welcoming when I'm there. Maybe the ghosts like me.
Poe lived just a few blocks away from the Tredwells, on Amity Street (now West Third Street). What do you know about his time living in Greenwich Village?
The Poes had a very New York experience, in that they had to move so often because their rent kept going up. They lived on Amity Street for less than a year. This was just after he had published "The Raven," so he was experiencing some modicum of fame. His wife was also becoming ill with tuberculosis and it was thought that if they could get her to some place with fresher air that she would do better. That was what sent them further uptown, and then eventually to the Bronx. I would love to do revisionist history and say that Poe actually came to the Merchant's House and that the Tredwells entertained him, but I doubt it since they were respectably middle-class and he was like the original bohemian.
You made a distinction early in this interview between Halloween spookiness and the kind of psychological terror that pervades Poe's work. Why do you think his stories are still so frightening almost two centuries later?
They speak to innate fears that we all have: fear of betrayal, of going mad, of not being in control of your senses. Then there's the ancient fear of being murdered by someone, perhaps someone very close to you. Poe's stories are not just about the fear of death. Death is an easy thought compared to the thought of how exactly you die. That will always inspire terror. And that terror doesn't come from hearing the story, but from really thinking about it later and wondering what it was like for that person as they lay there dying. That's what keeps you up at night.