What are you most afraid of? Go ahead, no one's listening. Heights? Spiders? Public speaking? Death by razor sharp pendulum? Oh, not that last one? Weird.
Published by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843, "The Pit and the Pendulum" tells the story of a man who's sentenced to death and tortured by the Spanish Inquisition, using – among other things – a razor sharp pendulum that will cut him right in half. What a way to go.
First published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843, the very un-holiday-like tale has since become a classic of horror literature. It's unique even within Poe's own literary corpus in its use of realism to intensify the horror. Intense, indeed. This is a psychological freak-out at its best.
Since its publication, the story has been adapted several times for both the big and small screen, most notably in the 1961 film of the same name, starring Vincent Price. That said, it should be noted that most adaptations aren't particularly faithful to the original work. Nonetheless, echoes of the story can be found in everything from the Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark to Cartoon Network's The Venture Brothers; even the trash compactor scene in Star Wars: A New Hope can't help but bring to mind the narrator's constricting cell.
(Not a big fan of being scared out of your wits? We understand. If you really can't stand to read something this scary, we recommend you hop on over and check out Poe's "The Predicament.". It's kind of like the quirky, fun aunt of "The Pit and the Pendulum" – same family, different style.)
Most people think this is an important story because it appeals to our five senses and creates horror without the aid of the supernatural. This is all well and good and true, too, but come on, people – this is the new millennium! We've all seen countless slasher, ghost, and horror films. There are seven – yes, seven – Saw films, (and maybe more by the time you read this); and each of them features a number of realistic torture techniques more gruesome than anything we see in "The Pit and the Pendulum." Of course, there wouldn't be Saw – or countless other films – without "The Pit and the Pendulum," but that's not our point.
The point is this: "The Pit and the "Pendulum" is more than all that. There's something in this story that is pretty unique in the horror world: a real look at the meaning and consequences of the terrors described. By telling his story from the perspective of the victim, Edgar Allan Poe is letting us see how those events play out in such a person's mind. He's putting us in the victim's shoes, helping us visualize and experience torture psychologically. Most horror flicks are too busy with the guts and the gore to give us time to think about anything at all, let alone the nature of being or the distinction between consciousness, unconsciousness, and death.
Poe allows us to feel the thrill and come to terms with why we feel it; he wants us to be as much a captive as his narrator; he wants to make us look at the edge of the descending blade, to watch it move back and forth, and to wonder, "What will happen when it takes its final swing?"
The Story Man
Here's a nice look at Poe's stories and poems, complete with biography, full-text versions of his works, and other assorted goodies.
Pendulums are Cool
Like, seriously cool. The prove that the earth rotates, for crying out loud! Check it out.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Despite sharing its name, this movie has very little to do with Poe's story. But it does feature Vincent Price and a screenplay written by Richard Matheson – the man who wrote the book I Am Legend and that episode of the Twilight Zone with the goblin hanging out on the wing of the airplane.
Ray Harryhausen Presents: The Pit and the Pendulum (2006) is a short film based on Poe's story – done in stop-motion claymation! Bet you weren't expecting that. It comes with the blessing of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the special effects in many a monster movie; his last film was Clash of the Titans (1981), which – surprise, surprise – has also been remade.
Vincent Price, master of horror, reads Poe's story aloud. You may recognize his voice from the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
You have to love that illustration of Poe at the beginning. As you can probably tell, the 1961 movie doesn't have much to do with its inspiration. It does, however, have Vincent Price.
Monty Python Does the Spanish Inquisition
Here's a considerably more lighthearted take on the old Inquisition.
Trailer for Ray Harryhausen Presents: The Pit and the Pendulum
Looks to be a faithful adaptation, no? Well, aside from the whole clay thing…
A Famous Photo of Poe
If you only see one picture of Poe this year, this should be it.
If You Just Can't Get Enough of that Pretty Face.
Here's another (kind of strange) one.
This is only the tip of the iceberg: Henry Clarke did many other illustrations based on Poe's work.