A few days after Yale staff member Campbell Brock Harmon performed — in the character of Edgar Allan Poe — at an assembly last year of some 300 middle school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he received an email from the school’s librarian. She told Harmon that every book related to the famed author of macabre tales had been checked out since his visit.
Harmon, who is the Web coordinator at the Yale Divinity School (and an alumnus there), never fails to get the attention of teenagers during his performances as Poe. He always reads the author’s suspenseful “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story, he says, that manages to captivate even the most easily distracted age group.
“You can usually hear a pin drop by the time I get to the end,” says Harmon, who has been doing Poe impersonations for the past several years. “It’s such a clear story, very visual, and it is very dramatic at the end. People of every age are transfixed by it.”
Harmon recently spoke with YaleNews about his love for bringing Poe to life, and he also offered a dramatic reading, in the persona of Poe, at the Grove Street Cemetery. (See video.) Here is what we learned.
It all began with the Trail (of Terror): While a student at Yale Divinity School, Harmon visited the Trail of Terror, an outdoor, “haunted” Halloween-season venue in Wallingford, Connecticut. He says he “fell in love” with the spooky sets and characters at the site, and quickly volunteered as an actor there.
“It’s a national-level ‘haunt’ in the woods, and although it is all about entertainment, the actors are pretty amazing; we never break out of character,” says Harmon, who has continued to volunteer there since earning his Master of Arts in Religion at Yale in 2004. “Some 2,000 people come through every night during the month of October, and all of the money raised goes to charity. There, I do what ‘haunters’ do: it’s a mixture of theater, movies (because of the special effects), stand-up comedy, and street theater.”
An acting invitation: Harmon says his affection for both the Trail of Terror and the Divinity School — where he became a webmaster after earning his degree — has him “dug in like a tick” at those places. In 2009 — the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth year — Harmon suggested that Poe serve as the theme for that year’s Trail of Terror set, and he played the author himself. That same year, on the recommendation of a Trail of Terror colleague who also works at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, he was invited to play Poe during a National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” program at the Bushnell that focused on Poe’s writings.
“Since then, I’ve just kept on doing it, as I really enjoy it,” says Harmon, who has since played the author for “Big Read” and other educational programs at various libraries and schools in the state and beyond. For some performances, he’s on stage alone for nearly two hours portraying Poe. His usual program for these performances features a reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” (because of its popularity, he says), as well as a short biography of the author.
“My friend, Beth Threloff, a gifted artisan, made me a period costume that was based on photos I found in the Divinity School archives,” says Harmon. “A serious costume actor might be horrified by the fact that it has polyester and zippers — which would not have been the case in Poe’s day — but it is accurate in terms of its look.”
Academic roots: Harmon says that as much fun as he has impersonating Poe, his interest in doing so is partly scholarly.
“A reporter once asked me if my Yale Divinity School education applies in any way to my acting, and the answer is yes,” says Harmon. “I was taught as an academic. I was taught to read ancient scripts in an academic fashion. I don’t think of myself as an actor who happens to be educating people about Poe, but rather as an academic who happens to be doing something very entertaining. I read an enormous amount about Poe. Right now, I’m reading a two-volume collection of his letters. I want what I do to be as historically real as possible, and I try to get that across to my audience as well.”
In question-and-answer sessions with his audience after his performances, Harmon takes the time to dispel some of the most common myths about Poe and his career.
“Most people think of Poe as a dark, depressive man who was mad, someone who drank too much, used opium and was physically violent with his wife,” explains Harmon. “Other than the alcohol problem — which Poe admitted to — none of that is actually true. A lot of the mythos surrounding him was created by editor and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who — after Poe died — began a lifelong character assassination of his memory. Ironically, although Griswold’s intent was to destroy Poe’s reputation, he actually ensured that the author would continue to be read, simply by keeping Poe’s name alive after his death. It’s an amazing twist of history: By attaching such dark myths to Poe, Griswold actually romanticized him, making his stories popular.”
From scared to scary: Equally ironic, Harmon says, is the fact that he himself has matured from being a kid who was frightened of Halloween — and of certain horror tales — to being someone who scares for entertainment and now reads some of Poe’s most chilling tales to older children and adults.
“I think that has something to do with why I’m on ‘the other side’ now,” quips Harmon.
He recalls enjoying Poe’s works as a high school student, but says he used to get terrified reading Stephen King novels, and he never set foot in a “haunted” setting until he was in college.
Nevertheless, says Harmon, he feels his Poe performances follow certain family traditions.
“My mom was a high school teacher, and I’m now going around and teaching kids about Poe,” he says. “My grandfather is a retired Baptist minister. Baptist ministers tend to be long preachers, and I grew up listening to two-hour sermons. Being able to fill 1 hour and 40 minutes on stage doing Poe feels somewhat like I’m fulfilling family work: I’m doing drama in a way that the Baptists have always been good at.”
Smiles behind Gothic makeup: For much of the year, Harmon’s Poe performances and his volunteer work as an actor at the Trail of Terror keep him immensely busy. He says he moved to Wallingford just to be closer to the haunted Halloween venue, as each new year begins with planning meetings about the fall themes at the Trail of Terror, followed by set building in the spring and then preparing his scenes. He shares a home with other Trail of Terror volunteers and a large German shepherd dog.
“We’re an interesting group,” Harmon says. “There are costume pieces all over, manikins at the top of the stairs, and all kinds of zombie and other costumes in the basement. I guess that makes us pretty goofy.”
All of his performing — whether in the person of Poe or at the Trail of Terror — is meant to create fun, says the Yale staff member.
“I don’t want anyone — especially kids — to be freaked out,” he comments. “I want them to be entertained. And I want them to know that Poe is one of the creators of the modern American short story. Before guys like Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, America did not have its own literature. So when Poe wrote his short stories, he was writing in a format that didn’t exist before in our country. It’s amazing, really, that Edgar Allan Poe still speaks to us hundreds of years later. That makes him pretty cool.”
Harmon’s upcoming Connecticut performances as Edgar Allan Poe are as follows: Oct. 10 — 7 p.m., Old Lyme PGN Library in Old Lyme; Oct. 17 — 7 p.m., Kent Memorial Library in Suffield; Nov. 1 — 7 p.m., Belden Public Library in Cromwell; and Nov. 2 — 8:30 p.m., Westport Library (“Haunted Library” event). For other performances, visit his website (www.thepoeactor.com). For information on the Trail of Terror, visit the attraction’s website. (http://trailofterror.com)