A horrifying atmosphere can be created by playing with the imagination and expectations of the audience. Poe introduces his horror piece with the traditionally frightening motif of darkness. Fear is a result of the unknown - that which lies in darkness - and establishing that darkness immediately is crucial to the horror text. The story itself cannot begin until it has been established that there is a setting that will permit a supernatural occurrence. The narrator then opens the door to find “Darkness there, and nothing more” (Poe 24) suggesting that the narrator expected to find something “more” waiting for him.
Poe’s setting also introduces the supernatural as something estranging and new: “each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” (Poe 8). The supernatural occurs in the representation of death in the slowly cooling coal and the haunting idea of a ghost. Later on, the introduction of the raven that speaks is the estranging element. Poe uses the sublime, particularly in its sense of fear and awe, so that the narrator is “suddenly intruded upon by intensely disturbing forces. [He has] an experience of sublime terror and madness” (Pahl 44).
Linguistic elements of “The Raven” deepen the sense of darkness and fear of the unknown:
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door-
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;-
This it is, and nothing more,” (Poe 13-18)
The first two lines begin with alliteration and consonance, with “silken sad uncertain” and “Thrilled me – filled me”. There is also internal rhyme with “uncertain...curtain” (Poe 13) and “entreating entrance” (17), but in the later part of the second line and much of the third line, the sound patterns stop. Something familiar and constant becomes threatening in this setting. Poe uses repetition to allow the narrator a sense of security. The dramatic irony of this situation creates fear in the audience, because the audience knows that it is a false sense of security, and that something horrifying is about to happen.
The fear of the unknown in “The Raven” is cultivated in the reader’s own imagination. The word ‘Nevermore’, uttered ten times by the raven, becomes more and more frightening as the reader struggles to understand it. The reader projects his or her own fear onto the utterance: “If the word, repeated over and over, acquires any meaning, any sense at all, it is one that is primarily bound up in the word's unsettling sound, that is, in its reverberating impact on the narrator's nerves or senses” (Pahl 54). It creates a sense of unease with the reader. The unknown is the scariest traditional motif accessible to the horror author, because the human imagination is capable of coming up with greater horrors than can be expressed in writing: “the darkness and perversity laying dormant in the human psyche is brought to life through Poe’s works” (Vesa 98).
The narrator himself projects different terrifying possibilities onto the word ‘Nevermore’. There is a desire to access more of the frightening unknown. Poe plays with the desire to be frightened: “The human psyche is instinctual, and therefore humans can not control their desire for the perverse” (Vesa 94). The reader seeks both the estrangement and the familiarity in the poem, and Poe rewards them with a bit of both.
The scariest element of the horror genre is the ability of the author to access the audience’s imagination. Nothing the author could possibly represent in words or film can rival the terrors already embedded in the human mind. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe uses traditional techniques that force the audience to face the unknown. Linguistic tools can be used to surface an other-wordly atmosphere that is alien and frightening.
Pahl, D. “Sounding the Sublime: .” Poe Studies,
42.1 (2009): 41-60. Web.
Vesa, Nicole. “Overthrowing Optimistic Emerson: Edgar Allan Poe’s Aim to Horrify”. The
Comparative Humanities Review 1.1 (2007): 94-99. Web.
You can get a copy of my favorite Edgar Allen Poe stories here. This is a link to my amazon associates.