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Tales of Mystery and Imagination 

Filmmaker Eric Stange ’76 searches for the real Edgar Allan Poe in a new PBS documentary.

A scene from the Edgar Allan Poe documentary directed by Eric Stange.
Photo by
Liane Brandon

If Poe the man met Poe the myth, would they even recognize each other?

What do you know of Edgar Allan Poe? Probably something like this: that he was an opium addict stretched across the grave of his child bride. But do you even know where you got those ideas?

Filmmaker and UMass Amherst alum Eric Stange ’76 did some detective work to find what the inventor of modern detective fiction was really like. The resulting documentary, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, will be broadcast during Halloween season on PBS’s American Masters

The project is star-studded: Roger Corman, Chris Sarandon, and the husky narration of Kathleen Turner. There are animations of Harry Clarke’s famous illustrations and commentary by descendant Hal Poe. To play Poe himself, Stange chose Denis O’Hare, whose creepy street cred includes roles in True Blood and American Horror Story

Stange was well equipped to excavate Poe from the weight of mythology the writer is buried under. As executive producer of Boston-based Spy Pond Productions, Stange specializes in cultural and social history. His work has been broadcast on PBS (The American Experience and NOVA), Discovery Channel, and the BBC. 

For the record, Poe took opium only once, in an attempt to kill himself. In his youth, he was a champion swimmer. He preferred to go by the name Edgar Poe. He wrote a wide variety of stories and was an influential reviewer and critic.  

“He was not a denizen of the dark,” says Stange. “He was interested in exploring human psychology in a way that other writers weren’t doing yet, but he didn’t live that way. People conflate him with one or more of the characters. Many film treatments over the years have incorporated Poe into his stories, which doesn’t help.

“I understand having done this project how tempting and almost unavoidable it is to overlap Poe’s biography with some of his stories,” confesses Stange. “To use popular images of Poe to your own ends is irresistible—I hope we resisted it!” 

Although Poe had cultivated a moody public persona following the success of “The Raven” in 1845, it was his literary rivals and enemies who inflicted the posthumous image of him as a delirious addict teetering on the edge of madness. Buried Alive helps reestablish Poe as the media master he was and place him in the context of his time.

Stange is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding 75 percent of the project, with crowdfunding making up the difference. “Bringing humanities scholarship to the general public is so necessary now. It’s about understanding the presence of the past in the present day.”