The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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What are the components of a horror story are in "The Tell-tale Heart" and modern stories?

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One major component of a horror story that Poe's tale certainly has is fear. The narrator is evidently so afraid of death that he cannot stand having a constant reminder of it: the presence of the old man and his "vulture eye." Vultures are, of course, associated with death, and the "veil" within the old man's eye is likely cataracts, a condition associated with old people, who are close to death. The narrator talks about hearing the death watch beetles in the walls and uttering mortal groans in the night, clearly fearful of his own mortality. What if I, the reader, should develop a similar fear? Could I too be driven mad by it, compelled to rid my life of any reminder of death, even if it amounted to murder? Or, could I be the victim of someone else's obsession with mortality? The narrator does such a good job of being kind to the old man's face by day while he plots the old man's death each night. Could I be fooled by someone like this, as well? Could a person so mad actually conceal their madness from me too?

Another important element of the horror story is suspense. Poe builds suspense in this story by having the narrator detail his midnight routine of slowly opening the old man's door and shining his lantern in the darkness while the old man sleeps. He talks, at length, about how slowly he moves, how a watch's hands move more quickly than he does, and by drawing this section out, Poe builds a lot of suspense in the story.

Many modern horror stories make use of the elements of fear and suspense. We might get attached to certain characters, and then fear is created when those characters become endangered. Or, we might identify with their fear when they are led into situations that seem fine—that we might enter ourselves—but are really threatening. As far as suspense, we can often sense that something is not quite right with a scenario, even before a character does. Our sense of discomfort and tension builds and builds, as we wait for the climax of the story, and the relief when this suspense ends is the catharsis for which we long.

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In some ways, horror stories have changed little since Poe was writing.  After all, Poe was the master of horror.  Today’s horror replicates his ideas.  The main differences are that while Poe was mostly psychological, while definitely being gory, modern horror movies and stories are often just gory.

Poe wrote “The Tell-tale Heart” to include a minimum of violence.  Most of the suspense occurs in our horrifyingly following the narrator as he explains how he killed the old man.

You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. (p. 4)

Most modern horror stories are just a lot of blood and violence, hacking body parts and so on.  There is suspense, but it is not on an intellectual level. The suspense is not cerebral, but more primitive.

All horror stories have suspense and violence, but the best ones also include a psychological component.


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