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How Edgar Allan Poe Creates Horror in “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Edgar Allan Poe uses many different techniques to create horror in the short story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. Poe starts by stating that the narrator was ‘sick – sick unto death.’ The repetition of the word sick here emphasizes how bad he feels; also, ‘sick unto death’ suggests that he already feels dead. Death is emphasized more with ‘the dread sentence of death.’ This emphasis on death is telling us that he is metaphorically already dead.

Poe then describes the expressions on the black-robed judge’s face as ‘stern contempt of human torture.’ This description suggests a grotesque look upon their face. The word torture also gives a sense of capture, which is also emphasized by ‘permitted to sit’ as permitted gives a feeling that someone is keeping authority over him at all times. Death is once again emphasized as he describes the darkness as a soul descending ‘into Hades.’ With Hades being the Greek God of the underworld, it is like the narrator has been enveloped by death.

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Again it is emphasized by, ‘How at least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb?’, this description tells us that the narrator is not sure whether or not he is dead or alive. Or this could suggest that he is coming to accept that this place is going to be his tomb as there is no escape in sight. The narrator describes how he dares ‘not to employ my vision.’ This shows us that he is afraid to open his eyes as he is afraid that he will either see some terrible sights before him.

Or that he will open his eyes and there will be nothing, and he will be dead. When he opens his eyes, he describes it as ‘the blackness of eternal night encompassed me.’ This shows us that his surroundings are entirely and utterly black; there is nothing to be seen. This suggests horror as many people are scared of what lurks in the dark. He then says, ‘Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself dead,’ this description tells us that, while he did not think he was dead, he had to have felt like that.

Poe uses real-life locations that had places of torture during the Spanish inquisition as a description, ‘as well as the condemned cells at Toledo.’ This use of real-life locations gives an insight into how gruesome the narrator’s torturing is even more gruesome as they existed. Again, the theme of light plays a large part in creating horror. The narrator first describes how he is desperate ‘in the hope of catching some faint ray of light’ this shows he is starting to get slightly crazy in the hope of seeing the light. He also describes it as a ‘subterranean world of darkness,’ which is effective as the dungeon was described as ‘damp’ earlier in the story.

When the narrator is exploring the inside of the prison, he describes one of the smells as ‘decayed fungus.’ This is effective as the decaying is the plant dying, foreshadowing that he will also be dying in the dungeon. Foreshadowing is used again with ‘a sullen plunge into water’, which gives horror as we can tell that this will be his fate. The sound then comes into play in his story, ‘loud echoes’ show us the enormous size of the pit and the dungeon in general. It also comes into play as he ‘trembled at the sound’ of his voice. This shows that the dungeon is usually extremely quiet or extremely scared to the point that even his voice will scare him.

Poe again starts to describe the feeling of death and how the narrator is starting to accept his fate. He does this by describing how he is ‘resolving there to perish rather than risk the terrors of the wells,’ this not only shows us that he has no problem with dying in there anymore, but it also shows us that the dungeon is terrifying if the narrator decides that he would rather die than venture through it anymore. This is also shown a little later as he describes his sleep as ‘a sleep like that of death’, showing that there is no escape and that even in sleep, he still feels like death is upon him.

One great use of description is the ‘painted figure of time’ that resides on the roof. This symbolism shows us that the narrator’s time is up, and he will soon die. He then describes that there is a ‘scythe’ with the painting of the time. This adds to the fact that he will soon die as a scythe is commonly represented with the sign of death, as death is usually depicted as a skeleton, which the figures were described to have ‘skeleton forms,’ with a black robe, which was also seen on the judges, and a scythe. This constant symbolism of death shows us powerfully that the narrator has no other choice, and he will die.

The narrator also describes that he saw ‘enormous rats’ traversing the floors. The fact that they are enormous also tells us that there were probably people in the dungeons either alongside the narrator or before him, as for them to be big they must have eaten. This theory is slightly hinted upon as the narrator described their eyes as ‘ravenous’, suggesting they have eaten humans before and recognize him as food. The narrator realizes this is but one more of the many things here that could kill him.

While Poe referenced Hades and the underworld earlier, he does something similar as he described the pit as ‘typical of hell.’ This description of the pit, referring to the afterlife, adds to this looming fear of death that has been present throughout the entirety of the story. He also describes it as the ‘Ultima Thule of all their punishments.’ This means that it is the worst possible thing that they could ever do to anybody and the fact that the narrator merely misses it is complete luck. But, as in a place like that, there is no luck; it will be his fate in the end.

The narrator seems to start losing his sanity as he starts ‘smiling at the glittering death’ of the pendulum coming towards him. But from his point of view, he can see the pendulum coming towards him as a source of definite death, and not aimlessly wandering around the same corridor for an undetermined amount of time. Poe starts describing the pendulum through personification. He describes how its ‘acrid breath’ found its way into the narrator’s nose, and how, as it was descending, it was ‘hissing’. These things make you feel like the pendulum itself is alive and wants to kill the narrator.

The narrator describes how he had a ‘frenzied pleasure’ in watching the pendulum come down. Poe reflects this in his writing, ‘Down — steadily down’, ‘Down — certainly and relentlessly down!’, ‘Down — still unceasingly — still inevitably down’. The repetition of ‘down’ is showing us how all the narrator can see is the gleaming of the pendulum coming ever so slightly towards him with every swing. The words used in describing the movement of the pendulum downwards are also effective. ‘Unceasingly’ and ‘inevitably’ tell us that the narrator is starting to get worried at the downward movement of the pendulum.

Poe takes advantage of the fears of the readers in order to make the story full of horror. This was easily achieved when he writes that the narrator’s ‘every motion was being undoubtedly watched. This works great as it makes it more relatable to the reader as nearly everybody has had the feeling that they are being watched and knows how terrifying it feels. He describes being watched later on as well as he describes that ‘demon eyes’ were glaring upon him ‘in a thousand directions’. This adds to the reader’s fears and makes them uneasy while reading the rest of the story.

Once again the narrator is starting to come to terms with the fact that he is going to die as even after escaping from the threat of the pendulum he says that he had ‘but escaped death in one form of agony, to be delivered unto worse than death in some other.’ This shows us that he has given up trying to escape as he knows that he will just be given an even worse punishment in the end. Then it is described when the thought of being crushed by the metal walls as ‘fiery destruction’ is in contrast to the description in the ‘coolness of the well’.

These descriptions used make the option of the pit seem like the worse of two evils, like the coolness of the pit will relieve him from the fiery destruction of the enclosing walls. This shows how desperate the narrator is to survive. Many of the different techniques that Poe used to create horror so that the reader feels more involved in the story. He uses real places so we feel more drawn into the story. He uses great descriptions of the surroundings so we feel more involved and he gives us the inner monologue of the character so we can feel more involved and it keeps us wanting more.

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How Edgar Allan Poe Creates Horror in "The Pit and the Pendulum". (2021, Sep 26). Retrieved October 21, 2021, from