Geek Road Trip: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum
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Credit: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

Geek Road Trip: A tour of the delightfully macabre Edgar Allan Poe Museum

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Oct 23, 2018

There are few places in the world where being told you're guaranteed to have a miserable time would be a good thing. Yet, strolling up to The Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, for their special Unhappy Hour is exactly that.

"I thought it would be kind of a relaxing, after-work environment, kind of like a happy hour; but you can't have a happy hour at the Poe Museum. So I called it the Unhappy Hour and invited everyone to have a miserable time together," Chris Semtner, the museum's curator, told SYFY WIRE. With 80 percent of The Poe Museum's visitors coming from out of state, the staff wanted to have something for the local community. "We held the first one in 2008, and they have become one of our most popular events."

It's developed a very loyal following amongst Richmondites. The fourth Thursday of every month from April to October, Unhappy Hour focuses on one of Poe's works and celebrates it. Held both in the museum and attached Enchanted Garden, the event is made complete with beer, music, and a few other activities that even Edgar might have appreciated.

While it started as an outdoor concert event, showcasing local, national, and even international talent, it's evolved over the years. Some Unhappy Hours you can try your luck at a Poe-themed scavenger hunt, a reading or performance of one of Poe's classic works, or even a guided tour of the museum itself.

But it's The Sad Poetry Contest that truly encapsulates the message of misery.

The winner of this macabre contest is whoever can read a poem in the saddest, most depressed manner. Fake tears, real tears, cries of anguish, and an appreciative sprinkling of ennui make the contest a particular joy (ironically) to behold.

Geek Road Trip: Poe Museum, Edgar Allen Poe bust

Credit: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

The Poe Museum has had a home in Richmond for 96 years. It's a staple of the city, to be sure. But what of the museum itself?

In 1906, a group of concerned citizens decided that Poe's memory had been unfairly neglected in his hometown, so they established the Poe Memorial Association. In 1922 the group was able to open the Poe Shrine, a place where all creative people would pay homage and seek inspiration. In the 1930s, the Poe Shrine changed its name to the Poe Museum, the name it still uses today. And now it has Unhappy Hour, where guests can have a self-guided tour, punctuated by experts awaiting your questions in rooms of the historical complex.

The collection of artifacts and memorabilia that the museum has is extraordinary, and a must see for any fan and admirer. Most of the personal items belonging to Edgar Allan Poe came directly from his relatives, including the descendants of his sister and cousins.

New items are always appearing though, and the team at the museum does everything in their power to research and authenticate items. And toss the fakes of course.

"A few years ago, the great-great-great grandson of Poe's last fiancée Elmira Shelton, the woman to whom Poe was engaged at the time of his death, gave us a little gift that Poe gave Elmira shortly before he died," Semtner explains. "Recently, we were able to acquire a portrait of Poe's first boss that someone had bought for two dollars at an estate sale in Texas. I was able to track down the provenance and even spoke with one of the subject's descendants, who told me even more about the portrait and the artist who painted it."

The Poe Museum in Richmond has the largest collection of memorabilia in the world related to the poet. But what are his favorite pieces?

"Poe's hair, his clothing, his walking stick, his trunk, and his boyhood bed," Semtner says. "While the manuscripts, letters, portraits, and books are great, people really seem to relate to the socks. When they don't know I'm listening, I hear people exclaim, 'Here's his socks, come see his socks! Look how little his feet were,' or 'One day, if you're famous, somebody will put your socks in a museum.'"

Geek Road Trip: Poe Museum, Edgar Allan Poe gravestone

Credit: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

To say Semtner is a fan of Poe would be a vast understatement; he's a champion of the daring and dark poet. And he appreciates the general blanket of unhappiness that is so stereotypically associated with the author.

"He was a rebel who never quite fit in in this world, so anyone who's ever felt misunderstood or alone finds a kindred spirit in Poe," Semtner says. Given today's world, he has a point. Perhaps that's a reason why so many continually flock to the museum and Unhappy Hour, finding a kindred spirit in the spirit of the man who wasn't afraid to share his pain and true thoughts on the world. "Poe dared to say that behind the ego there was something darker."

But what of those who just pass him off as a ghost storyteller? Semtner isn't having it.

"Those critics accused him of merely writing scary stories, but he countered that terror is an essential part of life, that 'terror... is of the soul,'" he says.

Things get real at The Poe Museum.

Geek Road Trip: Poe Museum, Poe Museum Cats

Credit: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

Real cute, you mean. While at Unhappy Hour, you may spy two fuzzy faces peering out of the bushes. Six years ago, just after Halloween, the museum's gardener found some black kittens behind the Poe Shrine. And according to Semtner, it was fate.

"There were two boys and one girl, just like Edgar and his siblings. And they had apparently been orphaned, just like Edgar and his brother and sister," Semtner says. "We decided to name the girl Catterina, which was the name of Poe's cat. She went to live with one of the tour guides. We named one of the boys Pluto, after the cat in Poe's story 'The Black Cat,' and eventually he developed a little white patch on his chest, just like the cat in the story. We named the other boy Edgar."

Unhappy Hour is a delightfully macabre celebration of all things Poe that the man himself would surely guffaw at. One would think he might also be amused by it though. The fact is, its kept a rabid interest into his work alive, and thanks to its success over the years, they've hosted a whole slew of events, including a live-streamed a Poe inspired Dungeons & Dragons adventure as well as pumpkin carving.

Just remember, whatever you do at Unhappy Hour, have a miserable time doing it.

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