Edgar Allan Poe's macabre masterpieces find a home in Kansas City's historic cemetery
To start the Halloween season, The Coterie Theater is bringing Gothic horror performances back to Union Cemetery, the state’s oldest public graveyard and the final resting place of many Kansas City founders.
A small crowd gathered Saturday evening, sitting on blankets and folding chairs at sunset on a hillside in Union Cemetery. The trees were tinged with orange and red as actor R.H. Wilhoit stepped out onto a grassy field between the graves to recite the work of American horror master Edgar Allen Poe.
Though he didn't break character until the end of the show, Wilhoit said performing Poe’s works in Missouri’s oldest public cemetery adds an eerie layer to each performance.
“Respectfully, we are surrounded by thousands of dead bodies,” he said of the site. “We perform in front of a holding vault, which is where they stacked dead bodies when it was too cold to create graves."
Wilhoit is leading The Coterie Theatre’s production of "Electric Poe," now in its fourth year. This time, Wilhoit has adapted three Poe works, including the poem “Annabel Lee” and short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”
“I was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe — especially his poem ‘Annabel Lee,’” Wilhoit said. “Poe wasn't only a writer of horror and the macabre but he was kind of a romantic, and I'm excited to explore that part of him.”
The Coterie’s production got its start in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 epidemic, as a way for audiences to return to live theater safely in an outdoor setting.
“It was very scary the first year, because cemeteries are inherently scary,” Wilhoit said. “I was changing my costume in the holding vault, where many people resided over the years. ... But now it's comfortable — it's like going home.”
The special engagement is a collaboration between The Coterie and the Union Cemetery Historical Society, and has become a popular fixture on October’s theater calendar, with performances often selling out weeks in advance.
Despite the unusual location, Wilhoit said there’s only been one unexplained incident, during a question-and-answer segment that first year.
“We heard what sounded like a little girl asking for her mom,” he said.
Wilhoit scanned the audience for clues — surely someone was looking for her child, he remembered thinking — but not a single person stirred.
“I had to stop in the middle of my answer and say, ‘OK, we all hear this, correct?'’’ he said. “And that mystery was never solved.”
For Wilhoit, Poe was a master storyteller who expertly exploited the fears of his readers. A recurring theme that flows through this year’s production is the fear of being buried alive.
In “The Cask of Amontillado,” first published in November 1846, a nobleman avenges "numerous injuries and an unspecified insult" by luring an injurious friend into a trap: a live entombment in the catacombs beneath his estate.
Wilhoit said few are immune to the fears Poe invokes.
“There was this incredible spike in the fear of people getting buried alive in the 1800s,” he said. “Now that I have performed a piece about being buried alive twice, I have a terrible, terrible feeling of claustrophobia any time I'm in a small space.”
Death by electoral misadventure
According to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the writer died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore, on Election Day 1840.
“A lot of people don't know that the end of his life actually kind of played out as a Poe story,” Wilhoit said. “Poe was found incoherent on a bench in Baltimore in somebody else's clothes, repeating the name over and over again: Reynolds, Reynolds, Reynolds.”
Cooping victims were kidnapped by gangs of thugs at the behest of political party bosses, drugged or forced to drink alcohol, then disguised multiple times so they could vote repeatedly for a particular candidate.
“Politicians would liquor up the town drunks, put them in different clothes again and again and have them just vote, over and over and over and over and over,” Wilhoit said.
The fraud makes a sad ending for the author of supernatural horror, Wilhoit said.
“For a man that pined so much, it really breaks my heart that he wasn't surrounded by the people he loved,” he said.
Putting on Poe's work outdoors comes with its own set of challenges, Wilhoit said. Performing in the cemetery often creates unexpected moments that can’t be replicated in a theater.
“I love performing outside, because you're dealing with the environment,” he said, recollecting a particularly spooky 2020 show. "A murder of crows just flew over my head during ‘Mask of the Red Death,’ and it just set the tone.”
The Coterie Theatre’s “Electric Poe” runs through Nov. 5 at Union Cemetery, 227 E. 28th Terrace, Kansas City, Missouri 64108. Organizers warn it may not be suitable for children under 10. More information at TheCoterie.org.