We’re very excited at Haunted MTL to reach out to the horror community and spotlight creative and talented folks where we find them. We love to add to our interview series when we can, and this week we are talking to a Poe performer! A few weeks ago, we reached out to the Mutant Fam, fans of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, to find out who is out there.
This week, we’d like to introduce you to Campbell Harmon, a performer who portrays the literary horror legend Edgar Allan Poe. Campbell brings Poe to life at schools, libraries, and historical organizations with a special one-hour show featuring readings, a historical biography, and audience interaction. Learn more about what it takes to portray Edgar Allan Poe with Poe performer Campbell Harmon.
Poe Peformer Campbell Harmon Interview
Haunted MTL: How long have you been performing the role of Edgar Allan Poe? Do you have formal acting training?
Campbell Harmon: I started as Poe in 2009. Prior to that, I had no acting training at all, but I was volunteering at a non-profit haunted attraction as a scare actor since 2004. I loved performing and was lucky to be in a haunted attraction that valued acting so I learned how to be a character that interacted with guests, for hours, in the dark.
That experience was invaluable for acting. Unlike starting as a stage actor, being a haunt actor is like being a stand-up comic. There is no script. There is an idea of a character that you learn to improv. The audience is NOT on your side. You have to learn ways to engage them when they don’t wish to be engaged.
Over time, I got better at acting and eventually became a supervisor. I ran classes teaching new volunteers how to act and create characters.
In 2009, I knew it was Poe’s 200th birthday, so I proposed to make a scene in our haunted attraction based on his most famous works. I got help from our costume maker to create my character costume, and I grew out my mustache. At that same time, a friend of mine was a staffer at a large theater in our state capital. My friend told me that the theater had a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to promote the NEA’s “Big Read Program” for American literature. They were looking for someone to play Poe in libraries and schools. She recommended that I try out for the role.
I honestly didn’t think there was any way I would be hired with no real acting experience, but I took a shot at it just for fun and I got the role. I realized later that they didn’t need an actor as much as they needed an educator. My professional background is in education, so instead of asking for a script like an actor, I came with my own research in hand (and my own costume), so I basically just had a full show for them ready to perform.
After that first program of appearances at libraries and a stage event, I was hired three more times for the NEA program in different states around the country. I’ve been extremely lucky to continue this historical reenactment/educational program as a hobby for 12 years now and over 100 shows in theaters, museums, historical societies, libraries, and schools.
HMTL: What do you do to prepare to get into the head of the famous literary figure?
CH: I’ve done a lot of research into Poe. When it came to creating my version of him for audiences, I decided that he was talking to the audience after his death and was completely aware of everything that had happened since then. That way I can discuss his legacy, his legend, and address the mountain of misinformation about him.
I try to bring out his entertainingly sarcastic, sharply intelligent, salty personality that shows through in his personal letters. Most people are aware of the tragedies in his life, but he was much more than just the sum of those events. He had many facets that are ignored in the pop-culture version of his character most people are familiar with.
HMTL: Your program includes readings of The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven. Why did you choose those?
CH: When I planned my performance, I had to fit it into a one-hour program. So I wanted to use works that people would know but would leave enough time for a discussion about his life and Q&A with the audience. “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” are just the right length to fit into the program and they’re famous. Everyone wants to hear the hits, ya know. But I also give the audience a choice to hear other poems instead of “The Raven”. This allows for audience participation and some jockeying by people who really want to hear something different.
I can perform “The Cask of Amontillado,” but sadly, it is just a bit too long to fit into my normal program.
HTML: What is your favorite of Poe’s works?
CH: My personal favorite is “The Cask of Amontillado”. It is endlessly entertaining because there are layers and layers of symbolism, jokes, and intrigue in that story. The more I read about the story from literary critics and historians, the more I learn, and the more I enjoy it. I really do wish I could work it into my performance, but it would basically take up an entire hour to talk about the story and only scratch the surface. The best part is that it possibly was written by Poe as an insult to another author who had mocked him. It takes some serious talent and hard work to take a “screw you too, buddy” message and turn it into a classic of Western literature.
HMTL: How do you develop your look for Poe? Could you break down the cost of costuming?
CH: There are four famous daguerreotypes of Poe that most people know. When I planned my costume, I looked at those photos online and researched the typical clothing of men from his social standing around his time. I put together a costume that isn’t exactly historically accurate but looks like the idea you have in your head of Poe. I chose clothes that are almost monochromatic black, white, and grey because that is how the daguerreotypes look. Men had options for colorful clothing in his day, but you don’t think of him in colorful clothing. I wanted to make a costume that instantly fits the audience’s expectations. That way I have much less work to do to get past the suspension of disbelief and get the audience to focus on the content of the show, not on the actor in front of them.
The clothing for my costume is from Historical Emporium and adds up to around $500.
My wig is a different matter. Poe’s hair is as important as his mustache to achieve his look. My real hair looks nothing like his in the photos. I searched for years to find a good wig and finally hit on Official Hero Hair. They are an INCREDIBLE team that produces professional hair pieces for film, TV, stage, and cosplayers. They made a custom wig for me that was as perfectly accurate to Poe’s photos as anything a museum could do. I cannot praise them enough. Many cosplayers are using their company. Because each wig is custom made, prices vary. If I ever had a fire, I would get my dog and my husband out first, then my wig, in that order, I am not kidding.
They also made me an emergency-backup mustache just in case I end up with a booking while clean-shaven. So far, I’ve not had to use it, but it’s comforting to know it’s there. I’ve literally woken up from nightmares in which I accidentally shave my mustache. It’s like my version of the nightmare of being in public naked.
HMTL: Do you do anything to your voice to play Poe?
CH: Thanks to advice from friends and YouTube searches, I learned breathing techniques for singers so I could clearly project my voice on stage without straining it. I have to warm up before a performance by doing deep breathing for a while and usually by singing really loudly in my car when I’m driving to a show. I have a playlist named “Pre-show-warm-up” that has, among other titles, several songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show that are fun to belt out. This is also a great way to get my energy up without drinking caffeine, which isn’t good for your vocal cords.
I also learned a basic type of “trans-Atlantic” stage speaking that sounds very formal. I use it for the stories and poems to give them an extra dramatic effect and to make the words clearly enunciated for the audience. Though, I can only sustain it for the parts of the performance that are fully memorized. When I talk about Poe’s life and legacy or do the Q&A, I drop back into a more normal speaking tone because I have to focus on all the dates and trivia rattling around in my skull.
There is one existing account of Poe that described him as speaking with a soft, educated, Southern accent; which matches his upbringing in Virginia. From his letters, I feel that he was likely introverted and uncomfortable speaking in public. On the other hand, I’m very extroverted, and my natural accent is an Appalachian twang that I’ve worked to soften over the years. So, I know I’m not playing Poe historically accurately, but I’m playing a character based on Poe that is entertaining, engaging, and sneakily educational.
HMTL: Why the fascination with Poe for you? Why are we still fascinated by him today as a culture?
CH: I can still remember reading The Tell-Tale Heart in 5th grade. It probably was a shortened version of his story, but I remember the illustration so vividly of the chopped-up body parts under the floor and the beating heart. It stuck with me to this day. Much later, I became familiar with the pop-culture legend that most people know. It wasn’t until I was going to audition to play Poe that I did my research and learned the enormous impact he had on American literature, world literature, and culture. He was internationally famous at a time when people honestly thought that America couldn’t produce literature or art because the country was too young and made up of all these immigrants with no common culture. Poe created entirely new genres of literature and some of the best-known poems in the world, all before dying at only 40 years old.
Today, he still holds our imagination because his works speak to us on a deeply human level. He took some of the worst aspects of life: grief, obsession, betrayal, anger, anxiety, and fear; and turned them into art. He didn’t shy away from the darkness of human experience; he embraced it, delved into the darkness, and came out the other side with stories and poems that are both entertaining and profound.
HMTL: Are you a fan of horror as a genre beyond the work of Poe? What are some of your favorite horror media?
CH: I’m a huge horror fan. I love horror stories, horror movies, and live theater experiences like haunted attractions, escape rooms, and weird immersive art experiences. My favorite contemporary horror authors are Thomas Ligotti and Ramsey Campbell. My favorite movie is Kubrick’s The Shining. I’m lucky that my husband is just as into horror as I am. Otherwise, it would be a lot harder to pick what to watch in the evenings.
HMTL: Have you tried performing any other characters?
CH: I’ve devoted so much work to researching Poe that I’ve not been interested (or had the time) to develop any other character at the same level. I do, however, have a bunch of other horror characters that I made during my haunt performing days. Prior to Covid, I would pull out my other costumes for local comic/anime/horror cons for fun. I hope to get back to doing that again.
HMTL: Do you have any upcoming events you would like to share with our readers?
CH: Sure! I perform regularly in the autumn months, mostly in New England but sometimes around the country. All my upcoming events are on my website. The next event that I’m very excited about is the Haunters Against Hate convention in Kentucky, July 8-10, benefitting LGBTQ+ youth organizations.
Want to learn more about Campbell Harmon, Poe Performer?
If you want to learn more about Campbell’s performances, visit his official website for bookings and reviews. Campbell can also be found on social media via Twitter and Instagram, including all sorts of fun horror content.
Want more Edgar Allan Poe? (Sponsored)
Want to add to your library? Consider using our sponsored link to purchase a complete collection of the works of Edgar Allan Poe.