Halloween gathering at Westminster Hall raises spirit of Poe, and some cash

A gal with a meat cleaver embedded in her head. A living skeleton. Lots of witches, with pointy hats and long noses. And plenty of guys dressed like your host for the evening, the estimable author and, though dead for 162 years, favorite son of old Baltimore, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.

Such was the scene Sunday night at the Westminster Hall and Burying Grounds. Hundreds gathered to tour the centuries-old cemetery and catacombs, be entertained by one of its most famous residents — that would be Poe, buried here after dying in Baltimore under still-unexplained circumstances in 1849 — and, not coincidentally, do their part to help the home he once lived in remain open as a museum and tourist attraction.

"I'm a devoted Poe-er, I guess," said Regina DeSimone of Hampden, who has made a habit of showing up at Westminster for the annual Halloween celebration. "It's the best place to spend Halloween."

Indeed, touring the catacombs and burial grounds, which date to 1786, has become a Baltimore tradition in itself. Normally, the Halloween festivities are a major fundraiser for Westminster Hall, but this year, all proceeds from the tours will be put toward the operation of the nearby Poe House and Museum. It has faced the possibility of closing since the city withdrew its financial support last year. A consulting firm is studying ways the home could be made profitable; its report is expected early next year.

Visitors Sunday night, many of whom had to wait up to an hour to get in, paid $10 apiece to be treated to dramatic readings of stories and poems by Poe and other authors well-versed in the macabre. They included H.P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker, whose "Dracula" may never have existed, had Poe not helped establish horror as a legitimate literary genre.

Once outside Westminster Hall, a converted church now rented out for parties, receptions and other occasions, visitors could tour the cemetery, listen to more readings and step warily into the catacombs, formed when the church was built over top of the old burial ground.

"Oh, this is so awesome," said college student Laura Scott of Dundalk, who was there with her twin sister, Liz. Both were dressed as ghostbusters — not exactly appropriate, perhaps, for an evening in which ghosts were to be celebrated, rather than eliminated. But none of the assembled spirits seemed to mind.

"Yeah, we absolutely love coming down to Westminster Hall," said Liz Scott, noting they would have come down anyway, but helping the Poe House stay open was a happy bonus. "The Poe House closing — that would be a really sad loss for the city of Baltimore."

"It's sad that they can't find the money," agreed Todd Welsh, who stood across from the Westminster Hall stage, dressed in cadaverous black. "They called their football team after one of his poems, but they can't afford to spend just a little bit of money to keep the house open?"

Even with the Poe House's troubles looming large over the night, the mood throughout the evening proved gloomily celebratory – perfect for a Halloween celebration. Over in a corner of the cemetery, Jane Horsman kept snapping away at the cemetery's eerily lit tombstones, glad for the chance to practice her nighttime photography skills. Eight-year-old Wilson Siegel swept his way through the catacombs, doing his best zombie impersonation and impatiently waiting for his 7-year-old sister, Cassidy, to catch up. And Steven Olaguer, 21, said he was thankful his mother persuaded him to make the trip.

"It was entertaining, educational and even a little spooky," he allowed.

As for the man of the hour himself? "The people have been wonderfully supportive," said Poe (actually actor Mark S. Sanders, but let's not ruin the mood), standing next to the marble-and-granite monument erected over his grave in 1875 and posing for yet another camera-wielding fan. "And they take so many images of me with these wonderful magic boxes."


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