Apparently, reading Edgar Allen Poe stories in Alexandria’s haunted Athenaeum wasn’t creepy enough, so the Guillotine Theater upped the ante. Their next reading, which focused on Poe’s stories about being buried alive, was hosted inside a crypt of Alexandria’s Ivy Hill Cemetery.
The Guillotine Theatre, formerly the Georgetown Theatre Company, teamed up with the Ivy Hill Cemetery to present an evening of poetry and short stories by American poet Edgar Allen Poe last weekend. The actors performed readings of Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat, Berenice, The Premature Burial, and The Raven. All of these, except for the Raven, dealt heavily with themes of being walled up and buried alive.
“There’s something special about the way people’s eyes linger on the walls when [Fortunato] is sealed in during Cask of Amontillado,” said Catherine Aselford, director of the Guillotine Theatre
Ivy Hill Cemetery’s receiving vault, or The Vault, is one of the facility’s two oldest buildings. The Vault and the caretaker office were both built in the late 1850s when the cemetery was established by local farm owner Hugh Charles Smith. Smith and his family were some of the cemetery’s first inhabitants and, as far as anyone knows, are still buried there.
The receiving vault’s original purpose was to house bodies during the winter months, when the ground was too cold to bury them. With more modern grave digging techniques, the facility’s traditional use gave way to becoming a storage shed for the cemetery groundskeepers.
“My entire life I walked by this door, when it was only two inches open, and my father used to tell me a big old troll lived in here. I was terrified,” said Lucy Burke Goddin, president of the Ivy Hill Cemetery Historical Preservation Society. “Come to find out; it was just a bunch of dead bodies, so that’s OK.”
The building was recently cleared out of the junk that had accumulated over the years and passed a city inspection saying it was still safe and usable as an event space. Since its restoration, the Vault has been a part of numerous events, including a gathering of Alexandria’s Victorian Society to discuss mourning practices, a lecture on medical practices during the Civil War, and a séance with a local medium.
“My job, my mission, is to preserve, protect, and promote the history of Ivy Hill,” said Goddin. She said her model for event hosting etiquette at a cemetery is the Congressional Cemetery. “We’re not losing respect [for the interred], we’re attracting audiences from a broad spectrum to support the cemetery.”
But poetry readings and psychic mediums are about as wild as events at the cemetery will get. Goddin specifically drew the line at animal sacrifice.
“We’re trying not to get too ridiculous,” said Goddin. “In the past, people would be discouraged from walking around, or walking their dog. Just be respectful. If you see a funeral or someone grieving, walk the other way. Enjoy it, be respectful. It’s one of the largest green spaces in Alexandria.”
Retta Hall, whose husband is buried at the cemetery, attended the Poe reading and the psychic reading.
“It was excellent,” said Hall. “[Goddin] does some really great stuff here.”