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Edgar Allan Poe is uniting all your 2016 social phobias in one surprisingly durable meme

1935 Illustration of “The Cask of Amontillado” by Arthur Rackham
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Sometimes the cultural zeitgeist manifests itself in strange ways — for instance, through quirky internet memes, an obsession with nostalgia, or a preoccupation with weird and creepy legends of yore. On Tumblr, recent pop-culture trends have yielded one of the year’s funniest and most random internet memes: a celebration of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Tumblr denizens are using the short story to comment on everything from the current US election to scary clowns — and Poe’s famous vengeance tale is proving to have more contemporary relevance than you might think.

Tumblr users have updated Poe’s vengeance story to hilarious effect

If you need a refresher, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” the narrator, Montresor, harbors a longstanding and mysterious grudge against his friend, the clownish Fortunato (who spends the entire story dressed in a jester’s cap and costume). Montresor vows revenge, then carries it out during the madness of the Carnival season. He invites a very drunk Fortunato to sample his fine wine, a vintage amontillado, located in the family catacombs. He then chains Fortunato to a wall and then painstakingly seals him off, alive, in one of the tombs, while Fortunato slowly sobers up and realizes what’s happening. It’s a chilling story that’s had immense cultural staying power and has been referenced in everything from The Simpsons to video games.

Tumblr users have been focused on the strange dynamic between the narrator and his best friend, as well as the hilarious anachronistic humor of the idea of luring someone down to your wine cellar:

There are the usual crossovers and fusions with other memes.

At times, as the best memes often do, it takes on a touch of the absurdist.

As we can see, Poe’s story still speaks to fans today. But if you’re thinking this all seems pretty random, think again.

“The Cask of Amontillado” might seem an unlikely meme, but it typifies Tumblr culture

So how did a famous short story, one you probably read in 8th or 9th grade and haven’t thought much about since, go viral on the internet?

Partly, it’s the season. Tumblr culture proactively celebrates Halloween, so much that the partying usually starts in September. Gothic, bloody, and teeming with supernatural elements, Poe’s stories are perennial Halloween favorites, so it makes sense that one of them would end up in a Tumblr meme during October.

But why did this particular Poe story catch Tumblr’s fancy this year?

It sometimes takes very little to grab the attention of Tumblr users. In this case, all it took was one savvy call-out and response:

To understand why this post works, it helps to know that Tumblr’s site design makes reblogging text posts with your own commentary a prominent part of the site. Consequently, these kinds of call-and-response reblogs are a huge part of Tumblr culture. Popularlesbian’s original text post was a clever use of a kind of Tumblr-speak that involves hyperbolic self-deprecation — comically exaggerating your worst character traits. On Tumblr, you don’t just obsess over past wrongs, you go full Amontillado.

If the post had just existed on its own, however, it likely would have died out. It took hamburgertrouser’s response to elevate the post into truly meme-able territory — propelling the original post to over 30,000 notes in a little under a week and putting it on enough people’s radar to make the meme take off.

Let’s look at what the response does:

  • It demonstrates that the plot of Poe’s famous story is a part of Tumblr’s collective knowledge base — that is, it represents one book nerd speaking to another book nerd.
  • It takes a classic literary trope or plot and updates it using modern language and humor. This is a technique that’s a huge part of meme generation on Tumblr, where ironic hyperbole and modern twists on history and classical literature are a big element of the common vernacular.
  • It makes two characters out of a completely bygone era feel fresh and relatable. No one among Tumblr’s mostly millennial demographic has ever led their drunk friend down to the family catacombs, but we’ve all either been the slightly silly drunk friend, or been the slightly evil (or mostly evil) friend who can’t resist mocking them for it.

In other words, the meme exemplifies a big chunk of Tumblr culture: the nerdy nature of the interaction, the ironic self-deprecation of both parties, the classic call-and-response that turns a random literary reference into a communal event. These are all hallmarks of Tumblr community, and it was enough to put the meme on everyone’s mind.

Like many memes, this one might have something to do with larger cultural anxiety — and the prospect of literal wall-building

Turning Montresor and Fortunato into a couple of bros makes the entire scenario feel funnier and less deadly — which could be an outlet for larger cultural fears. A great many of the meme’s iterations have been Trump-related.

With the potential leader of the US openly discussing building a real-world wall to keep out people he doesn’t like, Poe’s short story feels less metaphorical and more, well, literal. Tumblr users aren’t even the first to make the comparison between Trump’s wall and Montresor’s wall. Once you’ve thought of it, the jokes write themselves.

Another aspect of the timing that many meme-makers have pointed out: Poe’s narrator takes his revenge out on a man dressed as a clown. Boy, does that sound eerily familiar of late!

One Tumblr user, self-professed high school English teacher moriahbord, wrote a meme explainer which noted both of these timely coincidences — along with the fact that October is likely Poe season in many classrooms like her own.

“I know the meme hivemind can adapt pretty much anything, but you’d think a Gothic short story written in the 1800s would be more of a challenge,” she mused — but knowing how much Tumblr nerds love a good challenge, we suspect she was being just a bit ironic herself.

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