The Fall of the House of Usher: Edgar Allan Poe References Explained

Mike Flanagan's latest horror series for Netflix draws from the prolific, spooky works of Edgar Allan Poe. Here's how.

Carla Gugino in The Fall of the House of Usher.
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for The Fall of the House of Usher.

To say there’s a lot going on in The Fall of the House of Usher is to put it lightly. This Netflix title is…

– The latest (and likely final) spooky Netflix series from horror maestro Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Midnight Mass) before he moves on to his new overall deal at Amazon.
– A deeply angry allegory about the human wreckage wrought from the opioid crisis.
– An adaption of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
– An Easter egg and reference bonanza of the rest of the Gothic literature titan’s classic works.

While all of those elements are of equal importance, it’s the Poe aspects that really shine through. Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher may just be the most effusive love letter to America’s spooky uncle that has ever been penned. Every episode of the series takes its title and concept from a different one of Poe’s many stories and funnels them through a modern lens. Some adaptations are close to 1:1 comparison while others a little more abstract. But all of them have real love for the “Raven” writer.

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The Fall of the House of Usher has Poe Easter eggs and references for experts and neophytes alike. With that in mind, we’ve decided to put together a little primer on what the show references, how it does so, and where you can learn more.

Since each episode of Usher follows a different Poe work, we’ve broken things up into episodic entries below. But be aware that the Poe shoutouts in each episode aren’t isolated to only the short story, poem, or novella that the respective episode’s named after. As such, we’ll open each entry with the broader view of what that particular Poe work is all about and then be sure to mention the other Poe Easter eggs and references in turn.

The Fall of the House of Usher Character Names

Surprise! We’re actually not going to start with episode 1. Instead, let’s begin with a rundown of every major character from The Fall of the House of Usher and where their name comes from within Edgar Allan Poe’s catalog.

Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood and Zach Gilford) – The lead character from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Madeline Usher (Mary McDonnell and Willa Fitzgerald) – Roderick’s twin sister in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Verna (Carla Gugino) – The name “Verna” doesn’t have an obvious analogue in the works of Poe but “Verna” probably isn’t this likely demon’s real name anyway. She’s akin to the infernal spirit of Poe’s writing brought to life … often in the form of a raven, naturally. And sure enough, “Verna” is an anagram of “Raven.”
Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill) – The name of the Ushers’ lawyer comes from the only completed novel on Poe’s resume: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Frederick Usher (Henry Thomas) – Though the rest of the Usher children like to joke that Roderick named his first son Frederick because it sounds like “Roderick,” the name actually comes from Poe’s first-ever published work: “Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German.” The lead character there, Frederick, carries on a long-standing feud with a rival family.
Tamerlane Usher (Samantha Sloyan)“Tamerlane” is the name of a Poe poem (a “Poe-m” if you will) about a Turco-Mongol conqueror.
Victorine LaFourcade (T’Nia Miller) – Victorine LaFourcade is a victim mentioned by the narrator in “The Premature Burial,” which is about…you guessed it! Seriously, no fewer than four other major Poe stories deal with the fear of being buried alive.
Napoleon “Leo” Usher (Rahul Kohli) – The name “Napoleon” likely comes from the character Napoleon Bonaparte Froissart in “The Spectacles,” one of Poe’s few comedic short stories.
Camille L’Espanaye (Kate Siegel) – The name “Camille L’Espanaye” comes directly from the tale that inspires the episode she headlines: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In that short story, two women are murdered: Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter Camille.
Prospero “Perry” Usher (Sauriyan Sapkota) – Like his older sister Camille, Prospero actually gets to “star” in an episode named after his character. Prince Prospero comes directly from “The Masque of the Red Death.”
C. August Dupin (Carl Lumbly) – The detective C. August Dupin is Poe’s version of Sherlock Holmes (who actually partly inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation), first appearing in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and then again in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” and “The Purloined Letter.”
Rufus Griswold (Michael Trucco) – Rufus Wilmot Griswold was a real life critic, anthologist, and editor who was also Poe’s biggest hater. Despite publishing some of Poe’s work in his anthology, after the author’s death, Griswold waged a campaign against his place in the American classic canon. He was unsuccessful in this…and also a dick.
Annabel Lee (Katie Parker) – Roderick’s first wife is named after one of Poe’s most well-known (and my personal favorite) poems called “Annabel Lee.” It’s about a dead lady obviously.
William “Bill-T” Wilson (Matt Biedel) – Even the Ushers’ spouses have Poe-related names! Bill Wilson undoubtedly comes from the short story “William Wilson,” which is fittingly about a doppelgänger.
Morelle Usher (Crystal Balint) – The name “Morelle” comes from Poe’s short story “Morella,” about a woman with an unusual relationship with her daughter.
Lenore (Kyliegh Curran) – Roderick Usher’s beloved granddaughter is named after the narrator’s own missing beloved Lenore in “The Raven.”
Eliza Usher (Annabeth Gish) – Roderick and Madeline’s mother is named after Poe’s mother Eliza Poe and also maybe his 13-year-old cousin-wife (yes, really) Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe.
Mr. Longfellow (Robert Longstreet) – The name of the original Fortunato Pharma CEO is likely a reference to real life poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who Poe had a long-standing beef with.

Episode 1: A Midnight Dreary

The first episode of The Fall of the House of Usher is not named after a specific Poe work but rather a phrase within a Poe work. The opening line of Poe’s most iconic poem “The Raven,” begins “Once upon a midnight dreary.” Honing in on the “midnight dreary” portion of that is a perfect tonesetter for Usher to set up the dreary events to come. Since we’ll be dissecting “The Raven” later on in this piece, let’s use this opportunity to talk about “The Fall of the House of Usher” itself instead.

First published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is considered a major part of the Poe canon and a sound example of his American Gothic style. The short story follows an unnamed narrator who is visiting the literally crumbling home of his friend Roderick Usher at the ill Usher’s request. Upon arriving, the narrator finds that both the metaphorical House of Usher and the literal house of Usher are in bad shape. Likely affected by years of inbreeding, all that remains of the dynastic Usher family are Roderick and his equally sickly twin sister Madeline.

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Netflix borrows Roderick and Madeline and their uncomfortably close relationship for The Fall of the House of Usher in addition to their desolate childhood home. The story’s themes of madness, decadence, and even live burial all carry over to the show as well.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

– The Usher siblings accidental live burial of their mother is a distinctly Poe trope. Concerns over being buried alive were actually quite legitimate and widespread in the 19th century where medical science wasn’t always adept at identifying actual biological death.

– Young Roderick (Zach Gilford) and Madeline (Willa Fitzgerald) are dressed as The Great Gatsby‘s Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan at their New Year’s Eve party. Between that and their sharing of a childhood bed, The Fall of the House of Usher implies an incestuous connection much like the short story does.

– This episode concludes with the adult Roderick being haunted by a vision of The Raven and a spooky jester. You already know where the Raven comes from but what about the spooky jester? That specter is undoubtedly the Hop-Frog, referring to an 1849 short story of the same name about a Medieval jester taking revenge on a king and his cabinet.

– Lenore calls her grandfather Roderick “Grampus,” which is the name of the boat that Arthur Pym stows away on in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

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– Fortunato Pharmaceuticals is named after the character of “Fortunato” in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

– Ligodone, the name of Fortunato’s dangerous opioid, may derive from the Poe shorty story “Ligeia” about a mysterious raven-haired woman.

Episode 2: The Masque of the Red Death

The Fall of the House of Usher‘s real mission becomes crystal clear in its second episode. This show is going to make you remember what you forgot from your freshman English class or die trying. The first attempt comes with “The Masque of the Red Death.” First published in 1842, this Poe short story is an absolute banger. It tells the tale of a man named Prince Prospero hosting a masquerade ball in his abbey to avoid a plague known as “The Red Death” waging outside.

Someone turns up to the party wearing a mask representing the Red Death, which is not just in poor taste but is also an omen for what’s to come. As you might imagine, this tale became particularly popular again in recent years. Netflix’s version doesn’t deal with a plague but someone wearing a red mask still kills a lot of folks at Prospero’s ball/orgy all the same.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

– Young Roderick recites much of the actual “Annabel Lee” poem to his wife Annabel Lee. Apparently it’s something he just made up on his own.

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– Here we also learn the name of the lab known as Roderick Usher Experiment or the “RUE Morgue,” which will factor in one episode later.

Episode 3: Murder in the Rue Morgue 

If you watched episode 3 and thought to yourself “surely Kate Siegel being torn apart by a chimpanzee is a Mike Flanagan original concept and not from Edgar Allan Poe,” you’d be wrong. Poe, for all his Gothic darkness, does indeed have a sense of humor – albeit a macabre one. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Described as the “first modern detective story,” Poe’s tale picks up with C. August Dupin as he investigates two murders at the titular morgue. Since Dupin is not a traditionally trained detective but rather an abstract thinker, he is able to deduce the ludicrous and unlikely nature of the murders before anyone else. The show’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” doesn’t have many of the detective elements that made its original inspiration a timeless text but it does have a murderous ape all the same.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

– Verna’s name tag at Rue Morgue reads “Le Bon.” Adolphe Le Bon is the man wrongly accused of the murders in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Episode 4: The Black Cat

The narrators in Poe’s stories are real sickos. Case in point is the unnamed narrator in “The Black Cat” who loves his kitties so much he just has to abuse them. His favorite is a black cat whose eyeball he plucks out and then hangs from a tree. His house then burns down, leaving only a burned outline of a cat in a noose behind. More pet violence follows.

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The Black Cat is another major Poe classic with horror titans Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi even starring in a notable 1934 film adaptation of it. The Fall of the House of Usher‘s version of the tale finds Leo Usher going through many of the same beats as the guilt-ridden narrator of the original up to and including cat eyeball violence.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

– This is not a Poe Easter egg but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least shout out Leo smashing his home’s walls with Chris Hemsworth’s own Mjolnir.

Episode 5: The Tell-Tale Heart

Aside from “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” might be the best known Poe work. Published in 1843, this short story follows yet another unnamed narrator as he experiences profound guilt over killing an old man because of his “vulture-like” judgmental eye. This man, like almost all Poe protagonists, is insane … despite opening the story by assuring the reader he is not.

As the man grapples with his monstrous act he begins to hear the tell-tale sound of the old man’s heart beating under the floorboard, threatening to reveal the body’s location. Obviously, The Fall of the House of Usher borrows this bit for the episode. Ingeniously, however, Victorine doesn’t hear the actual heart of her victim but the mechanical whir of the artificial heart they created. This episode has the gnarliest ending of any Usher episode by far and is probably the best retelling of the story it’s inspired by.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

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– We didn’t find much else of note in this aside from the stuffed raven visible in Verna’s bar.

Episode 6: Goldbug

The Fall of the House of Usher‘s “Goldbug” doesn’t have much in common with Poe’s version but there are some similar themes to glean from both. Poe’s 1843 short story “The Gold-Bug” follows William Legrand, who becomes fixated on a scarab-like golden bug. Having lost his family fortune, William is convinced that the gold bug holds the literal map to treasure that will win it all back.

Tamerlane Usher hasn’t lost all of her fortune yet but by the time her episode rolls around, four of her siblings are dead and the Fortunato Pharma empire suddenly looks to be on shaky ground. Her Goop-esque lifestyle brand Goldbug will surely fix everything though.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

– Roderick makes mention of having dinner with a board member named Richard Parker to secure his vote. Richard Parker is the name of a young boy in Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket who is eaten by his shipmates when their whaling ship gets lost at sea. In one of history’s strangest coincidences, a real life 17-year-old boy named Richard Parker was also eaten by his shipmates in 1884 (more than 40 years after Poe’s novel was published) after their yacht sunk and they were set adrift. Yes, that really happened!

– Roderick recites part of the poem “A Dream Within a Dream” to Lenore.

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– The phrase “Ultima Thule” is mentioned in this episode, which is Latin for “ultimate limits” as in “the farthest something can go.” Poe uses the phrase in his poem “Dream-Land.” Later, the most infamous daguerreotype (a type of primitive photograph) taken of Poe would be referred to as Ultima Thule by its creator Sarah Helen Whitman. The image was captured at arguably the lowest point of Poe’s life. He had just attempted suicide after Whitman (yes, the lady taking the photo) had rejected his marriage proposal.

– The titular William Wilson is also surprised by his own reflection in a looking glass in Poe’s “William Wilson.”

Episode 7: The Pit and the Pendulum

“The Pit and the Pendulum” is one of the most direct and to-the-point experiences that Poe has to offer. In the 1842 short story, an unnamed narrator is brought before the Spanish Inquisition to answer for unspecified crimes. After he is condemned to death, he faints and wakes up in what can only be described as a torture chamber. In the center of his cell is a bottomless pit. Above him is a blade on a pendulum, swinging back and forth and descending ever closer.

The setup for Usher‘s “Pit and the Pendulum” is a bit more complex than that but ultimately it ends up the same way. Thanks to the intervention of Verna, Frederick finds himself immobile in a collapsing factory while a piece of jagged debris swings back and forth above him.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

– There is some fun foreshadowing in this one for those who know what “pit and the pendulum” refers to. The episode is rife with approximations of pendulums, including a Felix the Cat clock swinging its plastic tail around ominously.

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– Verna reveals here that Roderick was destined to be a poet before setting down the path of selfishness. Given that he wrote “Annabel Lee” for his wife, perhaps he would have been this world’s Edgar Allan Poe.

Episode 8: The Raven

Of course, The Fall of the House of Usher saves the best for last. “The Raven” is Poe’s most well-known work and is widely regarded as one of his crowning achievements for good reason. This epic poem is the perfect spooky season companion. It recounts the lonely and grim thoughts of a man languishing in a silent room as he mourns the loss of his dear Lenore. Then a raven turns up to mock his human frailty and confirm that he’ll see his love “nevermore.”

While “The Raven” doesn’t have a plot, per se, it does roughly recount one very bad night and The Fall of the House of Usher has Roderick recite the poem as he goes through a very bad night of his own. The enormity of his deal with Verna has finally hit him. The House of Usher is soon to be wiped out. Even Lenore is gone. All that’s left is to pay Madeline a visit at their childhood home.

Other Poe Easter eggs from this episode include…

– While this episode is called “The Raven,” it could just as easily be called “The Cask of Amontillado” as well as the first half of this finale is very clearly inspired by that 1846 Poe work. That story sees a man named Montresor inviting his friend Fortunato to his family vault to try his cask of amontillado (a type of Spanish sherry). While in the vault, Montresor imprisons Fortunato and leaves him in the catacombs to rot. Roderick and Madeline do pretty much the same thing to their enemy Rufus, right down to the amontillado.

– Speaking of Rufus, it turns out Roderick has been haunted by the “Hop-Frog” because Rufus wore a jester outfit for that New Year’s Eve night revelry.

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– When speaking to Verna, Arthur Pym talks about the Transglobe Expedition he embarked on, which are pretty much just the events of the Poe novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

– Roderick becomes obsessed with preserving his sister like an Egyptian queen … so like a mummy. Naturally, there’s an Edgar Allan Poe angle here as Poe’s 1845 “Some Words with a Mummy” is believed to be one of the first depictions of a revived Egyptian mummy.

– The poem that Verna recites to end the series is “Spirits of the Dead.”

All eight episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher are available to stream on Netflix now.