IT IS NIGHT in the Poe House. Shadows flicker eerily on the walls of the small room where a disturbed young man is telling a spellbound audience his reason for committing a horrifying crime.
Dressed impeccably in the fashion of 1843 Baltimore, he relates with chilling calm how he killed and dismembered the old man and buried his parts beneath the floor boards. "It was not for his gold," he whispers. "It was his evil eye!"
Suddenly he grows pale. He seems to hear a sound not apparent to any other. His eyes roll crazily around in his head and a mad grin creeps over his distorted features.
"The noise is growing louder and louder," he cries. Falling on his knees, he scratches frantically at the floor. "Villains," he shrieks. "I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! It is the beating of his hideous heart!"
The staging of "The Tell Tale Heart," Edgar Allan Poe's tale of murder undone by an all-consuming guilt, is the highlight of the annual Halloween program being performed this weekend at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.
Professional actor and mime Don Mullins is enacting the classic story and will interpret the author's dark tome, "The Raven." Mullins will also offer readings of the tragic poem "Annabel Lee" and the morbid "Alone."
"All the pieces retain a mystical, melancholy flavor, which is perfect for this time of year, when the dead walk the Earth," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House. "Don gives a haunting performance."
Jerome, who adapted "The Tell Tale Heart" for the stage and directed the whole works, and actor Mullins were discussing the Halloween presentation at the tiny, four and one-half room house where Poe lived during his West Point days.
"I always feel the spirit of Poe here," said Jerome, "although he didn't die in this house. His grandmother did," he noted.
The performance will take place in an upstairs bedroom that measures only 8 by 13 feet with an eight-foot ceiling.
"Surprisingly, we can get about 30 people in the room," said Jerome. "Don first enacted the story last year and the whole effect was really spooky."
The actor has a five-foot area to play in and he will be just two feet away from the audience. "It is intimate," he said. "But I maintain eye contact with the onlookers. It adds to the creepy ambience."
The character in Poe's short story is nameless and without reference to gender. "It can be man or woman," said Mullins. "In my portrayal a man is trying to convince his listeners he is not mad. But he proves his insanity by trying to prove his sanity. That is the challenge," he added, "walking that fine line."
"Being a mime helped Don develop his role," observed Jerome. "Every hand and head movement, every part of his body is orchestrated for effect."
"As an actor I focus on the feeling of the situation . . . the feelings of the character in so many different ways," said Mullins," who lives in Westminster.
"I start out low key, not foaming and raving. You realize later he is demented by his logic and his gestures. The veiled eye on the old man drives him over the edge of paranoia."
"The old man probably had a cataract," said Jerome. "In those days superstition was a big part of life. Even today people are afraid of the so-called 'evil eye.' "
"Guilt added to the madness," said Mullins. "The younger man was crazy to begin with. He would put his ear to the wall to listen to the death watches clicking."
"They are little bugs," Jerome explained. "He thinks he hears the old man's heartbeat even after death. When Don as the character becomes wildly unhinged the audience gets very nervous. They don't want to mingle with him on the house tour after the show."
"I never break character," said Mullins. "I want the magic to continue."
Walking over to a desk where an ominous looking stuffed raven sat glaring into space, Mullins said, "Poe's 'The Raven' is a symbol of evil and foreboding. The man in the poem is lamenting a lost love and a lost youth when this bird lands on his chamber door."
"And despite angry orders to be gone, the raven leaves . . . nevermore!" said Jerome.
"In a sense the raven is Life . . . Fate," said Mullins, holding the bird aloft. "You can't tell Fate to get out."
Curtain times Saturday and Sunday are 12:15 p.m., 1:15 p.m., 2:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. at the Poe House, 203 N. Amity St. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children 12 and under. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Call 396-0549 for a recorded message.