Images of the undead hark back to times in our development, he says, when the boundaries between life and death were less rigid. Before the Enlightenment standardised methods of thinking about mortality in ways based on principles of scientific rationality rather than benighted superstition, it was a common belief that death was not necessarily the end of one’s worldly affairs. For instance, “the concept of the vengeful ghost was so ingrained in popular belief,” notes Owen Davies, “that it was thought that the living could determine to haunt someone after death as an act of malice or retribution.”
In 1609, one woman reported how a man had threatened to “kill himself and when he was dead his ghost should tear her in pieces.” From the early nineteenth-century onwards, however, it was more commonly understood that there was no such coming back from the dead; if one could be sure of anything in life, it was that death was absolutely final. Yet in images of live burial, the deceased figuratively and literally rise up; their graves stand tenantless and the sheeted dead creep uncannily across the boundaries between this world and the next. The concept of live burial is thus paradigmatic of a connection between worlds that should remain separate. It is a symbol of trespass — signifying that what “ought to have remained secret and hidden has come to light.”
This article aims to suggest that, throughout the nineteenth-century, live burial was paradigmatic of unexpected movements and unwelcome forms of understanding. The idea of being buried alive emerged as a ghastly emblem of knowing — truly knowing — what it was to be beleaguered, victimised, and terrified. What is more, the notion of premature interment, symbolic of movement between disconnected forms, flitted between Gothic and medical literature throughout this period. The resulting exchange of ideas and imagery allowed taphephobia, the fear of premature burial, to emerge as a diagnostic label in the 1890s.
This is a story that begins with the first-wave Gothic literature of the late eighteenth-century. Literary scholarship has noted how this literary formation, like no genre predating it, developed methods of outlining, in full and spine-tingling detail, how characters feel when faced with something terrible — particularly imprisonment or finding themselves face-to-face with the undead.
Ann Radcliffe, that most famous exponent of the Gothic style, believed Edmund Burke’s famous theory that terror produced “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” and therefore chose to privilege, in her novels, the feelings and experiences of characters undergoing frightening encounters or moments of unpleasant realisation. In one of the scenes from ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794), for instance, Emily D’Aubert notices that she has been locked in a room featuring a sanguinary cadaver and numerous instruments of torture.
What is important about this scene, and Ann Radcliffe’s style in general, is how the character’s realisation of horror and consequent fear is portrayed exactly as it is experienced. The events are narrated sequentially and focalised through Emily D’Aubert’s own observations, via which the reader views the objects of terror as they come into focus. Ann Radcliffe chooses to lead the reader towards the crimson curtain with Emily D’Aubert, supplying no indication of what to expect. The aim is for the reader to feel the same curiosity that the heroine feels, and to share her “apprehension” and “horror” when the corpse, languishing in its blood, is unveiled. The effect Ann Radcliffe’s style produces, then, is a phenomenological portrait of fear: presented in no abstract fashion, horror is understood entirely through the lens of human experience. In her posthumous essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826), Ann Radcliffe observed and admired a similar pattern in William Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy.
Such conjunctions of understanding the fear and experiencing the same are crucial to many narratives of live burial written in Ann Radcliffe’s wake. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844), which will be considered in more detail later, notes that “no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and mental distress, as is burial before death.” Whether by accident or by design, Edgar Allan Poe’s conceptualization of the “supremeness” of terror corresponded with Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime potential of the same. In the ‘Philosophical Enquiry’ (1757), Edmund Burke noted that modes of “obscurity” and “privation,” including spatial (confinement) and visual (darkness) like those experienced during live burial, unlocked sublime levels of fear: “All general privations are great,” he says, “because they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence.” These four abstract nouns strike the keynote of how it must feel to experience premature burial, as Edgar Allan Poe’s story exemplified.
Throughout the nineteenth-century, the fear of premature burial seems to have been ubiquitous. Apprehensions on the subject had been felt for centuries but “hasty mass burials during nineteenth-century cholera epidemics gave rise to this fear. Medical tests for determining death were not always reliable, and for most of the Victorian era, it was widely believed that people might well be buried alive while in a death-like coma or trance.” Such worries were exploited in a short story written by John Galt in 1821. Printed in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and entitled ‘The Buried Alive,’ the text outlines the story of a man mistakenly pronounced dead by medical professionals.
Such events are what taphephobia fear the most: awareness of imminent burial combined with an inability to avoid it; the fear concerns a conflict between the wakefulness of the mind and the slumbers of the body.
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