Tuesday, July 31, 2012
"The Premature Burial" Published 1844
"The Premature Burial" is a horror short story on the theme of being buried alive, written by Edgar Allan Poe and published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Fear of being buried alive was common in this period and Poe was taking advantage of the public interest.
In "The Premature Burial," the first-person unnamed narrator describes his struggle with "attacks of the singular disorder which physicians have agreed to term catalepsy," a condition where he randomly falls into a death-like trance. This leads to his fear of being buried alive ("The true wretchedness," he says, is "to be buried while alive."). He emphasizes his fear by mentioning several people who have been buried alive. In the first case, the tragic accident was only discovered much later, when the victim's crypt was reopened. In others, victims revived and were able to draw attention to themselves in time to be freed from their ghastly prisons.
The narrator reviews these examples in order to provide context for his nearly crippling phobia of being buried alive. As he explains, his condition made him prone to slipping into a trance state of unconsciousness, a disease that grew progressively worse over time. He became obsessed with the idea that he would fall into such a state while away from home, and that his state would be mistaken for death. He extracts promises from his friends that they will not bury him prematurely, refuses to leave his home, and builds an elaborate tomb with equipment allowing him to signal for help in case he should awaken after "death."
The story culminates when the narrator awakens in pitch darkness in a confined area - he has been buried alive, and all his precautions were to no avail. He cries out and is immediately hushed; he realizes that he is in the berth of a small boat, not a grave. The event shocks him out of his obsession with death.
Fear of burial alive was deeply rooted in Western culture in the nineteenth century, and Poe was taking advantage of the public's fascination with it. Hundreds of cases were reported in which doctors mistakenly pronounced people dead. In this period, coffins occasionally were equipped with emergency devices to allow the "corpse" to call for help, should he or she turn out to be still living. It was such a strong concern, Victorians even organized a Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive. Belief in the vampire, an animated corpse that remains in its grave by day and emerges to prey on the living at night, has sometimes been attributed to premature burial. Folklorist Paul Barber has argued that the incidence of burial alive has been overestimated, and that the normal effects of decomposition are mistaken for signs of life. The story emphasizes this fascination by having the narrator state that truth can be more terrifying than fiction, then reciting actual cases in order to convince the reader to believe the main story.
The narrator in "The Premature Burial" is living a hollow life. He has avoided reality through his catalepsy but also through his fantasies, visions, and obsession with death. He does, however, reform—but only after his greatest fear has been realized.
Burial while alive in other Poe works
"The Cask of Amontillado"
"The Fall of the House of Usher"
The Premature Burial is a 1962 film starring Ray Milland and Hazel Court and directed by Roger Corman. A novelization of the film was written by Max Hallan Danne in 1962 adapted from Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell's screenplay and published by Lancer Books in paperback.
The film Nightmares from the Mind of Poe (2006) includes "The Premature Burial" along with "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Raven."
"Premature Burial," a song on Siouxsie and the Banshees 1979 album, Join Hands, is based loosely on Poe's story.
Jan Švankmajer's 2005 Lunacy is based on "The Premature Burial" and "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" (also by Poe).
The Fred Olen Ray film Haunting Fear (1991) starring Brinke Stevens is loosely based on "The Premature Burial." The onscreen credits actually call the movie "Edgar Allan Poe's Haunting Fear" despite significant differences with the Poe story, including being set in the present day, the main character being female, and ending with her being intentionally put inside a coffin with the purpose of scaring her to death.
1.^ Meyers, Jeffrey: Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 156.
2.^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. p. 58-9
3.^ Premature burial in the 19th century
4.^ Meyers, Jeffrey: Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 156.
5.^ Premature burial in the 19th century
6.^ Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. Yale University Press, 1988.
7.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0801857309 p. 418
8.^ Selley, April. "Poe and the Will" as collected in Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, edited by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, Inc., 1990. p. 96 ISBN 0961644923