Taphophobia: The Fear of Being Buried Alive
How many folktales have you heard about someone being buried alive? Have you ever laughed at the idea of people – either fictional or real – going to bed with notes advising whoever might find them to check and see if they are really dead? In the modern world it’s hard to believe, but for a long time taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, was a perfectly legitimate concern.
Taphophobia is taken from the Greek words for grave and fear. As with all phobias, no matter how rare or odd, this fear is still prevalent in some people. However, there is no longer the taphophobia epidemic which swept the world until well into the 19th century.
This fear developed not because of anybody’s irrational thoughts but because this kind of thing actually happened – and quite regularly too. Before modern medicine it was rather difficult to tell whether someone was really dead or not. Taphophobia became a common and understandable mental ailment when more and more exhumations revealed evidence that the person was more than likely buried alive.
There were reports of finding coffin lids disturbed or at least covered in nail marks. Sometimes recently buried bodies would be found covered in blood from self-inflicted wounds. The victim would sometimes even tear his or her own hair out. These reports caused panic as more and more people began to worry that they might one day wake up and find they had been buried alive.
Saved by the Bell
The phrase Saved by the bell is derived from a rather odd invention developed in the hopes of reducing the risk of being buried alive. You would be surprised how many patents have been issued to inventions such as Franz Vester’s coffin:
Known as the Improved Burial Case, this casket had an attached bell with a pull which allowed the occupant to sound the alarm and save his or her life in the event of premature burial. Inventions such as this were known as safety coffins and would include features such as air tubes and even ways of getting food. Windowed caskets can also be considered safety coffins: if the person was still alive his or her breath would eventually fog up the glass.
To a certain extent, wakes and lying in state were also techniques developed to keep someone from accidentally being buried alive. By the time the formalities were done, it would be pretty obvious whether the person was dead or not.
The fear of being buried alive is a common theme in classic horror stories. It is difficult, however, for a modern reader to realize that the thrills and chills we now receive by reading these tales were caused by authors exploiting the public’s fears and making money off of what they knew would sell.
For example, in 1832 Scottish writer James Hogg (1770-1835) published a short story titled Some Terrible Letters from Scotland. This story is about the cholera pandemic which lasted from 1829-1851 (known in history books as the “Second Cholera Pandemic”). Some people might feel that this tale was Hogg’s way of championing those affected by the plague. But that is no excuse for him allowing his main character to undergo the horror of a nearly carried out premature burial.
At this time taphophobia had reached its own climax. The number of supposed cholera fatalities increased the number of those accidentally buried alive. Hogg had no right to take advantage of the public’s worries in such as low way as writing Gothic fiction about it.
This book includes James Hogg's "Some Terrible Letters from Scotland"
Edgar Allan Poe certainly made the most of the idea of being buried alive (The Fall of the House of Usher and so on); but one of his stories actually tackles taphophobia itself: The Premature Burial, written in 1844, is the story of an unnamed narrator who is terrified of being buried alive. He goes through several supposedly true examples of people being interred while still alive and the story climaxes when he believes that he himself is trapped in his coffin.
First person narrative by an unnamed character is a typical Poe technique (Ligeia, The Tell-Tale Heart). In The Premature Burial, however, Poe most likely did this to narrate his reader’s thoughts and latch onto what was at the time a legitimate worry. The Premature Burial is still a chilling tale. But it is probably not even half as effective now as it was in the 19th century.