Hitchcock and Poe
1861 Baltimore, Maryland
The year is 1861, the place is Baltimore, Maryland. You are riding along on your favorite horse, a Plantation horse. Her name is Dancer. She is prancing along beautifully on this lovely fall day. There is a light breeze which is causing her mane and long, silky tail to fan out like a feather. She is enjoying the walk as much as you are. She lets out an occasional snort and clears her nostrils. You have the road to yourselves.
Your thoughts are on the beautiful colors of the fall leaves. Then a sound interrupts your thoughts. It is the rattle of a rattlesnake. There on the road just ahead of you is a rattlesnake coiled basking in the warmth of the sun. Dancer hears the rattle before you. She begins prancing quickly, shifting from side to side. There is another rattle and then a hiss. The snake uncoils and begins dancing in the air. Dancer goes up on her hind legs waving her front hooves furiously in the air. You lose your hold and realize you are falling.
The next thought of consciousness is that it is really dark. I consciously think do I have my eyes open? I close and open them again. Have I laid here on the road until darkness had descended? I am having trouble breathing. The air smells musty. Did I hurt myself when I fell? Then why do I feel no pain? I then try to stretch out and find I cannot move. My elbows are confined. My hands move up and down my body, but not away from my body. It seems I am in a box. Then it comes to me. Is it possible that I have been buried?! That my greatest fear has been realized! Could the fall from the horse have caused me to appear dead? Panic sets in, I begin beating with the back of my hand on the box, I try twisting frantically, but to not avail. I try to scream, but I could not draw enough breath. I began to pray that my wife, bless her soul, had done as I had asked. That she purchased one of those Bateson Belfry coffins to bury me in. The Batson Belfry coffin has a hole with a cord that runs to an attached iron bell mounted above the grave. The cord should be in my hand, but I cannot feel it. I cannot move enough to really search. Is there a weight on my chest? My heart is pounding so hard I can only feel its movement. If my wife, God bless her soul, did not do as I asked then I am doomed! I must calm myself and feel from the rope. Ah, there it is! I feel so cold. Now, to get a good enough grip to ring the bell. There I hear a faint chime. Will anyone be listening? How long have I been here? How long will I have to stay here? I can feel some cool air on my neck so surely there is air getting in here so I can breathe. I should be in the graveyard near the church and the monastery. How long must I ring this bell? My hand is getting tired, but I must not quit! For only the constant ringing will draw attention. My hand is sore and tired. Will anyone hear me? I will surely die of starvation, thirst or my heart will fail me if they do not come soon. All of that extra cost to my poor wife, bless her soul, and I die anyway because no one hears the bell.
Do I hear something? The ground is shaking like a herd of horses are running over me. Is that a voice I hear yelling? Is that scraping? Am I hearing things because I want them so badly? No, it continues. Do I dare to hope? Yes, it continues. Should I quit ringing this bell? I will not until I am sure. I hear voices they are getting stronger, louder. Surely, I am not mistaken. Yes, yes, I can hear them now. “We are coming as fast as we can!” The scratching seems louder. I will stop ringing the bell now. They are on their way. Is that a faint light I see around the cord? Yes, they are starting to lift the coffin. I feel the tears streaming down my face. They are breaking the seal. I am so weak I wonder if I can get out of this thing. There I see light. There is Brother John and Brother Andrew. I try to lift my hand and I cannot. They are lifting me from the coffin. “Thank you!” “Thank you!” I whisper. Brother Peter leans in close to hear what I am saying. He is saying “Thank you!” They lay me on the cold ground and begin wrapping me in blankets. I take a big gulp of air and begin to cough. They bring me water, I take a small sip and begin to cough again. They move me over to a blanket and carry me to the monastery.
Life 380 BC to 1925
This is bizarre, but it is what people from 380 BC to 1925 thought could happen. Often when dreaded disease like cholera broke out, because the disease spread so quickly people would die and be buried without a doctor examining them. The stethoscope was invented in 1816 in Paris, France, but it would be many years later before it would arrive in American.
Edgar Allan Poe
This fear of being buried alive was an influence on the Gothic writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849). In his writing there is the reoccurring themes of death, mourning, premature burial, effects of decomposition and the appearance of the dead. The morbid themes stem from his father abandoning the family when Edgar was one. A year later, his mother, Eliza and bother William die of consumption which is known today as tuberculosis. Later his step mother, Frances and, his wife, Virginia also die of consumption. It was during the time that his wife was suffering from consumption in 1842 that he writes the bizarre story of The Masque of the Red Death. A story in which a group of people lock themselves away to escape a horrible disease only to find it is among them.
He is the author of the well-known stories; The Tell-tale heart, The Pit and Pendulum and his darkest tale The Black Cat.
In 1810 he wrote the horror story The Premature burial which was in response to the fear the public had to the possibility of being buried alive.
The master of the involuntary scream, Alfred Hitchcock, learned to express his fear in a manner which chills us all.
In Paul Aurandt’s “More of Paul Harvey’s, The Rest of the Story” there is a chapter called Living in Fear which explains Mr. Hitchcock’s phobias and lifetime fear of the police. The following excerpt is a part of that chapter.
Living in Fear
“One day, five-year-old, Al was playing around the house, a pretend game of knights and dragons. Daddy was home too that day.
Suddenly Daddy called from upstairs. Little Al ran up to see what Daddy wanted.
Daddy was holding a note in his hand, a note in a sealed envelope. Little Al knew where the police station was, did he not?
Little Al nodded.
Daddy smiled. The boy was to take the note down the street to the police station, hand it to the police chief, and wait for a reply.
Sensing the importance of this message, little Al eagerly accepted the errand. In a flash he was out the door, running through the avenue as fast as his little legs would allow.
By the time he reached the police station he was out of breath, but still beaming with the pride of this new responsibility.
‘I’m to wait for an answer.’ Said little Al, thrusting Daddy’s message into the police captain ‘s hand.
Reading the note, the police captain grinned at first, then appeared bewildered, then grinned again.
‘Come with me,’ he said.
Little Al followed him through a door, down a long hallway, and through another door – until he and the policeman were standing at the open entrance of a vacant cold, somber jail cell.
Before Little Al knew what was happening or why, he was inside and the iron-barred cell door was clanking shut beside him.
He could hear the police captain’s voice trailing away: ‘This is what we do to naughty boys.’
And all was silent.
There was no one to hear little Al’s frightened cries for ten minutes or so, a seeming eternity. Then the captain returned, released the boy without explanation, and little Al ran.
For little Al, recalling, the rest of that day is blank.”
Alfred Hitchcock gave us thrillers such as the 1934 and 1956, suspense thriller The man who knew too much which is about an American family’s drama filled trip from Casablanca to Marrakesh and the 1963, horror thriller, The Birds which is about a sudden-unexplained violent attack of birds on the people of Bodega Bay, California.
Using fear to create
The fear of being buried alive and the fear of police motivated these two imaginative writers into creating stories that can still put fear in us today.