Let's Talk About Being Buried Alive
Hello and welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life! Or welcome if you are new! My name is Hannah and I'm bringing you some nightmare fuel today.
This is not a review. This is not a hot take. Nay, nay. Today I’m taking a mini-deep dive into some of the scariest literature out there: buried alive stories.
Are you scared yet? Because I am. Our mini-deep dive is going to take us on a journey through two short stories to discover what exactly makes them so terrifying: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” and “A Night in the Grave; or, The Devil’s Receipt” by an anonymous author.
I will not synopsize these stories, I want to change things up a little bit with a surprise I have for you all. But before I get to my “fun” surprise, let’s look into what it is that make these stories so scary?
In short, these type of stories play on our basic human fears. Claustrophobia, total darkness, lack of air, no one being nearby to hear your scream; these stories have all of that. Oh, and some of them have mentions of bugs and critters eating people while they’re still alive. Again, nightmare fuel.
I could stop this post right here if I wanted to. I think we can all agree that even though I haven’t given you any synopsis of the stories in question, or even mentioned these two short stories, what I have described is terrifying. The experience above is something that no one wants to, or should, endure. My point has been made, the case is closed, being buried alive is horrifying. Stories about it are a big fat no from me because I hate everything about them and will not be sleeping without a light on for the next week. But stories about being buried alive go beyond these basic fears.
They go deeper. They go harder. They play with a reader’s psyche and sanity.
Picture this: you have a normal, uneventful day. Perhaps you went to work and had lunch with a co-worker where the two of you gossip about the current office romances. And then you go home, maybe stop at a grocery store for dinner ingredients. You spend the night watching something to numb your mind and unwind from the day. The goal is to forget any and all worries; at least for a few hours. Finally, you go bed. But you don’t wake up. Your conscious is awake, but your body can’t or won’t move. You can’t open your eyes. You can’t call for help. Someone finds you. You’re unresponsive. Paramedics arrive. They can’t revive you. You’re declared dead. Your loved ones cry and mourn and say goodbye one last time, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t wake up. Your mind is screaming, “I’m alive!” Nothing works though. You’re placed in a wooden casket and lowered into the ground. Slowly, the sounds of crying fade. Soon there is no one. It’s is just you and your thoughts that are simply internally screaming for help. But help will never come. You need to wake up! And you do, but the worst is yet to come. Air is limited, you’re locked in a tiny casket, and even if you can get the lid off, you still have to dig through six-feet of dirt. The odds are not in your favor. Now you truly are dead.
I’m so sorry for that. I’m so sorry for writing all that, it’s not a fun surprise. But I needed to show how horrible the experiences the protagonists of these types of works go through are. Here, here's a picture of a dog to make us all feel better.
Back to the hellscape I've written. The above passage is pretty much the plot of both “A Night in the Grave” and “The Premature Burial.” There are some notable differences with both stories we are looking at today. “A Night in the Grave” closes with a happy ending where our unnamed narrator wakes up and is saved thanks to a pair of grave robbers. “The Premature Burial” features short stories within the short story, one of which involves a mausoleum and when it is reopened, the body of a woman presumed dead years prior is found decaying on the floor as she was able to break out of her coffin but could not unlock the vault door from the inside.
Anyway, now that I’ve scarred you for life, let’s go back to my point about sanity that I mentioned ages ago. It’s pretty easy to determine that someone being put into a coffin and lowered into the ground before they are actually dead is an intense situation. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that should someone wake up after having been buried alive, the first thing said person is going to do is scream and pound on the lid of the coffin. Probably pound and claw at the lid if I’m being honest, but I digress. Anyway, let’s circle back to the part where I said someone who has been buried alive is screaming their head off.
This person is freaking out. They don’t know where they are. They don’t know what is happening. The limited air supply, and they are wasting it by screaming for help. Now, as I learned once in a science class, screaming with a limited air supply is not good. Lack of air causes brain cells to die at a quick rate. Google says some brain cells die within five minutes of running out of air. Not good. Not good for our protagonists and narrators who have been buried alive. Not good for the brain. It’s pretty much freaking out. It’s slowly dying, and losing control. Any and all sanity is slowly lost over the course of this final traumatic experience.
If we look at the end of Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” this happens to the narrator of the story. He was traveling around the countryside, away from all his friends and family, when he was found “dead.” The townspeople who found him pretty much buried him without a second thought. Turns out he has a condition though. A condition where it looks like he’s dead, but he’s actually unconscious. So when he wakes up, in the ground extremely far from home, the freak out begins. The longer he remains in the ground without any chance of help coming, the more he becomes worried to the point of losing his mind. The language, formatting, and syntax become increasingly stressed. There are more exclamation points, more em-dashes, more repetitive words. This man knows he’s going to die and it truly breaks him.
And even when there is a “happy” ending, the narrator is still going to have major mental health issues for the rest of his, her, or their life. In “A Night in the Grave,” the narrator is saved thanks to a pair of grave robbers. Never thought I’d write that sentence but here we are. Anyway, these grave robbers take the narrator to a medical amphitheater and sell his body. Once a doctor stabs the narrator in the chest, he finally wakes up. Yeah, you’re going to need therapy for the rest of your life after that.
Thankfully, premature burial is not a common occurrence anymore. Back in the era these stories were written, it happened somewhat often. It is no longer a fear that is in the forefront of people’s minds. It still very much exists, but I would not say it is as common. Again, it's still a very real fear.
So let’s review. These stories contain claustrophobia, darkness, major physical and mental health risks, human eating bugs and rats, limited air supply, and total and complete isolation. Yeah, sounds terrifying. I hate it. I hate it so much.
I have to say it, stories about being buried alive are some of the scariest pieces of literature. Mainly because these stories are so grounded in reality. Being buried alive is a real fear, and it is something that happened fairly commonly in the Victorian era and earlier. In my opinion, horror stories that are grounded in reality are the scariest of all. I love a good haunted house tale, but nothing can truly top the horror of something that could plausibly happen.
With that, I must bid you all adieu. I am going to watch something to numb my mind and not think about death. I shall see you next week with a super special edition of Reading Has Ruined My Life. Until then, stay safe, wash your hands, wear your mask, and read some good books for me.