Being buried alive must be horrible per se. To be able to imagine this, a closed couch in the solarium is enough for the really imaginative among us. Or the tube in the hospital. Squint your eyes, hold your breath, ignore every mundane sound, press your arms close to your body, stiffen your legs. Firmly believe that you are alone. Lying in a box. Somewhere down. That the air smells strange that you gasp for. That someday it won’t work. That you can never get out of there again.
This is how it goes. Approach. Maybe.
Detailed in all its horror, the scene naturally doesn’t come across. In fact it does not have to be. Knowing that it could happen is enough to be a definitive scaremonger. It is by far not as likely as meeting one who slashes, saws, bites, burns, tears apart, dismembers, scalds, dissects, damns, curses or has any other evil in mind. But it is in the realm of realistically conceivable horror that packs after us. Black claws in absolute darkness. You don’t see them, you only feel them. It gets hot. And then horribly cold.
Just in case, you should train. The divine Beatrix Kiddo alias Paula Schultz lets Quentin Tarantino Buried alive by a lousy villain in Kill Bill 2 (2004). She lies tied up in her wooden coffin, hears earth being shoveled onto it, sees her body plunging into the darkness, laid out in a lightless, narrow cave, knows that somewhere up there stands her enforcer, claiming the moon, the stars, the revenge for himself alone. Never again … It would be so cruelly inevitable to die now.
In this merciless way. But she gets away.
Admittedly also in that unusual way, which unfortunately leaves very little tangible hope for us. We did not learn at Pai Mei. But you. She fights. And the way she fights in her coffin, having freed herself from the shackles with a razor hidden in her boot, is unique and all the more unique because she does it with Morricone-music. L’Arena from Il Mercenario is their speed, their obsession, their goal. Your fists. Targeted, short, fast. Under the wood, into the wood, through the wood. How finally earth falls on her face, lunges at her through the shattering box, how it becomes unbearably dark again and the arm stretches out of the ground like a torch … it’s so damn good. And damn rare.
To be buried alive means, in everyday terms, that nothing more is possible. At least not from own strength. Uma Thurman, Tarantino’s Superwoman, is clearly not a representative example there. Whereby it also Ray Milland in the role of the eccentric Guy Carrell, who suffers from extreme taphephobia (fear of apparent death and its consequences), manages to escape from his grave in Buried Alive. And to take revenge on those who, out of greed to get their hands on his fortune, did the most horrible thing to him: To bury him, although he was still alive.
Black humor of fear
The Film (1962, director: Roger Corman) is based on the horror short story, peppered with black humor, The Premature Burial (The premature burial) by Edgar Allan Poe from 1844, in which an unnamed first-person narrator takes as his theme the widespread panic in Victorian times about being rashly put in the ground.
Poe, who struggled all his life with cataleptic seizures (death-like rigidity of the body), also processed the dark primal fear in other stories such as The Fall of the House Usher (The downfall of the House of Usher, 1839, filmed in 1960 by Corman with Vincent Price as the main character) and The Cask of Amontillado (The cask of Amontillado, 1846).
Poe is truly not the only one with a great name who worried that he might be inadvertently given a death certificate too hastily. The Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) ordered by notary public not to bury his body until there were clear signs of decomposition. Fairy tale poet Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) wanted his wrists to be slit after his death, – or not, as the case may be – this was not a rare wish in his time. Andersen is also said to have placed notes on his bedside console before going to sleep, saying that he was in fact only seemingly dead. Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) habitually deposited similarly serious messages beside his bed. Reminding wording:
"Should I fall into lethargic sleep, do not bury me before … days!"
The Dramatists Johann Nestroy (1801-1862) and Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) wished for a subsequent stab in the heart to play it safe. The stabbing with a dagger and the opening of the wrists by a doctor present was from the 17. up to the 19. A quite common arrangement in the nineteenth century. One was irritated, even more, deeply frightened by reports of corpse excavations that left no doubt that the supposedly deceased were still alive. People spoke and wrote of suspicious positions in which the exhumed were found, of eyes and mouths torn open, scratches on the wood, and bent arms pressing against the coffin lid.
In order to avoid an agonizing death by suffocation, there were coffins filled with gas or completely open, these were also equipped with ladders, if desired, in order to be able to climb out of the grave comfortably. Small bells on the fingers of the buried or signaling devices that lay handy next to them were also supposed to reduce the risk of no one up there noticing when they eventually woke up.
Being accidentally buried alive is not a matter that can be contritely excused. In their humble defense, it should be noted that countless hasty burials have been performed in the past due to epidemics. So many horribly sick and dying, in every corner, every pore the danger of infection, medical limits, hasty diagnoses … it was not the time for pedantic examination and days-long wake.
All of this has thankfully become rarer, especially since one has long since ceased to rely solely on a lack of pupil reaction, low body heat, flaccid musculature, respiratory and cardiac arrest and all too pale skin. Death marks, rigor mortis, incipient putrefaction are always the surest signs, while mirrors in front of the mouth, feathers in front of the nose, glasses of water on the stomach and salt solutions in the throat are among the methods that can lead to the wrong track. Not recommended ergo.
In ancient Rome
It was handled even more gullibly in ancient Rome: so-called Pollinctores washed the most likely, but possibly not yet deceased with warm water, squeezed their eyes shut and called them several times by name. If they did not move, they were placed on the floor, covered with a cloth, and officially considered corpses. This was often not quite correct, there are unpleasant reports from contemporary witnesses. The tell then freely also of humans, who were buried consistently intended alive. Their burials alive were part of sacrificial ceremonies or were executions.
To be determined to the consciously experienced death under the earth was formerly a perhaps not generally usual, but undoubtedly in certain cases imposed punishment, a cruelty, which serves the horror film genre in all its gloomy facets again and again as material.
In Dolan’s Cadillac, the film adaptation of a King short story from Nightmares (2009, director: Jeff Beesley) a man, in retaliation for his wife’s violent death, buries the gangster boss Dolan and his car in the desert and leaves him to suffocate. In Coffin (2011, director: Kipp Tribble and Derek Wingo) a cuckolded husband takes revenge by putting his blackmailer in the ground alive. In the thriller Buried (2010, dir: Rodrigo Cortes), the claustrophobic dungeon situation achieves eerie high tension, and in the 2008 Thai Coffin (same title) (dir: Ekachai Vekrongthan), an ancient custom becomes the undoing of two people: they put themselves in coffins for a certain time to protect themselves from misfortune and death. This kind of thing can never end well; it’s also a consistently stupid idea to get buried alive of your own free will. Bad enough when it happens involuntarily. Says the Master:
Edgar Allan Poe
"In fact, hardly ever extensive excavations take place in a cemetery without skeletons being found, the posture of which justifies the most dreadful suspicions."
"Dreadful the supposition, but more dreadful still the fate itself! It is not too much to say that there is no event that is so horrifying to the body and soul as being buried alive. The unbearable, breath-taking pressure – the suffocating fumes of the damp earth – the restraining corpse robe – the hard confinement of the narrow house – the darkness of perfect night – the all-devouring surge of eternal silence – the invisible, yet palpable nearness of the conqueror worm – these things and the thought that above the grasses blow in the wind, and the memory of dear friends who, if they only suspected our fate, would rush to our rescue, and the consciousness that they will never know that fate – that without all hope we are among the truly dead – these reflections, I say, carry into the still pulsating heart a horror so nameless that even the strongest imagination cannot describe it."