The Premature Burial – short story

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“The Premature Burial” is a horror short story on the theme of being buried alive, written by Edgar Allan Poe, (1809-1849), 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. The story has been adapted to film several times.

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”.

Context:

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.

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Adaptations:

  • “The Crime of Dr. Crespi” (1935), starring famous silent film director and occasional actor later in “talkies” Erich von Stroheim
  • “”The Premature Burial” (film)”, (1962) is a Roger Corman film starring Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Alan Napier, Heather Angel.

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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.

  • In 1961 the TV series “”Thriller”” – starring Boris Karloff- featured their own version of “”The Premature Burial””, written by William D. Gordan & Douglas Heyes & guest starring Patricia Medina, Sidney Blackmer & Scott Marlowe. *Gothic soap-opera television series: “Dark Shadows” (1966-1971), incorporated “The Premature Burial” into its narrative along with “The Tell-Tale Heart”“The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”.

A subsequent movie was made in 2012 based on a revival and re-telling of the saga of the old TV series “Dark Shadows”.

  • 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”.
  • Jan Švankmajer’s film “Lunacy” (2005) is based on “The Premature Burial” and Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”.
  • The Fred Olen Ray film ‘Haunting Fear (1991) starring Brinke Stevens is very loosely based on “The Premature Burial”. The onscreen credits actually call the movie “Edgar Allan Poe’s Haunting Fear” despite significant differences with the original 1844 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.

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  • ERS Game studio released a PC (personal computer) adventure game based on the story called “Dark Tales: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial Collector’s Edition”.

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