Not So Hasty, If You Please!
By John C Adams
Do you think babies worry about never being born? When you think about the risk of premature burial as a metaphor for our general concerns in life it becomes easier to understand why it frequently appears in horror fiction. There’s something very womblike about being prematurely buried.
The only individuals I can think of, off the top of my head, who don’t seem to worry about premature burial seem to be vampires. In fact, they can’t wait to scurry home to the crypt as dawn breaks over the sky and cuddle back into the womblike environment of a coffin.
The very first vampire story is John Polidori’s The Vampire. It did much to establish the central notion of the vampire rising from the dead after what was later discovered to have been a premature burial. Lord Ruthven, who displayed most of the features readers quickly came to associate with the vampire, is laid to rest by some locals as per his instructions. However, Aubrey his companion finds that Ruthven’s body has disappeared:
“Aubrey was astonished, and taking several of the men, determined to go and bury it upon the spot where it lay. But, when he mounted to the summit, he found no traces of either the corpse or the clothes, though the robbers swore they pointed out the identical rock on which they had laid the body.”
There’s something very infantile about a vampire. Sucking blood from a person to sustain you isn’t so very different from breastfeeding. Perhaps that’s why the baby-like vampire finds being buried alive (as a voluntary act) satisfying rather than traumatic.
For the rest of us, being buried alive is a terrifying prospect, not least of all because in many ways it represents waking up back in a womblike environment to discover the loss of control we have over our lives. The unborn baby lives comfortably in the womb until he or she is ready to be born, and then triggers the labour. It’s the baby’s first act of control as he or she prepares to meet the outside world for the first time and it’s very empowering. But what if that element of control is taken away from us and a mother-like figure reasserts a control from which we cannot escape?
In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial the narrator is terrified by the ease with which this disaster could befall him. He provides various examples in the story of how this has happened in the past. Suffice to say, the narrator becomes obsessed with the danger of falling into a fit of unconsciousness and waking up again to discover that he’s been buried alive. He makes elaborate precautions to ensure his rescue:
“I exacted the most sacred oaths, that under no circumstances they would bury me until decomposition had so materially advanced as to render further preservation impossible. And, even then, my mortal terrors would listen to no reason.”
In some ways premature burial can also be interpreted as representing a more general loss of control and helplessness over our own lives and fates. Many of us worry about that quite genuinely on a daily basis and even when things are going well the fear of that happening can be paralysing.
The ‘elaborate precautions’ made by Poe’s narrator to forestall his premature burial as so thorough that one almost wonders if he wants to have it happen:
“The slightest pressure upon a long lever that extended far into the tomb would cause the iron portals to fly back. There were arrangements also for the free admission of air and light, and convenient receptacles for food and water, within immediate reach of the coffin intended for my reception. The coffin was warmly and softly padded.”
Could anything sound more womblike if it tried?
Our suspicions that we might want to return to the maternal embrace are amply born out by the narrator of H P Lovecraft’s early tale The Tomb. As a young boy, Jervas Dudley becomes obsessed by gaining entry into a vault in the woods near his home. The door is slightly open but he remains frustrated by a complicated padlock. Here, we can be in no doubt that a return to the womb would be welcome:
“In that instant of curiosity was born the madly unreasoning desire which has brought me to this hell of confinement. Spurred on by a voice which must have come from the hideous soul of the forest, I resolved to enter the beckoning gloom in spite of the ponderous chains which barred my passage.”
Perhaps the fear of premature burial increases with age. Younger children in fiction are portrayed as being less bothered by the prospect, that’s certainly true. Although maybe that’s just because they are less fearless in general!
Whatever the explanation, I’m not sure what’s more terrifying: dreading waking up back inside our mother’s womb or secretly longing for it to happen?
John C Adams is an emerging horror and fantasy writer.