Halloween, a.k.a. All Hallows Eve, looms near, the season for all things frightening, macabre, bizarre and eerie. The season of superstitions, ghosts, costumed trick or treating, witches and graveyards. The Victorians contributed much to our modern Halloween culture. Frankenstein (1818), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Dracula (1897) are all creations as are the tales of Edgar Allen Poe (1840s-1850s). Most of all, they repopularized it by mixing its eerie and religious aspects with secular celebrations, costumes and parties. Mix in their obsessions with spiritualism, life after death, funerals and grave yards and you have modern Halloween.
Funerals and graveyards were an obsession with the Victorians. Both were final opportunities to honor departed loved ones for a super sentimental people. Since they were also obsessed with life after death, they were chances to ensure a happy journey for their dearly departed. Conversely, they helped pacify any restless spirits and avoid their vengeful return. Elaborate funerals and gravesites also were opportunities to emphasize their affluence and social status as well as their devotion to the dearly departed. Thus, Victorian graveyards were forests of opulent grave markers and crypts.
Among the earliest and most bizarre manifestations of the Victorians’ death obsessions was their terror of being buried alive, or taphnophobia. So terrified were the Victorians about being buried alive that organizations evolved to prevent it. In America in the 1850s, the Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive was formed. In 1896, its counterpart -- the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial -- emerged. Victorian science was just beginning to understand catatonic trances, hypnotism, hysteria, sunstroke and being electrocuted by lightening, all of which could produce temporary death-like symptoms. To ensure the presumed deceased really were, these societies offered the services of a skilled physician to examine the body over a three-day period. After the funeral but before burial, a gunshot to the head was administered.
More macabre methods of preventing burial alive included a variety of burial coffins and crypts. Some coffins had windows and/or a bell to allow the victim to signal his revival (thus has the phrase “saved by the bell” been coined). Some coffins could be opened from the inside, others had breathing tubes, movement sensors that turned on a signal light, and triggered a signal flag. All to soothe taphnophobia.
Edgar Allen Poe both capitalized on Victorian taphnophobia and exploited it with his 1844 story The Premature Burial. Reading it combined with a visit to Cold Spring Cemetery where so many figures in Cape May history are buried might be just the thing to get you in the Halloween spirit. Be sure to pick a dank, foggy evening for your adventure.
A retired history teacher, school administrator and university professor, Dr. R.E. Heinly writes a weekly column on the Victorian Era in the Cape May Star & Wave. He is MAC’s Director of Museum Education and portrays our own Dr. Emlen Physick.