Not dead yet?

October 11, 2017


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