Catalepsy: The Creepy Condition That Buried Alive Hundreds Of People

After this story became popular, the general public began to show disproportionate fear of being buried alive.

History is filled with examples of mass hysteria caused by fictional or imaginary events. Like the famous panic caused by Orson Welles' radio show based on The War of the Worlds that led its listeners to believe in a sudden extraterrestrial invasion, or the frankly hilarious cases of "penis panic" that made hundreds of men around the world believe their penises were shrinking or disappearing. One of the most interesting cases of irrational fears incited by popular culture started with Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Premature Burial, published in 1844. After it became popular, the public began to show an alarming fear of being buried alive.


The fear around the subject wasn't entirely unfounded, but the rare cases took all of the attention in comparison to a real condition called catalepsy, which affects people undergoing schizophrenia treatment and causing muscular rigidity and unresponsiveness. A remarkable case involving this disease happened in 1842, when a cataleptic man died according to his physicians. However, he didn't. All of the respective rituals surrounding death were performed for him, but when he later showed signs of life, he was sued for refusing to pay for his own unnecessary funeral.

Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated by these cases of catalepsy and wrote about it in other short stories, like The Fall of the House of Usher and Berenice. Several other literary figures have been fascinated by the condition as well, especially the fact that there might be partial consciousness during that state, or complete lucidity, so people can actually listen to their own funeral. There are few things more horrific than the idea of being locked inside your own corpse, perfectly aware but unable to communicate with others.

It's no wonder that writers of the horror genre were interested in the internal monologues of a catatonic person, especially in the nineteenth century, when the field of medicine wasn't advanced enough to distinguish the stiffness of a cataleptic person from a dead body. Then, those who read or heard those stories had nightmares about being unable to scream and tell the people around them to stop throwing dirt on their coffin.



The paranoia around catalepsy was such that different measures were taken to make the population feel safe from that unlikely possibility. The clever ideas meant to prevent vivisepulture involved rudimentary bells and flags so the person who was mistakenly buried would let others know that they were still alive.


Another strange and exaggerated method to avoid such an uncomfortable incident was the "waiting mortuary," a place where corpses were constantly observed by nurses until they were absolutely sure that the person was deceased and rotting properly. People demanded those methods because extravagant cases like the one about Angelo Hays's gained fame. He was buried alive after an accident left him in a deep coma that doctors couldn't differentiate from death. They exhumed his body days after he was buried, and the doctors found that he was alive. After a long struggle, he recovered and became a sort of celebrity. Clearly, people have always been fascinated by death.


Fears evolve and grow more complex with time, but death remains an essential theme. Most of us trust that modern doctors know when someone is dead for sure, so this fear has been fading with the passing of time. However, if such a panic were to revive, instead of using flags and bells, I bet we’d take smartphones and chargers with us, after making sure that the coffins have functioning electrical outlets and Wi-Fi. But perhaps we wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get out.


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