A student is presenting a project about Edgar Allan Poe and the basic human fear of being buried alive for this year’s Celebration.
Collin Eckerle, an English major, developed the idea for the subject from a seminar about Poe taught by English professor Dr. Robert Rhode.
“I’m kind of a nerd and I wanted to learn about the actual Poe,” Eckerle said, adding that the concept of being buried alive will always bring out sheer terror in people and that Poe used that to his advantage.
According to Rhode, premature burial was more common in Poe’s time, or at least we perceive it that way.
“Corpses that have been exhumed have been found to have been scratching with their fingernails on the insides of the coffins,” Rhode said, adding that several of Poe’s works, such as The Fall of the House of Usher, used premature burial as a primary concept.
Rhode thinks that the Poe known by popular culture may not be an accurate portrayal of who he really was. Instead of being as dark as the stories he wrote, Rhodes suggests that he was much less extreme than that and the persona he undertook when he wrote was an act.
“Because he is an icon of popular culture, he is also misunderstood,” Rhode said. “The real Poe might have been more grounded than that, less fearful, even perhaps chuckling at times because he knows that readers are going to take these stories so seriously. He has a gift for satire, which is often not noticed.”
Poe may have also been the victim of a character assassination as well, according to Rhode. He said that after Poe’s death in 1849, a man named Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who despised Poe against his knowledge, published an article in a New York paper saying that Poe was a drunk, drug addicted misanthrope.
There were a few methods that were used to help notify that someone had been buried prematurely, Rhode said. One way was that a string was tied around the finger of the body and wired above the ground and attached to a bell what would ring when pulled.
“Another one was a tube containing a flag. A chord reached down from the ground and into the coffin and was connected to the hand of the buried person. Should that person revive, he or she could jerk the cord and this would cause the flag to be emitted from the upper end of the tube,” Rhode said.
According to Rhode, the chances of someone being buried alive is much smaller today.
“If a person has been embalmed, then it insures that the person is dead,” he said.