There’s a part of my writer’s brain that switches off the social normalizing mechanism that would often give another sane person pause when typing a similar phrase into google, but for me it began with, “what happens to a body when submerged in brackish water for a week.” I was writing a scene where a boy-thief had been lost in the midst of a heist; stunned as security tried to capture him, he’d fallen from a height into the water of Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans. It was some time before the body was retrieved, but when it was, there were witnesses — friends and family who visited the morgue to identify the remains. I wrote that scene, and while it took an effort not to be squeamish, I left it in the story for other people to experience, knowing that I nailed the description. The scent. The colours. The textures of decay.
I suspect the contents of my search history would have a psychologists writing textbooks.
A Horror Writer’s research in the obscure and questionable
Since this is the sort of thing I search for regularly, I’ve developed a callous against it: the really nasty stuff, I mean. Since I write about death and people who’ve been dead often enough, it tends to be the top-tier material I consistently google for:
Cemeteries. Hauntings. Paranormal phenomena. Folklore. Urban legends. Various beasties ranging from arachnids to zombies.
This is the equivalent of loudly asking a librarian while within earshot of other people, “Where can I find books about the Body Farm? You know, that place in the rural United States where they leave corpses lying around to study their decomposition? I think it’s in Tennessee?” (I read a book about it and some other weird and wonderful death-related stuff years ago by Mary Roach: Stiff. Even if you’re squeamish, it was an entertaining and informative read.)
I also keep my forensic texts out in the open — you know, on the shelves that are visible when you walk into my apartment. I’m desensitized to it. The failure point arises when someone asks about them and I fail to clue them in: I write horror? (Yes, there’s a question mark at the end of the delivery. Gives the confession a bit of an edge.)
My mom always hoped I’d be interested in nice things. Sorry mom: I’ve ventured beyond the realms of personal interest. This lands me squarely in crazy town — the dark endeavour to lend an authentic flavour to the fiction I write. I’m a writer. I write horror. I deal the dark stuff, and I want you to believe it when I paint those pictures. Ergo, I google.
Someday, I might be able to frame my research assistant for this stuff, but for the moment it’s on me. I decided not so long ago to start posting the highlights for sheer amusement factor, and because a lot of this research bleeds into my work. A lot of it morphs into something bigger: pieces become characters, or backstory, or histories, or settings. Eventually, when there’s a couple of my books in circulation, I’m pretty sure how all this ties together will make sense, but I’m a couple of years away from that still — judging by the state of the industry and how quickly I can produce new stuff.
Welcome to My Creepy Search History. Today we begin with the topic of premature burial.
A note on premature burial
What it is, in brief, and largely thanks to Wikipedia:
Premature burial, also known as live burial, burial alive, or vivisepulture, means to be buried while still alive. Animals or humans may be buried alive accidentally or intentionally. The victim may accidentally be buried by others in the mistaken assumption that they are dead. Intentional burial may occur as a form of torture, murder, or execution; it may also occur with consent of the victim as a part of a stunt (with the intention to escape). Fear of being buried alive is reported to be among the most common phobias.1
Effectively, if you’re in a first person POV and you find yourself awake and in an enclosed black space without a lot of oxygen to spare, you’re going to be in trouble. I went at this with the intention of gathering a bit more insight on what it might be like to wake up in a coffin after being presumed dead (or actually dead and brought back to life), but regrettably, most incident reports suggest that even though noises were heard coming from the cemetery at night, when disinterred, the victims were dead again. Dead for real. Dead twice. Double dead.
Being buried alive is such a deep-seated long-ranging phobia that the Victorians devised a means of alerting their loved ones in the event that someone at the morgue screwed up and buried them early. They would attach a bell overground with a pully system leading into the coffin that would allow the presumed-deceased to ding ding ding themselves to safety — assuming they could be extracted from their coffin before their air ran out. “Safety coffins.”
Anyway. You’ll find that stuff in the links.
Have fun. I did. 😉
My Creepy Search History: Buried Alive
“In the days before sophisticated medical equipment could definitely determine when someone had passed from this world to the next, many people feared being buried alive—and enacted strict post-passing procedures to ensure it didn’t happen. In Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, Jan Bondeson looked at some of the measures taken to guard against being buried alive, including coffins that featured a bell or flag that would warn passers-by of any movement down below. While many reported cases of burials of the living were exaggerated, Bondeson did unearth a few cases of people who went under the earth while still breathing.”
“Footage shows grieving family members breaking through the concrete tomb from where Neysi Perez, 16, had been heard ‘banging and screaming’. Relatives who removed the girl’s corpse found that the glass viewing window on her coffin had been smashed, and the tips of her fingers were bruised.”
“You might be familiar with our previous list of premature burials, but if you thought that was the end of it, you couldn’t be more wrong. Believe it or not, there are even more horrifying tales of premature burial as recent as this year that are just as terrifying as Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. If being buried alive wasn’t your greatest fear before, it might be now.”
“Today I found out how to survive being buried alive in a coffin. Yesterday, I posted an article on taphophobia and I got an email from a reader wondering if I could write-up an article on the best ways to actually get out of a coffin, if you happen to find yourself buried alive in one. So here goes.”
Premature burial, and how it may be prevented, with special reference to trance catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation
“A distressing experience in the writer’s family many years ago brought home to his mind the danger of premature burial, and led ultimately to the careful study of a gruesome subject to which he has a strong natural repugnance. His collaborator in the volume has himselt passed through a state of profound suspended animation from drowning, having been laid out for dead an experience which has induced him in like manner to investigate the various death-counterfeits. The results of the independent inquiries carried on by both of us in various parts of Europe and America, and by one of us during a sojourn in India in the early part of this year, are now laid before the reader, with such practical suggestions as it is hoped may prepare the way for bringing about certain needed reforms in our burial customs.”
“The Victorian era was prime time for taphophobics—those afflicted with a fear of being buried alive. At the time, medical technology had progressed far enough for doctors to realize that they may have been putting people in the ground prematurely—an act known as vivisepulture—but not far enough to definitively declare death.”
“Don’t quit your shuddering just yet. Live burial is not unheard of; it has always been a real (albeit distant) possibility. Indeed, it’s conceivable the first burials of humans were accidental, live ones: Ill and wounded hunters were left in caves with the entrances sealed off to keep out wild animals while the rest of the hunting parties continued after their prey. It was hoped that once the victims had regained their strength, they would push the barriers out of the way and rejoin the group. Some died in those caves, however.”
See you on the 13th of next month! I’ll be dredging up my research on Corpse Lights.