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The unendurable oppression of the lungs the stifling fumes of the damp earth the clinging to the death garments the rigid embrace of the narrow house…our hopeless portion is that of the really dead these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil…
—Edgar Allan Poe,
“The Premature Burial,” 1844
Taphephobia, or the fear of being buried alive, haunted Edgar Allan Poe like a muse and influenced much of his literary career. “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague,” he wrote in “The Premature Burial.” “Who shall say where one ends, and where the other begins?” The author’s talents for telling it may have been exceptional, but his fears, for his day, were not. It was a time when people regularly asked, in their wills, to have their heads cut off before being interred. If there was any doubt about the deadness of a particular person, the experts would stick sharp pencils into his nostrils or put live insects into his ears, just to make sure.
From that era also come accounts of people who were presumed dead banging on their coffins or scratching for their lives at mausoleum doors. In the 1890s, Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, a Russian, patented the first “life-detecting” coffins with bells, whistles, and sirens rigged to alert the nearest living person that someone was alive down below, having attended the funeral of a young girl who pounded on her coffin as loose earth was tossed on top. At least 10 life-detecting coffins were patented in the United States before 1910.
The delay. The psychological exhaustion. Knowing there’s no way out. “It’s hard to imagine a worse way to die,” says Eleanor Grant, a D.C.-based science writer who recently completed a one-hour documentary, Buried Alive: Secrets Below, with Silver Spring-based filmmaker Holly Stadtler, which airs this week on the Discovery Channel. In the spirit of Poe, the film treads in the depths between life and death, and charts humans’ (in)ability to distinguish the two. Ghoulish and unthinkable,
yes, but simply thrilling to Grant, whose résumé includes projects involving vampires, cryonics, and forensic science. She’s ecstatic
at the thought.
People call Grant the Death Writer of D.C. “There’s something about the horrificness of staring death in the face and not being able to do anything about it” insists Grant, a blue-eyed blonde with a Princess Diana cut, sitting in her Adams Morgan apartment, “that holds a grim fascination for people.” Her apartment is very dimly lit. On the mahogany dining table, red candles stand in a cluster with dried wax dribbled about their bases.
Grant says that she is the shy one and that Stadtler is “the people person.”
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Stadtler, at any rate, seems a bit more normal. Two fluffy puppies sit in the bay window of her house in Silver Spring. The comfortable plaid couches, the dainty flowered teacups, and the awards for her history and wildlife films all throw you off the trail to her grimmer side: her two projects so far with Grant (Buried Alive plus ’97’s Coma: The Silent Epidemic) and two more to come (The Body-Snatchers and Sybil, Satan and Science). Grant is more naturally morose, Stadtler says: “Because these ideas are grounded in morbidity, I’m like, ‘Eleanor, who’s gonna watch this?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, people eat this stuff up.’”
“Poor Holly,” Grant sighs. “I have all these gruesome little ideas, and Holly sort of enlists people in getting them done.” The two first met in ’96 while both were working at the Discovery Channel. They began collaborating when Stadtler went independent in 1996. They shot Buried Alive in the U.S., England, and Haiti, working with Steven Manuel, an executive producer at Discovery who took a more restrained approach to the material than they might have.
You won’t, for instance, see the quackish tobacco-enema method of determining death on the final version of Buried Alive. Stadtler wanted to keep it in the film for comic relief, but the segment didn’t survive the rough cut.
“‘Really, now,’” Manuel recalls arguing, “‘are we actually going to tell a story about blowing smoke up someone’s ass?’”
And if Grant had had things her way, the scientist in her would have edged in the skeptics’ theory of Christ’s resurrection: “If Jesus was in a profound coma when he was taken off the cross, and they closed the tomb with the rock,” she posits, “and he recovered consciousness and enough strength to push the rock out of the waythat might explain the resurrection.” In the time of Christ, she says, “people were not all that good at distinguishing between coma and death.”
That segment made it out of the proposal phase, but not beyond initial cuts. “The story of Jesus seem[ed] way out of place,” Manuel remembers. “Besides, I thought it was agreed that ‘biblical mysteries’ were out.”
One of the biggest problems the filmmakers had making the documentary was pulling off dramatic live-burial re-enactments that wouldn’t be cheesy. “I haven’t seen re-enactments done really well, ever,” Grant says. “Coming up with an idiom for doing re-enactments that are artistic, historically accurate, and really enhance the storytelling is very rare.” Grant grew up on science documentaries and has won several awards for her documentary work. At one point, she volunteered for her own acting debut in Buried Alive: Shrouded from head to toe, with her feet bound, she rolled into the pit of the mass-grave re-enactment as a corpse, and lay on the damp, cold earth, trying to be still for almost two hours. “It’s not as easy to play dead as it seems,” she says.
They shopped around Sussex, England, for the perfect cemetery to shoot the re-enactment of a “near miss”they wanted a place with no highway noise, the right amount of shading, and a church in the background. Stadtler and her crew got lucky. When they finally persuaded the church’s pastor of Stadtler’s vision, he summoned a professional gravedigger to carve the correct dimensions right into the middle of the cemetery. And when you dig in a centuries-old graveyard, as they found, anything is likely to turn up.
“We looked up at the pile of dirt next to the grave, and we realized there was a femur and a jaw bone sticking out,” says Grant. “We thought, oh, no…we’ve desecrated a grave.
“And here comes Father Richard….”
Father Richard, however, shrugged off the indiscretion and offered an odd form of encouragement, Grant recalls: “‘Don’t worry about it,’” he said. “‘This is England. I can’t dig up my garden without running into a bone.’”
After the grave was fully excavated, the coordinating producer, French Horwitz, jumped in to get some stylistically funky shots and heard a thump: “There were a lot of graves on top of graves on top of graves,” says Stadtler. To minimize the rumble underfoot, a styrofoam slab was put into the base of the pit, and the crew began to slide in and out a tad more gingerly.
Grant admits she had “a little bit of trouble falling asleep” that night, but Stadtler is all business. “These people are dead,” she says. “They’re just bones to me. I don’t see there’s that much of an issue.”
They both, however, wish to be
Buried Alive: Secrets Below airs
Saturday, Jan. 9, at 5 p.m. on the