One of the three hints for the classic coffin riddle indicates that the person “using” the coffin–the person within it–doesn’t know it. This isn’t always the case, however. In this episode I explore the long-held fear of premature burial, from real world safety coffins, to the frequent appearance of this horrific fate in Golden Age horror comics.


ArteLeonardo School – Florence, Italy,

University of Michigan Library online – A Full and True Relation of a Maid Living in Newgate Street in London Who Was Buried on Saturday the 27 of This Instant December, and Taken up (Supposed to Be Alive) the 30 of the Same, Being Buried near Christ-Church Hospital in the Church-Yard of the Same.,

Angelone, Caitlin. ‘To Be Buried Alive Is, beyond Question, the Most Terrible of These Extremes Which Has Ever Fallen to the Lot of Mere Mortality.’, 12 Apr. 2016,


“Premature Burial.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 2250, BMJ, 1904, pp. 386–386,

Sharry. “My Name Is Anna, but Call Me Annie.” A Haunting Legacy: The True Story of Annie Mary Twente, 30 Sept. 2018,

The story of Anna Hochwalt:

  • “A Young Lady Buried Alive.” Daily Telegraph, 31 Mar. 1884, p. 4.
  • “News Notes.” The Dayton Herald, 5 Feb. 1884, p. 3.

Music Credits

The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.

The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.

Other music for this episode: “Grey Smoke” by Mocha Music licensed through Shutterstock

Full Script

You are trapped under several feet of earth. You are sealed into a space that is large enough to fit you alone. Your supply of oxygen is likely limited, but even if it isn’t, your supply of food and water is nonexistent. You are in a place that is meant for the dead, and in this way may be considered among them, but you are not of them. Not yet.

What is it about a live burial that seems so much more horrific–or at least uniquely horrific–compared to other fates that broadly result in the same type of death? Live burial would typically result in asphyxiation unless you somehow had an air supply running to you keeping you alive long enough to die of thirst. But the idea of being suffocated, horrible as it is, doesn’t quite captivate us the same way live burial does. Nor does dying of thirst or starvation on a deserted island, although I might be wrong there, and certainly opinions may vary. Some people might be more afraid of being marooned on a barren island than being buried alive. I imagine if you polled the populace, though, the live burial would be deemed the worse fate. Being stranded seems to come with at least a longshot hope of being rescued. They’ve written classic books that are taught in every level of school, made blockbuster, mainstream movies and popular television shows, and generally created legends out of marooned men, women and children. Live burial doesn’t have the same legacy, likely because it doesn’t leave much room for adventure. Instead it seems to invite you to experience your death before it actually comes to you.

The fact that it combines multiple fears into one obviously plays a role. Fear of death, fear of psychological torture, fear of the dark, fear of confinement, claustrophobia. Even the fear of never being seen or heard from again, the possibility of no one ever knowing your fate. All of those come into play when we talk about the fear of premature burial, be it accidental or deliberate.

While premature burial may not be as fertile ground for more mainstream entertainment and widely popular consumption, there have been feature and TV films with the direct title of Buried Alive, plus one television miniseries and dozens of television episodes, ranging from dramas, to sci-fi thrillers, to reality tv programs. That doesn’t even count the Ryan Reynolds film just titled Buried or the works where the words are just part of the title, like the Indonesian horror comedy, Suzanna: Buried Alive. There are also a handful of works titled The Premature Burial. And then, of course, there are countless other stories that feature a live burial without announcing it in the title. One that I won’t name, because the live burial is intended to be a gut punch revelation delivered to end the film, is fairly famous among horror and thriller film fans. Nonetheless, none of these films have left an impression on the public or been part of the zeitgeist the way the film Cast Away was, or the way the character of Robinson Crusoe is, linking back to my earlier contrast between live burial and being stranded on an island. It hasn’t been for lack of trying that films or television programs focused on someone’s live burial–whether literal or metaphorical–haven’t found sweeping success.

In the world of the written word there is an even greater wealth of titles that make direct reference in one way or another to being buried alive, as well as stories that have had a greater impact on the culture. One of the earliest texts I found was of an extremely brief and purportedly true account of accidental live burial, written in 1680. Its complete title: A Full and true relation of a maid living in Newgate Street in London : who was buried on Saturday the 27 of this instant December, and taken up (supposed to be alive) the 30 of the same, being buried near Christ-Church hospital in the church-yard of the same. That title is a little more than five percent the length of the entire story. I’m not exaggerating.

According to the account, Grace Ashburne was an abused apprentice of the Beachcroft household. She was buried on the 27th, then was heard groaning and crying out from her grave by locals, who finally persuaded authorities to disinter her, where she was observed to be breathing and still warm, at least until she succumbed to the effects of having been left underground without food, water or (presumably) sufficient oxygen for four days. After she passed she was put on display for a penny a gander at a Smith’s shop so people could see how freshly dead she now was, as opposed to how dead she’d have looked had she actually died four days ago. It’s all rather macabre, even before you get into the bruises left on her body by Mr. and Mrs. Beachcroft, including a scar. The abuse seems to have likely contributed to her eventual death, although the author of the piece is non-committal about that.  

The author also approaches the story as though it were a miraculous event. Grace is compared to Lazarus, who, lest anyone is unaware, wasn’t just brought back from the dead only to die moments later. Seems like a poor comparison.

In the same vein, the author notes that the victimized, frequently-beaten Grace was often known to lament that she would, “Rather to be buried alive, than to live under such hard and severe usage.” While he half-heartedly tries to leave his thoughts on this somewhat ambiguous, it’s clear enough that he sees her comment as a prayer potentially answered, supporting his opening statement that, “STrange and Wonderful are the Workings of Almighty God.” The ordeal of being buried alive and living under such conditions for days is not explored at all. We don’t get any details about the way the neighbors felt either, hearing the miserable cries of someone who is supposed to be dead, lying in their grave. Nonetheless, it proves to be, in an unexpected way, a horrific account of a live burial that reveals something disturbing about the way a society might view victims of abuse, possible murder and then a fate arguably worse than death, and the mental contortions one might go through to make it all sound like a miracle instead of a nightmare.

Another story, that of Ginevra degli Almieri, allegedly dates back to possibly 1396, though there’s no official documentation to support this that I could find. It was later made into a movie in 1936.

The account of this that I found on the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School website has a little of everything. Romance, tragedy, perseverance and, obviously, horror. In a classic setup, Ginevra wants to marry a boy who her father disapproves of. Instead of letting her be with her beloved Antonio, her father makes her marry some unlovable bum named Francesco. That’s probably unfair, I’m sure he had someone out there for him, but it wasn’t Ginevra and he had to know that but went with it anyway, so I’m maintaining my assessment of him as a bum, especially in light of what happens next.

Francesco is too busy being a businessman to give his wife proper attention, and since LL Cool J is still centuries from being born and making the song Loungin’ to specifically warn dudes about that sort of thing, Ginevra eventually dies of loneliness and heartbreak. Or does she? Well, of course she doesn’t, or else she wouldn’t be one of the subjects of this episode.

Indeed, she’s mistaken for dead, is entombed in the family crypt, only to wake up later, understandably terrified. Her fear gives her strength enough to move the heavy stone lid above her and escape her grave,  but unfortunately her ordeal isn’t over. When she goes home and asks Francesco to let her inside, he believes she must be a ghost and refuses to let her in. Her own father gives her the same treatment when she tries to go to her parents house instead. Stuck outside, weak and afraid, she finally thinks of the one person who’s she sure won’t turn her away. Good ol’ Antonio. The guy she wanted to be with in the first place. Sure enough, despite having heard of her alleged death, Antonio figures, what the hell, even if she’s a ghost, she’s the love of my life, and I’m not going to leave her out in the cold, alone and afraid.

After all of this horror and hardship, things wrap rather happily for Ginevra and Antonio. When they seek to get married and Francesco–that bum–tries to complicate things, the church sides with the two lovers. Why? Well, because Ginevra did allegedly die, and most marriage pacts have some form of “til death do us part” in play.

It’s a hard-earned happy ending, and no wonder that legend was made into a movie. I’ve also seen it adapted into a comic twice, once in Out of the Shadows #14, the other being a loose adaptation of the legend from Suspense Comics #5, which relocates the story to France. I’m surprised it hasn’t been adapted at least once by every romantically-inclined country on Earth.

These two tales of premature bu rial seem to soften the blow somewhat. Neither primarily focuses on the awfulness of the experience. The former regards it as a sort of twisted blessing, focusing more on the horrible conditions the servant lived under, which, to be fair, was probably worthy of more attention than the potential live burial, at least when it comes to a more prevalent societal ill. The other presents it as harrowing, but ultimately a vessel for liberation from a loveless life. Yes, the legend goes on to say that Ginevra’s ghost still haunts the streets every first Tuesday of the month, reliving what she suffered through after getting free from her grave, but she notably doesn’t haunt the grave itself. The implication is that going from house to house and being rejected by those who believed her dead was more impactful to her spirit than waking up in a tomb.

Conversely, a couple of New York Times articles from the late 19th Century, snippets though they are, manage to make reportedly true instances of live burial appropriately nightmarish. In February of 1885, a recently deceased man named Jenkins from Flat Creek, North Carolina, was dug up to be reinterred in a family plot. From the article:

“The coffin being wood, it was suggested that it be opened in order to see if the body was in such condition that it could be hauled 20 miles without being put in a metallic casket. The coffin was opened , and to the great astonishment and horror of his relatives the body was lying face downward, the hair had been pulled from the head in great quantities, and there were scratches of the finger nails on the inside of the lid and sides of the coffin.”

One year later, the Times published an even shorter article about a girl named Collins, from Woodstock, Ontario, who suffered similarly to Mr. Jenkins.

“Recently, a girl named Collins died here, as it was supposed, very suddenly. A day or two ago the body was exhumed, prior to its removal to another burial place, when the discovery was made that the girl had been buried alive. Her shroud was torn into shreds, her knees were drawn up to her chin, one of her arms was twisted under her head, and her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.”

In both of these articles it takes only a sentence or two to convey why premature burial is so dreadful. The unfortunate Collins and Jenkins both seemed to struggle in their tight prisons so desperately that they eventually drove themselves mad, tearing hair out, tearing apart clothes, twisting themselves into positions that only made it more impossible for them to break out.

In both cases, as well, certain limitations–whether of caring or capability–with medical professionals contributed to the horror. An illness or condition that might make a person present as dead when they were not was obviously more of an issue in days when doctors and nurses knew less or, sometimes, cared less, or were in a greater hurry to dispose of a body, perhaps in the hopes of preventing an illness from spreading.

When the cholera pandemics of the 19th Century reached Europe and North America, for instance, the rush to bury the dead to help tamp the spread of the disease produced many unverified stories of still-living people being thrown in mass graves or placed in coffins. This spread taphophobia–the fear of being buried alive–among the populace, and it is a fear captured well in the Antoine Wiertz painting, L’inhumation precipetee–which directly translates to “The Hasty Burial,” although it’s more commonly known to English-speakers as “The Premature Burial.” It depicts the struggle of a man able to lift the lid of his coffin high enough for us to get a glimpse of his terrified and astonished face, and for him to get his hands free, but no enough for him to climb out, because of another coffin resting atop his.

In response this fear, among those who wouldn’t be subject to burial in a mass grave, there came an increased interest in safety coffins. Before the cholera pandemics, in the 1790’s, the first two safety coffins of Europe were created, but the 1800’s saw an increase in their number and variety. Some were simply equipped with a mechanism that allowed for communication with the rest of the living world, such as a string that could be pulled to ring a bell and alert everyone above ground that you were still alive down there.  Others had tubes built in to ensure the buried would have a supply of air while awaiting rescue, or a different tube that would allow a potential rescuer to view the person in the grave to ensure they were actually alive, and not ringing the bell only because the cord tied to its wrist was pulled when the genuinely dead body shifted as a result of the natural bloating or other processes that come post mortem. The Wildwood Cemetery in Pennsylvania has a burial vault designed for the Pursell family that has escape hatches built into it.

Many other accounts of accidental live burial were born in the 1800’s. Often it’s hard to ascertain whether these are legitimate incidents or simply legends. There is story of 6-year-old Annie Mary Twente, of Minnesota, for instance. In October of 1886, she appeared to die after a hard fall and was buried, but at the insistence of her mother, who believed the girl had only been comatose, she was later disinterred. Similar to the young girl Collins from Ontario, and Mr. Jenkins from North Carolina, when she was found she was no longer lying on her back. She was on her side. There were scratch marks on the inside of her coffin, and she had torn some of her hair out. Allegedly. My search of newspaper articles from the entirety of the 1880’s and even into the early 20th Century didn’t turn up any hits for this story. And while many websites or videos that retell the story present it as legitimate, the ones that cite their sources all point back to articles that explicitly refer to it as a legend, the inspiration for a local ghost story that has lingered on into the present. And I love some good localized ghostlore, but it appears that the case of Annie Marie Twente is just that.

Conversely, multiple newspapers–from Ohio to New Zealand–documented the story of Anna Hochwalt, apparently buried alive in Dayton, Ohio in 1884. The local paper, the Daily Dayton Herald, dismisses the story as an unfounded rumor. The New Zealand paper, The Daily Telegraph, claims its source is an unspecified “Tribune” Ohio special edition, and also claims at the end of its write up that efforts were made to “conceal the case.”

These kinds of stories, be they almost certainly apocryphal or potentially plausible, were numerous enough to spread Taphophobia. The phobia was strong enough to result in the formation of the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896. An article on the subject from, written by Caitlin Angelone, gives us an image of one of the perks paying members were privy to: a “Personal Authorisation for Death Verification,” which was a document that specified you were not to be buried or cremated until two independent medical examinations certified that putrefaction of your corpse had commenced.

All of this is not to say that the fear of live burial wasn’t scoffed at by some, or even many. An article in the February 1904 issue of the British Medical Journal claims that such fears were drummed up by “certain portions of the press,” and that most people weren’t concerned by it. And even those who were concerned were mostly fearful of the idea of waking up alive in a coffin and enduring a prolonged struggle to survive. The article then assures its readers that, “a person enclosed in a coffin would die almost as quickly as one thrown bound hand and foot, into the depths of the sea.” I’m going to go ahead and reiterate that this comparison reads as an attempt to reassure the readers of the British Medical Journal that the notion of being buried alive actually wasn’t all that horrific. It would just be like having your legs and arms tied up and then tossed overboard to drown in the ocean, why all the consternation?

While the Journal’s skepticism about the likelihood or frequency of premature burials is understandable, the suggestion that most of the public weren’t even thinking about it is undermined a bit by how often the Journal had to address the issue, in volumes spanning from 1881 to 1930, and even its own earlier articles that directly state that the dread of live burial haunts more than a few persons. The fact that the Journal addressed the issue so often, and so defensively in the 1904 article–in which it ultimately lays blame for any possible premature burials at the feet of the public, which hasn’t pursued the remedial laws that the Journal declares physicians have pushed for–speaks to an underlying related fear. The fear of having your life effectively ended by medical professionals. Not necessarily because they are acting out of malice, but because they are human. Prone to mistakes, to fatigue, to distraction, or just ignorance. No one can know absolutely everything, after all, even in the field they dedicate their life to. The fact that someone trained in medicine knows more than the untrained person often produces less trust than suspicion in latter; some people will always be wary of someone who knows more than they do. Particularly if their own life is on the line. It’s not always a rational sentiment, but I think for many of us who’ve ever had to undergo any kind of important medical procedure, it’s at least relatable.

And I feel now is as good a time as any to remind that, while the podcast is titled Healthy Fears, that’s not exclusively what I focus on. Distinguishing what is relatively healthy from what is relatively unhealthy requires some exploration of what can, at times, be unhealthy, in my opinion.

Back to the topic…

While cholera is generally cited as the primary inspiration for the increased fear of live burial, a different condition makes the most memorable impact in literature of the 1800’s. Catalepsy is defined as “a medical condition characterized by a trance or seizure with a loss of sensation and consciousness accompanied by rigidity of the body,” per the Oxford Dictionary. While this can result in the body being frozen in any number of positions, most stories of the era go out of their way to make the afflicted appear flat, legs straight, arms at their sides. Corpselike.

Most famously, this potential liberty with the effects of catalepsy is employed by Edgar Allen Poe, in “Berenice,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and in “The Premature Burial.” These horror classics were not the only works of the time to feature this plot, however. In Edith Nesbit’s gothic short story “Hurst of Hurstcote,” the title character, John Hurst, may or may not have made his wife susceptible to catalepsy by means of the black magic he’s been interested in at least since college, and the physician friend visiting him may or may not have made a terrible mistake in declaring her dead and fit for burial.

As horrible as that mistake would be, it would still pale in comparison to a deliberate act of burying someone alive. There is an extensive, gruesome history–and unfortunate present, even–of live burial being employed as a sadistic torture and / or method of execution. And in the realm of fiction a number of tales have used it to terrify audiences. Most notably, perhaps, in story, “The Cask of Amantillado,” by Edgar Allan Poe, who else.

But I won’t be going into that story next, nor any other conventional short story or novel. I won’t be citing examples from movies or television. Because this presents an opportunity to dive into another medium I haven’t yet had a chance to really get into in this podcast. In season one I managed to talk about films, television series, books, even a little about video games and one episode where I got into classic horror radio teleplays. When it comes to live burials, however, nothing else seems to quite have the same penchant for it as does Golden Age horror and crime comic books.

I own a horror comics anthology titled The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics. That title has to be considered a little bit of a lie. It is a book of horror comics, and while “mammoth” is somewhat subjective I’d say anything that containing over fifty stories and five-hundred pages fairly qualifies, so that leaves one other word to be the betrayer of truth in this circumstance. Nonetheless, even if its comics are not actually the “best,” it’s a reasonably entertaining collection, and of the over fifty stories within, twenty are from the Golden Age of comic books. Of those twenty, two conclude with characters being buried alive, and in one of them it happens multiple times. Now, two stories out of twenty–ten percent–might not seem like a significant figure, but think of all the horror movies, books and short stories you enjoyed in the last year alone, and imagine if at least one out of every ten either centered their story around the prospect of live burial, or went out of their way to wrap their story up with one. Because, make no mistake, Golden Age comics writes would gladly take a detour if necessary to get to a premature burial.

I think this is most evident in one of the classic EC Horror Comics. Now, EC by no means had the market cornered on the subject–neither of the aforementioned stories from the Mammoth Book were EC products–but the story that stands out to me from good ol’ Entertaining Comics is titled “Jury Duty.” It was released in August of 1951 in an issue of Crime SuspenStories, but was appropriately labeled at the time as a story more befitting The Haunt of Fear, one of EC’s big three horror titles along with The Vault of Horror and, of course, Tales From the Crypt.

The reason why “Jury Duty” stands out to me should be apparent if you’ll permit me to spoil the story for you. It’s the tale of Peter Kardoff, a convicted murderer in Georgian or Victorian era England, sentenced to hang for his crimes. After his sentence is carried out, he is declared dead and his body is left to be carried off by his servant–don’t know if that was customary at the time–but the servant soon discovers that Kardoff is not dead. His neck has been gruesomely broken, but he lives on. He summons his lawyer to make sure he’s legally declared dead, and uses that as a loophole to exact his revenge against the jurors who convicted him, murdering them one by one, while the surviving men’s pleas to have Kardoff hanged again fall on deaf ears because, according to local law enforcement, since he’s legally dead he doesn’t exist, and so it is beyond the power of the law to punish him.

You can probably see a few issues with this setup already, the least of which is Kardoff’s survival after the hanging. Look, the charm and appeal of the classic horror comics never had anything to do with tight plotting you couldn’t poke holes in, even when they were adaptations of well-plotted short stories. The appeal, frankly, was often in the gruesome, shocking-for-its-time conclusions and artwork. And with that in mind, you can’t just have the surviving jurors come to the sensible conclusion that, okay, if the law is going to so nonsensical as to say Kardoff technically doesn’t exist anymore, despite the fact that he’s walking around and has been seen by people and very obviously does continue to exist, why don’t we just go shoot him? Or stab him? Both? After all, you can’t be convicted of murdering someone who doesn’t exist. But that wouldn’t be nearly memorable, cruel or karmic enough for a proper EC story. Instead the men gang up on Kardoff, seal him in a coffin, and carry him to the cemetery, all while he screams that they can’t do this to him. They’re killing him. It’s murder, and they’ll hang for it.

This leads one of the men to point out that what they’re doing isn’t a punishable offense. After all, no one would consider it a crime to bury a legally dead man.

It doesn’t hold up based on the gap in logic I pointed out earlier–they could exploit the same legal loophole to just shoot him, stab him, strangle him, poison him, a host of other things that are faster and probably easier than the manual labor involved in digging a grave, securing a living man in a coffin, carrying it on your shoulders to the cemetery, et cetera. None of that really matters. Burying Kardoff alive–even though he’s got it coming–is much more disturbing, and more impactful, than a simpler and more sensible solution.

Still, it illustrates my initial point that the classic horror comics would sometimes go as out of their way as they possibly could give us a live burial.

There are at least eight more EC stories that I’m familiar with that feature deliberate premature burial, plus one where it’s explicitly threatened on the last page. Mind you, I’m a fan of the comics and read them whenever I could when I was much younger, but I’m nowhere near an expert on the subject. There are liable to be at least a few and possibly several other stories I’m unfamiliar with, or couldn’t find through my search efforts, that also have characters burying someone alive.

There’s “The Screaming Woman,” an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story. “Chatter-Boxed!” which also features a safety coffin, and some extraordinarily unfortunate timing for its imperiled protagonist. There is “Terror Train,” “Twin Bill,” “People Who Live in Brass Hearses,” and even stories where you’d expect the source of terror to be something else, like “Rats Have Sharp Teeth!” and “Uppercut.”

Last, but not least, there are two stories titled “Buried Alive.” The first appeared in War Against Crime #10, in 1949, which also marked the first appearance of the Vault Keeper character, who introduces the story–while the second “Buried Alive” appears in the Vault Keeper’s actual comic The Vault of Horror, one year later.

The first story, penned entirely by the prolific Al Feldstein, is actually a pretty straightforward tale dealing with a gravedigger, nightmares, sleep deprivation, a comatose state that might as well be the fictionalized version of cataleptic shock, and an unexpected rescue by a grave robber. The second “Buried Alive,” co-written by Feldstein along with Bill Gaines, gives us a recurring plot beat in live burial comic book stories–someone willingly entering a coffin and / or being buried on purpose as part of a scheme. Inevitably, something goes wrong.

This brings us back to Golden Age comics beyond the confines of the legendary EC. In fact the most famous version of this specific type of story may be from, “My Coffin is Crowded,” which appeared in the Spring issue of Marvel’s Suspense in 1952. What brought it to a wider audience was its later adaptations, first for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964 for the episode “Final Escape.” That was remade in 1985 for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In every iteration, an imprisoned protagonist attempts to pull off a somewhat Count of Monte Cristo-esque jailbreak, but things go as horribly wrong as one would anticipate in a horror story, particularly one with the title “My Coffin is Crowded.”

Two more non-EC comic stories s also titled “Buried Alive” cover somewhat similar territory in that they have characters who don’t display a healthy fear of being buried alive, and therefore agree to or even come up with a scheme that involves getting into a grave and having dirt poured on them. Eventually they do come to be very afraid of the situation they’ve placed themselves in, but not before it’s far too late.

I believe I’ve referenced 15 different Golden Age comics about premature burial so far–I might have accidentally double-counted or failed to count one of the multiple “Buried Alive” titles, apologies if that’s the case–and this is very far from a comprehensive list. Again, I’m not a scholar or student of the subject, I’m sure I’m missing many, many more titles on the subject. I didn’t even mention every story that I came across. I’m not even counting the two adaptations I found of Ginevra degli Almieri’s legend, for instance. For more non-EC titles, if you’re curious, I’d recommend the website Type in the key words buried alive, and have at it. It’s a decent starting point, and once you’ve gone through its considerable archive of tales, you might find yourself wanting to venture down a bit of a rabbit hole. If you do head down said rabbit hole, just make sure you’ve got a way out, in case anyone starts filling that space with dirt while you’re still in there.

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