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February 17, 2014 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

From Poe To The Walking Dead: America's Evolving Death Fear in Pop Culture

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I don't really like scary entertainment. Maybe it was being exposed to Friday the 13th II at an early age.  Maybe it's the fact that we in America have enough fear.  One fear - call it the ultimate fear- that I face regularly with my patients is their dread of death.  By and large, we all fear death.  Why not? Speculation as to what happens after death is an eternal unknown. Fear and questions surrounding death have played out exquisitely throughout the history of popular culture in America. And the people have responded. It has been interesting in this history, however, to see the complete 180 degree turn regarding these fears played out in pop culture.

At its inception, in the 19th century, the fear of a "premature burial" prevailed.  In modern times, though, this fear has shifted to one of a "postmature burial." 

I believe that advances in medical care are responsible for this shift.

Saved By The Bell

Death is not hard to diagnose-- no breathing, no heartbeat means the diagnosis of death is pretty much locked in.  In the 19th century, however, it appears that they got it wrong too often.  Back then, embalming was unusual.  Bodies were often buried hastily to prevent spread of diseases.  During this time, stories of exhumed bodies revealing pulled back fingernails, torn garments, claw marks in the casket and contorted body forms spread like wildfire, fueled by fear.  As an example, the following was printed in The New York Times on January 18, 1886:

WOODSTOCK, Ontario, Jan. 18. — 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.

The condition of "taphephobia" was first described (the fear of being buried alive) but it existed far and wide. In this time of progress, help came in the form of elaborate mechanisms in cemeteries. Attendants were hired to listen for distress calls. Stings and bells were placed in caskets. This is where the terms "saved by the bell" and "dead ringer" come from. As fear sells, the emerging pop culture scene in the form of literature grabbed on to this interest. Edgar Alan Poe's, works The Premature Burial and The Fall of the House of Usher capitalized on this powerful fear that swept across society during this time.

Coffin Scene Still from Roger Corman's Premature Burial (1962)

In part as a solution to this menace, putrefaction (rotting flesh) became the standard for diagnosis of death and embalming became commonplace. The elaborate strings tied to the fingers of the dead and bell systems atop the grave waned and society rested content. A century later, such fears arose but much in the opposite as the "premature burial." Enter ventilators, mechanical cardiac assist devices and other wonders of medicine-- the age of the machine. Society was faced with other fears - the notion of being kept alive too long - a "postmature burial."

Mechanical Life

The late 1900's brought a new chapter in medical ethics and a new era of societal fear.  One of the first cases was Karen Ann Quinlan. Karen's heart and lungs had stopped for an extended period but she was revived by paramedics. She was then placed on ventilator support. After months without change or any sort of consciousness, her parents asked the hospital to remove her life support. The hospital refused. Controversy and opinions were brought into the media as the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Karen was eventually taken off life support, but society was profoundly affected. The pop culture followed suit with works such as Coma (1978) were people are kept in animation as part of a conspiracy. The popular Terminator movies even played on this theme in a futuristic world where machine-human beings exist and the machines take over. 

Still from Michael Crichton's Coma (1978)

These controversies still exist today. Most recently, the media was filled with a sad story of a pregnant woman in a persistent vegetative state. Again, family and hospital were pitted against one another with the courts left to decide and the media at the ringside.

The Zombie Apocalypse

Recent years have seen a craze over zombies and a zombie apocalypse. The most prevailing scenario is a killer virus that sweeps across society causing people to return from the dead with a taste for the flesh of the living. This pop culture is as popular as ever - people just can't get enough. I believe that this infatuation is fueled by our underlying curiosity and fear over death, even the dread that our death may not be end for our bodies as seen in publicized unfortunate medical cases.

Still from Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002)

Death in Pop Culture

Pop culture is there to entertain and enjoy. I believe it is also there to help us wrestle with the same fears that it plays on. One tangible way to ensure that our bodies are used in the event of misfortune is to communicate our wishes explicitly. Communicate your wishes to loved ones.  Fill out an advance directive. Or, if you don't mind your parts being used, become an organ donor. And hopefully the zombie apocalypse stays a thing of fiction.

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