17 Oct

A shot of the coffin scene in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Photo by Dave DeCaro and used with permission; if you’re a Disney Park fan, you won’t want to miss his site! http://www.davelandweb.com/

If you love classic ghost stories, Disney’s Haunted Mansion offers more than thrills and chills. This four-part series takes a look at classic ghost story images the attraction brings to life.

You’ve just boarded your Doombuggy at Disneyland’sHauntedMansion, and it isn’t long before you come upon a room full of decaying funeral flowers. In the center, on a pedestal, is a rattling, thumping coffin. A pair of skeletal hands are desperately trying to loose the coffin’s lid, and if you listen closely, you hear: “Let me outta here! Please! Le-let me outta here!”

While the dead rising from graves is pretty common in the horror story canon, the specific image of a skeleton rattling his coffin lid is an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Premature Burial.”

For those who haven’t read the short story but have seen any of its film or television adaptations, the tale’s storyline is different. The story opens with several accounts of premature burials—most likely inspired by newspaper articles of the day. Consider these notes by Stephen Peithman in The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe:

“While rather farfetched today, premature burial did occur occasionally in Poe’s day, although not to the extent one would think after reading his tales on the subject. Some instances are recorded in George Alfred Walker’s Gatherings from Grave Yards (1839)…apparently due to a lack of sophisticated medical equipment. In order to avoid this problem, a “life-preserving coffin” was invented in 1843, mentioned by N.P. Willis in the New Mirror of November 18, so constructed as to give the victim air and a means to signal to those above ground that he was alive.[1]

Commentary on Poe’s description of aBaltimoreincident:

“A similar story appears in the Lancaster(Pennsylvania) Democrat December 5, 1845.”[2]

Commentary on Poe’s description of the unfortunate story of a wealthy young girl:

“Poe’s source here may be a story in the PhiladelphiaCasket, September 1827, entitled “The Lady Buried Alive,” which in turn admits to borrowing from two older stories…As for the names, they are all Poe’s invention, as is the date.”[3]

Whether Poe’s piece was based on real incidents or not, it’s reasonable to think that the terrified skeleton clawing to escape his coffin may have been inspired by a few passages in his “The Premature Burial.” One of the reports Poe presents contains direct reference to a skeleton:

“…how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door. As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-apparelled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmoulded shroud.”[4]

And here are references to struggles within coffins:

“…that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf, to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape.”[5]

“On the Sunday following, the grounds of the cemetery were, as usual, much thronged with visiters[6]; and, about noon, an intense excitement was created by the declaration of a peasant, that, while sitting upon the grave of the officer, he had distinctly felt a commotion of the earth, as if occasioned by some one struggling beneath…Spades were hurriedly procured, and the grave, which was shamefully shallow, was, in a few minutes, so far thrown open that the head of its occupant appeared. He was then, seemingly, dead; but he sat nearly erect within his coffin, the lid of which, in his furious struggles, he had partially uplifted.”[7]

If you’d like to read “The Premature Burial,” you can for free here: http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/preburc.htm. If you’d like to own a copy in print, you can get it as part of his complete works here: http://amzn.com/0385074077. If you’d like it for your Kindle, it’s available here: http://amzn.com/B002LIT0F0.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial,” in The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Stephen Peithman (New York: Avenel Books, 1986), 149.

[2] Ibid., 151. It is, however, interesting to note here that the very first published appearance of “The Premature Burial” that included the passage was in 1844, so obviously, Poe wrote the story long before this newspaper article appeared.

[3] Ibid., 151

[4] Ibid., 151

[5] Ibid., 151

[6] This is how it is spelled in the original text.

[7] Ibid., 153

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s