Fear of Being Buried Alive: I’m Alive…Get Me Out of Here!

“Terror is the desire to save your own ass, but horror is rooted in sympathy.” – Joe Hill

At first glance this month’s uncanny is a no brainer, it pretty much sorts itself out. Unless you’re David Blain, of course. Because I’m guessing for most people the idea of being buried alive is right up there on the top ten list of things they wouldn’t like to experience. It inspires thoughts of incredibly confined spaces, limited ability to move, darkness, hyperventilation and eventual suffocation…all while wearing your fingernails down to the quick trying to claw your way out. And that’s providing you can move your arms enough to try.

We’ve all heard stories about the woman who sits upright at her own funeral service after mistakenly being pronounced dead. A deep coma, perhaps, or the ingestion of tetrodotoxin from a puffer fish? Who knows? There are different variations of the same story. But whether these stories are urban legend or indeed true they certainly play up to our fears. To the extent that I’ve also read stories about people requesting to be buried with a mobile phone, just in case. God knows what network that would be with though, sometimes I can’t even get a decent signal in my living room never mind six feet under!


Along the same lines, I’ve heard people express a preference for cremation over burial, to rule out the possibility of being buried alive. But seriously? I’m not convinced that’s at all logical. I mean which would be worse, waking up in a dark box you couldn’t get out of or waking up in a box that was on fire that you couldn’t get out of. For me, I think I’d rather the vampire method was employed… a stake through the heart, just to be absolutely, completely and utterly certain that I was 100% dead before the lid gets closed that final time.

This month’s uncanny certainly ticks the claustrophobia box, but it doesn’t have to be as obvious as, or limited to, being buried alive inside a coffin. Here are a few examples of other things, day to day situations, which might make a person go bat-shit crazy because of a distinct limited ability to move around freely and as they please: going caving, going in an elevator (or, worse still, getting stuck in one), going through a carwash, getting caught up in the middle of a crowd, having too much responsibility at work or home, being in an overbearing relationship, getting your head, hand or foot jammed in something, driving through a tunnel, flying economy class (especially for the long-legged).

Freud’s seventh example of the uncanny is enough to incite a case of the cold sweats without having to delve into it too much, but here’s the strange part – the really strange part – Freud likened the fear of being buried alive to that of being castrated.

So what the hell did he mean by that? How does it even begin to correlate?

Essentially we know that castration is when the testicles of a male are removed (or, indeed, the ovaries of a female), but let’s look at the Oxford dictionary’s definition for further insight:

Castration: The state of being deprived  of power, vitality or vigour.

On this basis I’m guessing it’s loss of control that Freud was referring to. The same way that someone who’s buried in the ground has been deprived of their power to get out.

In a highly extreme example, Game of Thrones fans (the empathic ones at least) surely squirmed in horror when Theon Greyjoy had the entirety of his manhood chopped off by sadist Ramsay Bolton. And this was for two different reasons (why we squirmed, not why Bolton did it…he’s just plain sick in the head). First and foremost there was the element of shock – the ouch that’s got to hurt! reaction. With no antiseptic or strong painkillers to follow up with, the whole hideousness of it just didn’t bear thinking about. Then in the aftermath of the horrible deed, when we presumed young Greyjoy’s trouser-wound had healed because he hadn’t keeled over and died of septicaemia, we started to feel sympathy towards him because up until that point he’d always been one for the ladies. Sex was right up there on his list of favourite pastimes. So what now for poor Theon? He’d been assigned to a lifestyle he didn’t know or want, trapped in an irreversible situation that there was absolutely no way out of.


Being castrated prevents the chance to procreate and reproduce. Similarly, being in a tiny prison cell where the walls feel as though they are closing in on you also hampers any chance of creativity and growth. This is how I interpret the link between the two examples.

I think this seventh uncanny definitely highlights a lack of power to some degree. A person being confined to a situation that is life changing/threatening which they can neither change nor control. It’s about being trapped in a dreadful circumstance that’s impossible to get out of. It’s the ongoing torturous night when nocturnal monsters are baying for your blood. It’s the tight crawlspace in a cave you’re not sure you’ll fit through. It’s a 6’ room when you’re 6’ 2”. It’s the inability to breathe: drowning, suffocation or an asthma attack. It’s the hysteria caused by the improbability of escape. It’s blackmail. And it’s the sand of life’s timer trickling down onto the lidded box of mortality.

Grain by grain by grain.

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