Edgar Allan Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) Live burial was a significant fear circa 1839, when Edgar Allan Poe’s renowned story of Gothic horror was first published. In the days before medicine could clearly distinguish between a comatose state and death, it was not uncommon for doctors to declare patients with no apparent vital signs to be dead, when in fact they were merely in a coma. Alternatively called premature burial, live burial, or vivisepulture, such cases inspired a widespread fear of being interred before one had expired. For those with an irrational fear of premature burial we have the medical term taphephobia. Apparently, George Washington suffered from taphephobia (although in his time the fear was not so irrational): he ordered his servants to wait two days before burying him. Since the 1890s, medical advances permitted greater certainty about time of death, and the instances of premature burial, as well as a common fear of it, declined.
Scholars have suggested that some of our ghoulish horror stories may originate in instances of premature burial. Whether we’re talking about zombies (from Haitian folklore), vampires (from Eastern Europe), or other embodiments of the walking deceased, such legendary creatures might be given a semblance of reality when villagers spotted the occasional animated “corpse” of a premature burial, escaped from the tomb and scaring the wits out of anyone who witnessed a graveyard exodus. In an attempt to prevent premature burial—and to cash in on taphephobia—so-called “safety coffins” were invented, including an 1882 patent for a coffin with a breathing tube that doubled as a signal device. A Belgian count witnessed the revival of a friend’s daughter, just as her coffin was being lowered into the grave. He went on to patent a safety coffin that mechanically detected movement within. A burial vault in Pennsylvania was built with escape hatches that could be opened only from the inside. Creepy!
With this in mind, it’s not so surprising to find the theme of premature burial amply illustrated in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe (he even has one called “The Premature Burial”), but nowhere more strikingly than in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The unnamed narrator, a former school friend of Roderick Usher, is invited to spend some weeks at the family’s ancient manor house. The story opens with a well-known description, in wonderfully over-written detail, of the façade of the house, which seems to be crumbling and ruinous, though no stones are out of place. Nietzsche’s phrase, “When you stare into the abyss, know that the abyss is staring back at you,” seems apt for Poe’s description of the House of Usher: twice within one page, the narrator likens the windows of the house to eyes.
Like the family’s estate, Roderick Usher seems to his friend to be decrepit, suffering from an unspecified illness that might be mental or moral but which creates almost hysterical hypersensitivity. The narrator has a single meeting with Usher’s sister, Madeline, who, it seems, is even more sickly. Usher himself has become obsessed with the paintings of his ancestors, as emblems of a family history of aristocrats suffering from debilitating illnesses. Poe implies that Usher is a hypochondriac, suffering the symptoms of a disease that is all in his mind, grown out of his morbid condition. Shortly after the narrator’s arrival, Usher tells his friend that Madeline, his beloved twin sister, has died. The friends place her coffin in a basement room once used for the storage of gunpowder, and thus lined with non-reactive copper.
Usher’s condition worsens and he grows ever more nervous, paralleled by strange sounds that the narrator begins to notice, seeming to come from somewhere far off in the house. There is a pseudo-comic moment at the climax when neither Usher nor the narrator can sleep. The narrator reads Usher a melodramatic story and, as sounds are referred to in that story, similar sounds resound throughout the house. Usher swivels his chair to face the door, anticipating a climactic revelation. The door bursts open, and his sister Madeline, who was buried alive and has escaped from her coffin and burial chamber, is upon them. Usher and Madeline both die, and the house itself cracks and crumbles, and the narrator alone is left to tell the tale.
Is the story melodramatic? Absolutely. Over-written? You betcha. But I’ve loved Poe since I gorged on his horror stories in my early teens. I also (unfortunately) tried to emulate his writing style, which, if ripe in content, is over-ripe in wording. Other writers of the time, such as Ambrose Bierce and Washington Irving, seem positively minimalist in contrast to Poe’s prose as-over-egged sauce. But Poe’s prose conveys the sense of decay, dis-ease, and dread that is the theme of so many of his renowned stories, from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” to “The Pit and the Pendulum,” to “The Cask of Amontillado” all, incidentally, like “Usher” with a slow buildup to an instantaneous crescendo as climax. “The Tell-Tale Heart” sees a murderer tormented by the illusion that the heart of his victim, buried beneath the floorboards, still beats—he is so plagued by the imagined beating heart that he goes from calm to hysteria in moments, while under police questioning. “The Pit and the Pendulum” features an elaborate execution device in a dungeon, in which the victim is strapped in place on a plinth in total darkness, surrounded by a deep pit while a bladed pendulum swings back and forth over him, slowly descending to the point at which it will slice him through. The nervous tension of the prisoner’s attempt to escape builds to a sudden deus ex machina. “The Cask of Amontillado” sees a jealous man, in the midst of a party, lure his rival to the wine cellar to show him a particularly fine bottle of Amontillado dessert wine. The lengthy “prank” is turned to horror at the moment the final brick is set in place, walling the enemy into the wine cellar forever.
The real horror in all of these stories is not the murderous action itself, but the psychological trauma that surrounds it. In the case of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the psychological torment is suffered by the executioner. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” it is the torment of the victim, anticipating his slow demise (or the reader, empathizing with the victim’s demise).
The moment of overt horror in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is when the undead Madeline, in her burial clothes, bursts into the bedroom to confront her brother/executioner. That’s the “boo!” or “gotcha!” scare, Hollywood film-style. The more interesting and subtle stab is the understanding of what has wracked Roderick Usher for the past few days, since his sister’s “death.” We feel that Usher realized that he had buried his sister alive early on, but he did nothing to rectify the situation. It is unclear as to whether he buried her alive knowingly, as a form of execution, or whether he genuinely thought she was dead. We can’t determine if he made a mistake, in which case the sounds of her escape are real, or if he is suffering from hysteria at her death. The fact that the narrator hears the sounds gives them reality but until the last moment we don’t know what their source is, and since Usher dies at the revelation of his sister’s moribund but living condition, we never learn what Usher actually knew. Was he hearing his sister trying to escape her punishment or was he being haunted by a woman he believed to be dead?
There is some suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the twins, and we might look to the gruesome tradition of Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome, buried alive with a single candle, a loaf of bread, and a jug of water if they broke their vow of chastity. Usher’s idealization of his sister, and the suggestion that they may have been closer than was natural, might lead us to believe that this premature burial was an intentional execution due to his guilt over what had passed between them. But such guilty secrets, if they exist, never come to light outright. I find the other interpretation, in which Usher is less villainous and more psychologically torn, more intriguing. He buried his sister, genuinely thinking that she had died, and mourning her. It was only after the fact that he began to wonder if he had erred. But he could not bring himself to check, for fear of what he might find were he to do so. Then come the sounds of Madeline breaking through the screwed-down coffin lid, and then scraping open the copper-covered iron door of the basement burial chamber, before coming to confront her brother.
The horror is in knowing that you have done something horrible, yet unable or unwilling to try to right it. Usher’s shift from anguished victim to passive executioner may be more disturbing than the idea that he is a calculated executioner all along. Though in either case, the idea pertains that “evil deeds will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.” Usher, we suspect, was nearly mad by the time the narrator enters the story and everything he does is generated by his morbid condition, his obsession with his degenerate ancestry, and his unhealthy relation to his dying sister.
But, again, Poe’s theme of premature burial is not simply his own dark imagining. In fact, scholars have identified a historical event that likely inspired “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Usher House, a building that stood until 1800 on the Lewis Wharf in Boston, is said to have been the site of a revenge-burial. A sailor was caught having an affair with the young wife of the house’s owner. The husband locked the pair into the room in which they were caught and, shades of “The Cask of Amontillado,” walled them in. In 1800, when the house was demolished, their skeletons were said to be found together in the rubble. Whether true or apocryphal, the story made the rounds in Boston in the 19th century, and Poe would surely have been familiar with it. By making the Ushers brother and sister, Poe adds a more sinister incestuous theme, richly thrilling even for pre-Freudian readers and perhaps even more uncanny for audiences today.