Saturday, October 31, 2015

Buried Alive! The Immersive Experience


Ryan Reynolds in Buried (2010)


The pathological fear of being buried alive is called taphophobia.1  This seems like a perfectly rational fear to me, especially if one is claustrophobic and enjoys horror movies and Edgar Allan Poe short stories. Within a modern medical context, however, it simply not possible that a person will be buried while still alive.

But this wasn't always the case. In the 19th century, true stories of premature burial were common, appearing in newspapers and medical journals of the day. Tebb and Vollum (1896) published a 400 page tome (Premature burial and how it may be prevented: with special reference to trance, catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation) that was full of such examples:

The British Medical Journal, December 8, 1877,
p. 819, inserts the following : —

"BURIED ALIVE.

"A correspondent at Naples states that the Appeal Court has had before it a case not likely to inspire confidence in the minds of those who look forward with horror to the possibility of being buried alive. It appeared from the evidence that some time ago a woman was interred with all the usual formalities, it being believed that she was dead, while she was only in a trance. Some days afterwards, the grave in which she had been placed being opened for the reception of another body, it was found that the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb. The Court, after hearing the case, sentenced the doctor who had signed the certificate of decease, and the mayor who had authorised the interment, each to three months' imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter."

To avoid this fate worse than death, contraptions known as “safety coffins” were popular, with air tubes, bells, flags, and/or burning lamps (Dossey, 2007). Some taphophobes went to great lengths to outline specific instructions for handling their corpse, to prevent such an ante-mortem horror from happening to them. Some might even say these directives were a form of “overkill”...

From the Lancet, August 20, 1864, p. 219.

"PREMATURE INTERMENT.

"Amongst the papers left by the great Meyerbeer, were some which showed that he had a profound dread of premature interment. He directed, it is stated, that his body should be left for ten days undisturbed, with the face uncovered, and watched night and day. Bells were to be fastened to his feet. And at the end of the second day veins were to be opened in the arm and leg. This is the gossip of the capital in which he died. The first impression is that such a fear is morbid. No doubt fewer precautions would suffice, but now and again cases occur which seem to warrant such a feeling, and to show that want of caution may lead to premature interment in cases unknown. An instance is mentioned by the Ost. Deutsche Post of Vienna. A few days since, runs the story, in the establishment of the Brothers of Charity in that capital, the bell of the dead-room was heard to ring violently, and on one of the attendants proceeding to the place to ascertain the cause, he was surprised at seeing one of the supposed dead men pulling the bell-rope. He was removed immediately to another room, and hopes are entertained of his recovery."

Here's a particularly gruesome one:

From the Daily Telegraph, January 18, 1889.

"A gendarme was buried alive the other day in a village near Grenoble. The man had become intoxicated on potato brandy, and fell into a profound sleep. After twenty hours passed in slumber, his friends considered him to be dead, particularly as his body assumed the usual rigidity of a corpse. When the sexton, however, was lowering the remains of the ill-fated gendarme into the grave, he heard moans and knocks proceeding from the interior of the 'four-boards.' He immediately bored holes in the sides of the coffin, to let in air, and then knocked off the lid. The gendarme had, however, ceased to live, having horribly mutilated his head in his frantic but futile efforts to burst his coffin open."

Doesn't that sound like fun? Wouldn't you like to experience this yourself? Now you can!



Taphobos, an immersive coffin experience (by James Brown)


How does it work?

The game uses a real life coffin, an Oculus Rift, a PC and some microphones. One player gets in the coffin with the Rift on, together with a headset + microphone. The other player plays on a PC again with mic + headset, this player will play a first person game where they must work with the buried player to uncover where the coffin is and rescue the trapped player before their oxygen runs out. This is all powered by the Unity engine.

But why?? (Brown, 2015):

This work is intended to explore “uncomfortable experiences and interactions” as part of academic research in the Human Computer Interaction field (HCI) from an MSc by Research in Computer Science student, James Brown. The player inside the coffin will experience various emotions as they are put in and then try to get out of the confined space. Claustrophobia as well as the fear of being buried alive “taphophobia” may well affect players of the game and they must cope with these emotions as they play.





Further Reading

taphobos.com

Buried Alive! (October 31, 2011)


Footnote

1 Also spelled taphephobia. From the Greek taphos, or grave.


References

Brown J. (2015). Taphobos: An Immersive Coffin Experience. British HCI 2015, July 13-17, 2015, Lincoln, United Kingdom.

Dossey L. (2007). The undead: botched burials, safety coffins, and the fear of the grave. Explore (NY). 3:347-54.

Tebb W, Vollum EP. (1896). Premature burial and how it may be prevented: with special reference to trance, catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation. SWAN SONNENSCHEIN & CO., LIM.: London.  {archive.org}

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