Thursday, October 25, 2012

For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Bateson Revival Device and Other Freaky Stories of Premature Burial, Funeral Customs, and the Walking Dead (copter needed)

Paranormal Wastelands is proud to welcome Varla Ventura author of The Book of the Bizarre: Freaky Facts & Strange Stories

Nothing makes the heart pound like the thought of being chased, be it through thorny wood or up winding staircases, through tangle of night or breaking dawn, with the dead hot on your heels. (Or should I say cold at your feet?) I certainly have had one-too-many dreams about being chased by zombies, no doubt a result of watching one-too-many horror movies.

What makes you hide under the covers or sleep with the light on? Perhaps it’s the common fear of being buried alive. The taste of dirt in you mouth, fingernails torn to shreds as you desperately try to claw your way out. Out of the coffin, out of the grave, out into the free air.

Lurid stories from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were spread in the popular press about premature burial. Some of these tales were spread by well-meaning doctors; for example, postmortem reports described corpses with their fingers chewed offa sign, some doctors said, that the corpse awoke and was panicked and hungry enough to chew its own extremities. In reality, most or all of the cases were actually the result of rodent infestation. However, there was good reason for people to be terrified of being buried alive. Not all medical professionals were particularly skilled at telling the difference between dead and unconscious, and burials happened so fast (due to the heat in some places and the absence of preserving chemicals) that it was not unheard of for a person to wake up underground.

John Bateson was an inventor with paranoia about this very situation, and so he came up with the Bateson Revival Devicea small church bell attached to the lid of the coffin and connected to a cord strapped to the deceased’s hand. The idea was if you woke up in a coffin, you could ring the bell until somebody rescued you. Because his fears were shared by hundreds of people, Bateson was made wealthy with the device.

Egbert Viele was buried in a replica of an Egyptian pyramid at West Point Cemetery in New York. He was so afraid of being buried alive that he added a finishing touch to the memorial--a buzzer connected to the caretaker’s house was installed close to Viele’s body. It never rang.

One of my favorite stories I’ve read over the years came from the book Scottish Bodysnatchers: True Accounts. Author Norman Adams paints several gruesome tales of premature burial and inadvertent rescue. Among them is the account of Maggie Dickson, who was hung in 1724 in Inveresk, presumably for a self-induced abortion that she had attempted to conceal. Maggie was hung in the town square, and it is said that the hangman pulled and swung on her legs once the noose was tightened and the ladder was kicked out, just for good measure. She was cut down, apparently dead, and her body was put in a cart by her relatives to be taken home for burial. Along the way, the family and friends of the deceased Maggie stopped for a drink. While the mourners were inside the alehouse, Maggie regained consciousness. Her weak cries attracted help, and a local surgeon revived her. Later, she was granted her freedom and went on to live many years, being widely known as “Half-Hangit” Maggie.
A similar tale is one from Aberdeenshire, where Merjorie Elphinstone was buried alive and rousted from her premature eternal slumber by a grave robber who was trying to steal the rings from her fingers. And there is the story of the minister’s wife, Margaret Halcrow. She was saved from an untimely fate when a sexton attempted to rob her grave and found her alive. Her husband was quite shocked to find her knocking on the door one evening.

And if being buried alive isn’t your greatest fear, perhaps it is the idea that something will reach out from its own earthly deathbed and come after you?

The origin of the tombstone lies in the fear of the dead, it seems. Lest the restless spirit, zombie, or other ghastly incarnation of the formerly living try to escape from its well-nailed coffin and six feet of earthly barrier, a large heavy stone was added to the grave to ensure it was sealed. Later, the tombstone was used more formally as a place on which to engrave epitaphs and depict angels, doves, and similar symbols of heavenly ascension.

So when you are out there, cemetery gazing or watching zombie flicks, don’t forget to listen for the sound of a bell. Consider it a warning.

Varla Ventura is giving one lucky Us/Canadian Wastelander the chance to win a signed copy of her book TheBook of the Bizarre plus Halloween and zombie swag!


  1. Zombies have never featured in my nightmares. However, as a young girl I watched a schlocky movie involving space aliens, walking around their downed ship, in some forest. They looked like cyclops in a space suit. Took me years to get rid of that nightmare!

  2. YAY Zombies! I love zombies! Even got a Zombie Pinup Girl tat!

  3. I screwed up when leaving my address. Here is my email to contact me if I'm so lucky as to win. I'm in the mood for some zombies:)

  4. I followed Laura's lead and screwed up, too! I signed in with my email, but here it is again for when I win (positive thinking) you can contact me at

    Grampy will do just fine for now; when you contact me, I'll give you the real name to make it out to. Thanks!

    I guess the rafflecopter is too technological for me!

  5. Being chased by zombies...being buried alive...I'm certain to have nightmares tonight. LOL

    Thanks for the giveaway.

  6. Cool book! I love this season.

  7. Heard great things about this one! Thanks for the chance to win! Love zombies!

  8. I've always loved books like this! Halloween is a favorite time of year although creepy books are good any time. Thanks for the offer!

  9. Love ZOMBiE related things!!!
    Signed book and SWAG soungs so GOOD right now.

  10. Thank you for this awesome giveaway! Happy Halloween!