Thursday, October 28, 2010

Presumed Dead?

Here's a news article about an 89-year-old woman in our area who was mistakenly pronounced dead:

Baltimore Sun

In brief, neighbors called 9-1-1 because she had not been seen in several days. Police found her on the bathroom floor, "blue" and apparently not breathing. Concluding she was dead, they contacted her family and discovered she had planned to donate her body for anatomical study. After she'd lain on the floor for three hours, an official from the anatomy board arrived to collect the "body" and noticed movement.

Sadly, she died for real fifteen days later. At this stage in the investigation, there's no telling whether she would have recovered if given prompt treatment. Of course, the primary lesson of this incident is that the local police need better training in dealing with medical emergencies.

However, some thoughts for Halloween week:

As a lifelong reader of horror and fantasy, I couldn't help thinking that if I were writing this story, the woman would recover and survive for a long time—but changed. She would have "really" died, and another entity would have taken possession of her body to restore it to "life." A TWILIGHT ZONE episode involved a "dead" man who came back to life in his coffin during his funeral. We're not sure whether he's truly himself or a demon in his body, until the final scene when he produces fire from the tip of his finger. As far as I can remember, this character seemed like a fairly benign demon; he didn't do any harm and apparently just wanted a body to live in. A delightfully chilling, yet subtle and understated classic horror story, "Clay-Shuttered Doors" (1926) by Helen R. Hull, has the same premise. A woman appears to die but comes back to life. It gradually becomes clear that some other entity dwells in her body. And, of course, the entire plot of Stephen King's PET SEMATARY (one of my favorite horror novels of all time, and one of the small number that have actually scared me) rests on the concept of a dark power animating bodies interred in the cursed burial ground., an irresistibly fascinating Internet time vampire, has a page devoted to this motif, "Came Back Wrong."

In my erotic ghost romance novella "Heart Diamond" (Ellora's Cave), I have the ghost taking over the body of his brother at the moment of death, one of the few ways I could think of to give a ghost and his mortal lover a life together. In this case the possessor has a benign motive.

Not-so-benign ghost possession goes at least as far back as Poe's "Ligeia," in which the dead first wife apparently kills the second wife to steal her body.

Suppose aliens who needed a new home but couldn't survive on our planet in their natural forms decided to establish a life here by taking over the bodies of the recently dead? From their perspective, they wouldn't be doing any harm; the deceased aren't using those bodies anymore. (Contrast the alien minds-in-fishbowls in one STAR TREK episode who take over *living* bodies among the crew of the Enterprise.) That's sort of what the hero in STARMAN does, except that he doesn't possess the dead husband's body; he generates a clone of it from a lock of hair. Think of the young widow's emotional confusion multiplied by thousands or millions—such an "invasion" could produce quite a social upheaval.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. This story immediately made me think of a little girl who died of diphtheria, I think, about a hundred years ago. They buried her in the family crypt. A few years later, they opened the crypt to bury another deceased family member, only to find her skeleton at the door where'd died, for real, trying to get out.

  2. KimberAn -- That's a sobering incident to think about. But the girl did die trying to get out of the crypt -- so what if she reincarnated? What issues would plague her new life because of that kind of death? There's huge potential there for storytelling.

  3. Oh, yes, that's probably why it's been stuck in my mind for so long.