Planking, Hospitals For The Dead, And The Creepy Origins Of “Saved By The Bell”

Published March 30, 2015
Updated September 1, 2017
Published March 30, 2015
Updated September 1, 2017

One of these well-intentioned but odd solutions was the creation of “hospitals for the dead”, where the bodies would be kept under observation for a few days to make sure they were really did. “Waiting mortuaries”, as they were called, were well stocked with food, wine and cigars in the event that a person actually did wake up there with a decree of, “I’m not dead yet!” a la Monty Python.

It was a creative correction, but it didn’t really address the real issue: medical knowledge and technology hadn’t progressed far enough to understand how catalepsy worked and why it wasn’t even necessarily a sign of imminent demise.

It did hold a certain fascination to medical professionals and laymen alike, who would often pose the unsuspecting catatonic individuals for photographs that bear resemblance to what we today call “planking”.

Catalepsy Plank

Source: Wikimedia

Catalepsy also includes an insensitivity to pain, which lasts the duration of the episode and means that the other measures taken during the 19th century to “test deadness” were equally ineffective.

People who were thought to be dead would get their fingers hacked off or smoke literally blown up their ass in the form of a tobacco smoke enema. It was assumed that if someone didn’t wake up to that there was little to no risk of premature internment.

Just in case, inventors jumped at the chance to design “safety coffins”, many of which were equipped with horns or bells (where the term “saved by the bell” comes from) which could alert people above ground that the, uh, corpse was not actually dead. Some models even had a stash of poison just in case the person figured out they wouldn’t be saved and wanted to die a little quicker.

Catalepsy Womoan

Source: WordPress

No one actually knows if these measures did save anyone, but it certainly quelled anxiety, which served both a social and medicinal purpose.

While it would be many more years before catatonia was understood, oddly enough as a state induced by hypnosis, our modern day understanding of it means that being buried alive is a rarity. Catalepsy, on the other hand, is actually relatively common and is now understood to fall into the category of REM sleep disorders like narcolepsy.

People who experience the state–either as part of drug withdrawals, schizophrenia or other disorders–can take medication and practice relaxation techniques that help them live a basically normal life; no longer must they fear the (early) reaper.


For more on the unbelievable medical conditions and treatments of yesteryear, check out these haunting images of Victorian mental asylums and the brutally painful treatments of the Middle Ages.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.