In 1921, H.P. Lovecraft wrote a serialized short story called “Herbert West—Reanimator” for a magazine called Home Brew. It concerns two medical students, our narrator and his peer Herbert West who has a fascination with life after death. His goal is to reanimate a human body and receive a conscious reaction, and hopefully some recount of the places in between life and death.
Although Lovecraft hated this particular piece of his, and did it only because he was paid decently, it went on to inspire one of the most beloved cult classic films of all time, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. Gordon takes liberties with the text and gives a gory, crass, romping good time.
Lovecraft was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and wrote “Herbert West—Reanimator” as a parody. I, however, was inspired to look into some real-life stories of reanimation and some other fun indirect connections to this story that are based in fact.
They say fact is stranger than fiction, and with this notion, we welcome you to True Story Tuesday.
Dr. Sergei Brukhonenko—Reanimator
In Stalin-era Russia there was a Soviet scientist named Sergei Brukhonenko who was famously an open-heart surgeon and more infamously a reanimator. He received much controversy over a 1940 film called Experiments in the Revival of Organisms; this introduces Brukhonenko’s device - the autojektor - a heart and lung machine used to maintain life. The film showcases experiments Brukhonenko performed on various parts of a dog, such as a heart, which can be seen beating on its own, suspended by tubes and cables. The most disturbing part, and weirdly enough pretty much a scene right out of Re-Animator, is when they show a dog’s decapitated head kept alive by the autojektor. It is up to you to decide if the scene is fake or not, but I think we can all agree that it is downright creepy.
When the Dead Come Back
What is more horrifying than a loved one dying? How about them coming back to life! This happens surprisingly often in countries where bodies aren’t embalmed and advanced medical technology isn’t accessible. Sometimes people are just mistaken as dead; other times are a bit stranger. South Africa is one of those places where lack of modern medicine equipment often makes it hard to test that someone is clinically dead; one man in Zimbabwe was lying in a coffin at his funeral when one of the attendees filing past noticed his leg twitching. Thankfully the man came to before they could seal him up forever—--an ambulance was called and he was saved. Another South African man suffered an asthma attack and his distraught family members immediately thought he had died, so they called and made funeral arrangements. The poor man eventually woke up—in a morgue freezer surrounded by corpses. When he started screaming the present morticians thought it was a ghost and ran out of the building. A group returned later and released the man.
One burial custom of a Chinese village is that the deceased rest in a coffin within their home a few days before they are eventually buried. This is what was done for a 95-year-old woman who was found unconscious and believed dead. When her neighbor went to check on her coffin, she found the lid pried open and the woman gone. She was found in her kitchen, cooking, since she woke up from a very long sleep and wanted something to eat.
An unlucky Venezuelan man woke up in the middle of his own autopsy due to the pain of the medical examiners cutting open his face. They thought it was odd when their scalpel drew fresh blood, and even odder when their corpse awoke; they immediately stitched him up and he returned home to his wife.
This last story is the most heartbreaking as well as the most unsettling: a Brazilian boy was lying in his coffin as his family prepared for his funeral to begin. Suddenly, the child sits up in the coffin and kindly asks his father for a glass of water because he is thirsty. Everyone began screaming, but a moment later the little boy lay back down, and died.
|Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis portray the devilish duo...|
In Lovecraft’s story, the narrator and Dr. Herbert West’s goal is to obtain a body as fresh as possible. Dead bodies are hard to come by—no questions asked, that is—so the two take up robbing graves of their bodies.
This was actually a repulsive trend in the early 1800s, as legal supply for human cadavers was low, and surgeons and medical students demand high. Some took to body snatching, but two Irish men named Burke and Hare’s methods were a little grimmer.
It started when a neighbor of theirs died of natural causes; they brought the body to a Dr. Knox at Edinburg University, who paid them handsomely for their prize. Tired of just waiting for people to die, the duo took to murdering people and giving the bodies to Knox, who took them and placed payment in the men’s hands. Burke and Hare killed over 10 people within ten months. Their usual method was getting the victim supremely drunk and then suffocating them, but some died more cruelly, such as a mute twelve-year-old who had his back broken over Hare’s knee. The two were eventually caught when a body was found stashed under Burke’s bed.
I’m sure they would have made a fortune off of Dr. Herbert West…
Reanimation in Modern Science
The Lazarus Phenomena is when a person automatically regains resuscitation after CPR has been administered, and failed. The most common cases of this phenomenon are in people who have suffered a cardiac arrest, which isn’t too surprising, considering it is the leading cause of death in America. CPR is usually applied for an average of 15 minutes (although it varies on who is performing) before “calling it”—the longer it takes to revive after the heart has stopped beating, the less likely there will be brain damage due to lack of oxygen flowing to the brain. In cases of the Lazarus Phenomena (named as such after Biblical figure Lazarus who laid dead for four days before being resurrected by Jesus), victims of heart failure come back to life after being verbally declared dead of their bodies own accord. However, a new experimental method in resuscitation could increase the success rate of CPR.
In Australia they have upgraded from using good old-fashioned elbow grease to perform CPR and started using a device called an Auto-Pulse, which is a portable machine that consists of a band that wraps around the persons chest and gives regular chest compressions that keep the heart beating. Pairing this up with an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which is an artificial heart and lung machine that keep these vital organs working while doctors can diagnose the cause of heart failure and treat it. In this particular hospital in Australia three patients have been revived after being dead after up to an hour. Similar efforts in Japan have revived people who had been dead for hours.
The reason our Dr. Herbert West wanted extremely fresh specimens is because of the possible brain damage that is possible when oxygen is cut off from the brain. Even though resuscitation is becoming more advanced, brain damage is still a risk of being revived after being clinically dead. Let’s just hope you don’t end up like one of the Re-Animator’s subjects.
Take care, everybody, and keep your eyes peeled for more True Story Tuesdays!