Can you really scare someone to death?

Getting Scared to Death

Cannon's report made no comment on damage done by vengeful exes via voodoo doll.
Cannon's report made no comment on damage done by vengeful exes via voodoo doll.
Jon Feingersh/Blend Images/Getty Images

While we all know the importance of taking care of the ticker, there may be some fear triggers that we just can't avoid, like a terrorist attack or an earthquake. Take the day of Jan. 17, 1994. That was the day the Northridge earthquake struck Los Angeles. On a normal day in Los Angeles, about five sudden deaths occur; a sudden death is generally defined as a natural death (usually attributable to heart disease) that occurs unexpectedly in someone who hasn't previously exhibited life-threatening symptoms or conditions. On the day of the earthquake, there were 24 sudden deaths [source: Harvard]. A few were linked to physical exertion, but most were attributed to the frightful earthquake. While the average age of the people that died that day was fairly high -- 68 years -- only 42 percent of those people had previously exhibited symptoms of heart disease [source: Harvard].

How often does this happen? It's hard to say, because most accounts of sudden deaths in otherwise healthy people are anecdotal. One of the most famous reports of sudden death was published in 1942 by Harvard physiologist Walter B. Cannon. Cannon reported on a phenomenon that he called "voodoo death." The physiologist noticed that sudden deaths had a habit of occurring in places where some form of voodoo or black magic was practiced, including South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. He recounted the sudden deaths of healthy men who had been cursed by a medicine man, accused of eating forbidden food items and injured by spears that were said to be enchanted. Though Cannon noted that many of the men may have brought about their own deaths by refusing food and water, they essentially died because of a fear perpetuated by their society.

Cannon attributed the ultimate cause of death to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. Essentially, the sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response we spoke of earlier. But the response is never shut down. Instead, the jolt of adrenaline acts on the heart almost like a large amount of cocaine would -- it completely shuts the organ down. At the same time, the fight-or-flight response causes the blood vessels to constrict so that valuable oxygen is cut off from the heart, further compounding the body's distress.

Walter Cannon ended his 1942 paper with a request that anyone who observed a case of voodoo death try to conduct more tests upon the subject; unlike the researchers on the last page, he lacked an ethically responsible way to study voodoo death. That gives some tales of getting scared to death the ring of urban legend.

A small group of researchers, however, continues to follow the trail blazed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Cannon. Boston neurologist Martin A. Samuels, known as the "death doctor" to his colleagues for his tales of eccentric sudden deaths, believes that the sudden death of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay in July 2006 could have been the result of fear of a looming prison sentence [sources: ABC, Das]. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University studied the effects of the "broken heart syndrome," in which extreme emotions caused something that looked like a heart failure or heart attack, but that was, in fact, different, because the blood clots and clogged ­arteries­ that cause cardiac conditions were absent [source: Grady]. Instead, the heart was just weak from stressful emotions.

This work suggests that death could happen in the wake of any shocking emotion, from intense joy at finding out a long-lost son is still alive, to deep anger at the betrayal of a loved one. Hypothetically, that means we're all at risk. But since millions of us engage in scary movies, haunted houses and rush hour traffic every year, it's hard to imagine that getting scared to death is a real threat, and both Samuels and the researchers at Johns Hopkins acknowledge that the risk of sudden death from fear or any emotion is low.

Still, it's worth thinking twice about throwing that surprise birthday party for Grandma this year. While you ponder, see the links below for more stories on the things that could frighten you into your grave.


Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Adams, Cecil. "Can someone be literally scared to death?" Straight Dope. Jan. 6, 2006. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • "Being 'Scared to Death' Can Kill." ABC News. Oct. 30, 2006. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • Cannon, Walter B. ""Voodoo" Death." American Anthropologist. 1942. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • Das, Anupreeta. "Scared to Death." Boston Globe. Aug. 6, 2006. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • Goodfriend, Marlene and Edward A. Wolpert. "Death from Fright: Report of a Case and Literature Review." Psychosomatic Medicine. September-October 1976. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • Grady, Denise. "Sudden Stress Breaks Hearts, a Report Says." New York Times. Feb. 10, 2005. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • Phillips, David P., George C. Liu, Kennon Kwok, Jason R. Jarvinen, Wei Zhang, Ian S. Abramson. "The Hound of the Baskervilles effect: A natural experiment on the influence of psychological stress on the timing of death." British Medical Journal. December. 2001. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • Richter, Curt P. "On the Phenomenon of Sudden Death in Animals and Man." Psychosomatic Medicine. 1957. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • "Sudden Cardiac Death: Why Hearts Stop." Harvard Men's Health Watch. August 2004.
  • Sullivan, Laura. "Death by Excited Delirium: Diagnosis or Coverup?" NPR All Things Considered. Feb. 26, 2007. (Dec. 17, 2008)
  • Sullivan, Laura. "Tasers Implicated in Excited Delirium Deaths." NPR All Things Considered. Feb. 27, 2007. (Dec. 17, 2008)