Can you actually be frightened to death?

Photo by Flickr user Kman999. Click for sourceScience isn’t sure whether fear can kill but several courts have been convinced and have convicted people for murder on the basis that they caused death through fright. An article just published in the American Journal of Cardiology summarises the eight murder trials.

The cases are not, as I first suspected, where someone had deliberately tried to kill someone else using fright as a ‘weapon’ (like in the infamous scene in Belgian serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog – clip here – warning: not pleasant).

Instead, they typically describe where someone has died of a heart attack in the midst of an armed robbery or assault, despite not being mortally wounded.

In a similar case, State v. Edwards,10 the defendant and his accomplices entered a bar in Tucson, Arizona and committed a robbery at gunpoint. Shortly after the robbers had fled, the proprietor experienced a heart attack and died. The defendant argued that the victim’s death was accidental and unintended and could not constitute murder. Moreover, the defendant maintained that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the robbery actually caused the victim’s death.

The court disagreed on both counts, finding first that accidental, unintended consequences could form the basis of a murder conviction. Second, the court pointed to the testimony of a pathologist that the death was caused by anxiety resulting from the robbery at gunpoint. The court held that this provided adequate evidence to support causation.

However, this is not the only area where supposedly being ‘frightened to death’ has caught the interest of psychologists. There is a small psychological literature on ‘psychogenic death’ that attempts to explore reports of death after curses, spells or violation of cultural taboos.

This is from an excellent brief article from 2003, published in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture:

Landy (1977, p. 327) describes the phenomenon as follows: ‘a process is set in motion, usually by a supposed religious or social transgression that results in the transgressor being marked out for death by a sorcerer acting on behalf of society through a ritual of accusation and condemnation; then death occurs within a brief span, usually 24 to 48 hours’. Ellenberger (1965) distinguishes acute from slow psychogenic death. In some cases, the death can be rapid, in other cases the process occurs over several weeks where the patient sickens and dies. There has been some doubt expressed as to whether voodoo death is part of ‘colonial folklore’ only based on anecdotal reports (Williams, 1928).

Lewis (1977, p. 11) asks, ‘Is it really the case that healthy people have died in a day or three days because they know they were victims of sorcery? Who has seen this happen with his own eyes? Is there no explanation for it but sorcery?’ Yap (1977) calls for concrete findings from anthropologists and medical field workers that can be appraised critically. Questions have arisen as to whether or not these victims had pre-existent pathological conditions predisposing them to death. There is however some direct evidence for its occurrence.

The evidence is not people just dropping dead, but from several documented cases where perfectly healthy people rapidly give up eating and drinking after being ‘cursed’ and dehydration leads to death.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘Homicide by fright’ article.
Link to DOI entry and summary for ‘psychogenic death’ article.

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