IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Can you really be scared to death?

Diane Mapes writes:

Turns out Mom was right yet again. You can scare yourself to death, although not necessarily by watching Halloween horror movies.

Dr. Martin A. Samuels, who studies the sudden death phenomenon, says some people do have the potential to suddenly drop dead from fright.

“It’s a relatively uncommon thing, but it does happen,” says Samuels, chairman of the department of neurology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “You can even find references to it in the Bible.”

Not to mention Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and even recent headlines (“Robber scared grandmother to death”).

How can a person literally drop dead from fear?

It has to do with our normal fight-or-flight response, says Samuels, which sends adrenaline to various parts of the body whenever there’s a life-threatening situation. The heart rate increases, the muscles get ready for action, digestion slows, and so on.

Unfortunately, these large doses of adrenaline can also do damage to our organs, particularly the heart.

 “The release of the stress chemical adrenaline and related substances from the brain and the nervous system can cause damage to many organs,” he says. “It can cause the heart to stop or go into an abnormal rhythm and cause death.”

And it doesn’t just happen to people.

“It can happen to any animal with an advanced nervous system like ours,” says Samuels.

"Rabbits, squirrels, dogs, cats, rats, birds. Racehorses have a high rate of sudden death.”

It's relatively rare, he says, and only happens in a few people for every million. “If you think about it, our species wouldn’t have evolved to this level if it happened in large numbers.”

Samuels has spent 30 years collecting stories of sudden death. Fear or acute stress led to an increase in sudden cardiac deaths in New York after 9/11, he says, as well as in the first Gulf War, among people who “huddled in their basement thinking missiles containing poison were landing on them.”

While people with a predisposition to heart disease might be slightly more susceptible, Samuels says he’s seen cases involving people with no heart disease whatsoever as well as cases involving kids.

“It could happen to anyone at any age,” he says “There’s no way to tell in advance who would be at risk. I’ve seen children who have died on amusement park rides, young people who have had a gun held to their head and dropped dead. It’s not necessarily people with heart disease.”

Nor is it always fear that causes people to succumb. Samuels says both men and women have been known to die suddenly from grief, shock, happiness, anger, excitement or passion.

“I have one case where a golfer hit a hole-in-one and suddenly died,” he says. “And a guy who rolled a 300 bowling game and was so elated he dropped dead. One man – who was resuscitated – got so excited about a fumble while watching a Pittsburgh Steelers game that he fell over dead.”

Sudden death among sports fans has even been studied

In January 2008, the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper which examined the relation between emotional stress and the incidence of cardiovascular events during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Researchers found that “viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubled the risk of an acute cardiovascular event” and concluded preventive measures were urgently needed “particularly in men with known coronary heart disease.”

Sudden death can also be caused by superstition, says Samuels, pointing to the work of Walter Cannon, the Harvard psychologist who first wrote about the fight-or-flight response.

“He collected cases involving people who had been cursed or had a hex put on them and then died,” he says. “He referred to this as ‘voodoo death.’ As long as you believe it, you can put yourself at risk for having something like this happen.”