Did I Scare You?
Can you be scared to death?
The short answer is yes, absolutely.
Dr. Martin Samuels, Chief of Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital summarized the mechanism in Scientific American as the familiar “fight-or-flight” response. The outpouring of adrenaline in our blood in response to stress can inundate the rhythm center of the heart, causing it to lose control, resulting in ventricle fibrillation and persistent contraction or “cramping” of the heart muscle. That stops the effective pumping of our heart, and we drop dead. (1)
The “flight-or-flight” response was first described in the early 1900’s by William Cannon, Chairman of Physiology, Harvard University. It can be in reaction to any strong emotional event, pleasurable as well as not-so-pleasurable. It may cause sudden death during a passionate religious experience or sexual intercourse. I have written previously about increased cardiac deaths in both Germany and Los Angles related to close soccer championship and American Super bowl games. During the week after 9/11 there was an uptick of cardiac deaths in New York city. Apparently, even getting a hole-in-one can kill you! It is this mechanism that explains the limited successes of voodoo curses, but unlike other forms of complimentary medicine like acupuncture and Reiki you have to believe in voodoo to have it work.
So much for the medical side of things. What does the law say? Can you be sued or charged with a crime if your action leads to a person’s death? It depends on your intent.
If you inadvertently harm a person you must likely will be held harmless. If you intentionally surprise or seek to scare a person and they die, you can be charged with “negligence” and found guilty. In 1979 a 20 yo.man who broke into the home of a 79 yo. woman and took her hostage was sentenced to life imprisonment in federal court after she died from a heart attack while in his custody. But, the actual charges were “kidnapping” and “negligence” – failure to seek treatment for her.
What about just a good old fashioned “blood-curdling scream”? Well, that can cause you trouble too. Dutch physicians studied 24 healthy volunteers and found that viewing a scary movie, like “Halloween 1, or 2, …#13”, could cause the initiation of the “coagulation cascade” in their blood. This cascade involves multiple “factors” (proteins) that cause us to form a clot when cut, so that we don’t bleed to death from a simple cut. The cascade is started by Factor VIII, and Factor VIII levels increased by an average of 11 units after viewing a horror film. No increase was seen after watching an educational film. An increase of 10 units of Factor VIII increases your chance of forming a blood clot by 17%. (2) Forming a blood clot inside a vein can lead to a pulmonary embolism, another cause of sudden death in apparently healthy people.
If you are reading this blog it means that you have survived the creepy clowns and other scares of Halloween 2016, but don’t be smug.
The Presidential election is just days away, so you are still at risk of being “scared to death” by a clown.
1.’“Can a Person Be Scared to Death?”, Scientific American, January 30, 2009
2. “Blood Curdling Movies”, British Medical Journal, December 16, 2015