What Is Voodoo Death?

Tara Barnett

Voodoo death is a term invented by a physiologist named Walter Cannon whose main work was on the body's fight or flight response. Cannon's explanation of the phenomenon was only partially correct, but later studies would show that psychosomatic death is entirely possible and does occur in certain situations. The basic idea behind voodoo death is that a person can be so afraid of something that he causes himself to die from the stress of encountering that fear. Even though "voodoo" is used in the name, any fear or shock from any culture can cause this condition.

The basic idea behind voodoo death is that a person can be so afraid of something that he causes himself to die from the stress of encountering that fear.
The basic idea behind voodoo death is that a person can be so afraid of something that he causes himself to die from the stress of encountering that fear.

The undeniable effectiveness of curses and omens has frequently been observed in a variety of cultures. In special circumstances, a person will receive a curse or bad omen and then later on die just as though the curse or omen had achieved its desired effect. This type of death, of course, is almost never scientifically attributed to magic or real curses. Rather, this phenomenon is usually what is known as voodoo death.

Voodoo death is caused by emotional stress.
Voodoo death is caused by emotional stress.

Roughly speaking, voodoo death is death caused by emotional stress. This stress is related to a stimulus, often a curse or omen, but occasionally merely shocking news. According to Cannon, the power of this stress is so great that it causes the individual to have a drop in blood pressure that eventually causes death. The mechanism by which blood volume is lost was not entirely clear to Cannon in his time, but later scientists posed a more comprehensive explanation involving hormones and other physical processes that were discovered after Cannon's research.

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Near cases of voodoo death may actually occur more often than most people think. For example, some people suffer from a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which can cause heart failure in the face of extreme anxiety or heartbreak. This particular disorder, however, does not always bring individuals all the way to death, although they may become very ill. Cases like this, in which the patient does not die, are much more difficult to identify.

There have been other cases in which fear of death has caused death. For example, in 1992 a man who was mistakenly told he was dying from cancer died from the fear of dying for cancer, as it was later determined that he was free of the disease. In a sense, it might make more sense to say that a person who experiences voodoo death wills himself or herself to die. This is why this type of death is so often called psychosomatic, as it is utterly real to the individual to such a degree that he or she actually causes the symptoms.

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Discussion Comments


@mobilian33 - I have to admit that I am sometimes quick to dismiss ideas that cannot be backed up with scientific evidence. This is one reason I was a bit surprised when I took a trip to New Orleans for vacation. This is a modern U.S. city and we live in the 21st Century, but there are many people in this city who still believe in voodoo, and who practice voodoo.

By the way, many of the people who believe in voodoo are well educated professionally successful people, so the belief should not be dismissed as something held by only people with limited educational backgrounds.

Basically, I am saying that I agree with the premise of voodoo death as it is mentioned in this article. The mind is very powerful and it has a way of making reality out of many of the things we choose to believe in. So if you believe in witchcraft then it can harm you, at least indirectly.


I grew up in the secluded areas of the mountains, and most of the people I knew from my parents' generation and my grandparents' generation believed in some form of magical powers such as curses and hexes and witchcraft.

I know scientist aren't going to say anything to support the validity of these kinds of practices, but it sounds to me like voodoo death is just another way of saying that witchcraft and these other black arts do indeed work.

Whether you want to say a person died because he had an evil spell placed on him or you want to say he died of emotional stress, the bottom line is that he died, so the person who cast the spell was successful, and as far as he or she is concerned the spell worked.

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