In the normal cases of scare or extreme fear, the bodies of the people that were scared usually come back to normal. But for the people who have been scared to death? The response isn’t quite the same.

People who are literally scared to death die because of the reaction of their bodies to the fear they felt. The responses to fear such as an increase in heart rate, the secretion of adrenaline and all the other reactions to the fight or flight impulse that we feel when we are scared is what causes their death. When this happens, it is considered medically to be death caused by an unforeseen heart failure. There are many incidences cataloged as unforeseen heart failures and even more almost fatal ones. It is generally known that people who are susceptible to or actively living with certain diseases are more liable to get scared to death. Other cases of unsolved death have been cataloged as death by abrupt heart failure caused by fear. 

You often hear people say that they were “scared to death” while recounting an experience they had. Being “scared to death” has become more of a metaphorical expression than a reality for the generality of people but that expression isn’t just an expression to some other people. It was their reality. Some people have literally been scared to death. We now have scientific proof about this phenomenon, and it is frankly scary.

While being interviewed about being scared to death, a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Dr. Ilan Wittstein, had this to say. “You have people with acute, sudden heart failure who were perfectly healthy an hour earlier.” Certain intense feelings such as extreme fear could being on an unprecedented heart attack that might prove fatal.

It isn’t only fear that can bring on a sudden heart attack. Any other intensely felt emotion or emotional response could catalyze a sudden heart failure. Responses to things like sonic booms, odoriferous substances, and the common booming noise can cause the body to release large quantities of the fight or flight hormone, adrenaline. One of the personnel interviewed remembered an incident where “We had a guy who came into the ER with chest pain after he opened his neighbor’s door. No one thought it was serious, but he actually had a heart attack. And he was a young guy with no previous medical history.” 

A professor at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Dr. Martin’s Samuel had something to contribute to the topic of being scared to death during his interview with NPR. He said “Well, it’s a strong emotional reaction of any kind. It can be positive, as you said in the lead, or negative. And when this happens suddenly, there is a pulse of autonomic activity, we call it, which means the automatic activity of the brain, which releases chemicals, natural chemicals related to adrenaline, which I’m sure everybody has heard about. And that chemical is mainly good, but there’s a small, small risk that it can do harm to the various organs, including your heart.”

In a further explanation, Dr. Samuel explained how the ensuing heart attack caused by the body’s reaction to extremely scary situations could be caused not only by terror or other heightened emotions but also by a recollection of an event or even as small a response as a surprise. He explained this better in this example he gave, “A scary experience would be one example of it, but a powerful positive emotion can do it, as well. I have an example of a guy who hit a hole in one, he played golf his whole life and hit a ball over a rise and didn’t see where it went. He and his partner went over and looked down on the green, and the ball was in the hole. And he said wow, I hit a hole in one, I can die now, and he did.”

About everyone who works in the medical field has one thing or more to say about being scared to death, and usually, they have an example to back up their claims and emergency room doctor of the Lennox Hill Hospital located in New York, Robert Glatter is not an exception. Robert Glatter has a theory on being scared to death and in an interview says,“When people feel an overwhelming fear, their fight-or-flight response jumps into action. This response likely benefited early humans when they faced a menacing beast or aggressor, giving them the necessary adrenaline to either fight the attacker or flee the scene.” 

The reactions of a body to a scary event are diverse but mostly depend on the hormone adrenaline. For instance, while scared, the pinched feeling you experience in your chest is actually the swift constriction of your heart as a result of the secretion of calcium into your heart cells. Dr. Robert Glatter explains that “Calcium rushes into the heart cells, which causes the heart muscle to contract strongly. Basically, in a massive response, the calcium keeps on pouring in, and the heart muscles can’t relax.”

On further explanation of the adverse effect of adrenaline that causes the heart attacks that prove to be fatal in cases of people who had been scared to death. Glatter says, “If a person is scared and has a large amount of adrenaline reaching his or her heart, the individual can develop an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation — an uncoordinated contraction of the heart that makes it quiver, not regularly beat as it should. It ultimately leads to a drop in blood pressure, because without blood for the brain, you lose consciousness.” 

Even though cases of being scared to death have been chiefly associated with people who already had a heart condition, Dr. Glatter says that it can happen to anyone. Anyone can easily fall victim to death by a heart attack caused by fear. According to him, “It can happen even in normal [healthy] people. It doesn’t have to be a person with pre-existing heart disease, although those people would certainly be at higher risk.”

So what happens when people die from terror? Who is then held responsible for their death? It is ruled as an accident or is the person doing the scaring held responsible? Well, legally some people have been held responsible by the law for the murder of a person who died as a result of being scared because of them. There are previous cases that have been used as a guide to resolving newer cases when they are brought to a trial. The reaction to fear itself is an involuntary action well beyond the dictates of the victim’s mind. However, if someone goes through a fatal version of that reaction as a result of your actions, then you might be considered a murderer in the eye of the law.

It is important to know that although the cause of death in such cases is the body’s reaction to certain frightening stimuli, such a bodily reaction can be had in response to heightened emotion which in this case is of the positive variety. The body reacts the same way by releasing adrenaline. This explanation is backed by examples, and an apt one is that of avid football fans who collapse to death as a result of a heightened emotion over their team’s performance. Their deaths are ruled as abrupt but fatal heart attacks just as those of the people who had been frightened to death. 

To back up the hypothesis that some dedicated sports fans die as a result of heightened emotion, research was done to estimate the truthfulness of that statement. In his reply to being asked about the relationship between death by heightened emotion and adrenaline, Dr. Samuel’s had this to say, “Yes, because there were some anecdotal cases of people who had died during excitement around sporting events. Some investigators studied the risk of sudden death during the World Cup in Germany. All the games were being played in Germany.”

As for the study results, he said, “But what they did is cleverly compare the rate of sudden death on the days when the German team was playing versus days when the German team was not playing. These were all Germans, of course, watching the games there in Germany. And the risk was almost three times greater on the days when the German team was playing. So, when they had an emotional investment in the team, there was three times the risk of sudden death during those days.”

Sometime in Charlotte, North Carolina, a young man of 20 years, Larry Whitfield, was charged with the first-degree murder of a 79-year-old woman. Apparently, Mary Parnell was scared to death when Larry broke into her house as he was on the run from a bank robbery gone wrong. Larry did not have any physical contact with Mary, but his actions scared her to death. 

When the case was presented in court, Larry was prosecuted under the North Carolina law which says that a person can be charged with murder if they cause the death of another person while either running away from a crime or committing a crime. The law also covers unintentional scares.