The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Voodoo Death I

Hex death is not restricted to tribal societies - it may visit hospitals ...

Most of us are preoccupied with prolonging our lives by remaining fit and healthy. We are led to believe that a healthy body guarantees long life. Yet, there is evidence that some people die despite being young and in good health. When they lose the well to live, they perish as surely as though they had been asphyxiated. 

Voodoo death

Anthropologists who reported that their subjects died mysteriously after being cursed or condemned by with doctors, or tribal courts. It achieved scientific respectability with the publication of a detailed report by Walter Cannon (1) – a distinguished pioneer in biological psychology.

One of Cannon’s (reasonably well documented) cases of voodoo death concerned a Maori woman who ate fruit and subsequently learned that it had come from a taboo place in direct violation of her chief’s edict. The New Zealand woman died within a day of eating the cursed fruit. A similar incident involved a young African Negro who accidentally ate some wild hen, although this was tabooed on pain of death. Overcome by panic and a sense of helplessness he also died within a day.

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In such cases of voodoo death, the critical factor is the person’s knowledge of the magic spell and their certainty that death will soon follow for anyone who breaks the taboo, however innocently. This belief is backed up by the behavior of friends and relatives who treat the hexed person as though they are dying. Our sense of reality is affected by the perceptions of others around us and their expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many cases of voodoo death, the cursed person is overwhelmed by hopelessness to the extent of refusing all food and water. According to Cannon’s reports, death typically came within one to two days of being cursed, so that the cause of death was clearly of psychological origin, rather than hunger or thirst which generally take much longer.

The phenomenon of voodoo death, or hex death remains controversial and poorly understood. Its relevance to technologically advanced societies is also questionable because there is little belief in witchcraft and no witch doctor to point the bone at a condemned person. Yet doctors may have a similar effect and it has long been known that the mere diagnosis of a terminal illness is capable of shortening life (2).

During the Korean War, prisoners held in psychologically abusive camps in mainland China manifested something very like voodoo death. Victims were young healthy men who were poorly nourished and subjected to Communist brainwashing. They would become uncommunicative, retire to their beds and die within days (3). Fellow prisoners described the phenomenon as “give-up-it is.” 

There are many cases of psychosomatic death in the medical literature

Take the case of a patient of Nashville, Tennessee, internist Clifton K. Meador (4) who underwent surgery for cancer of the esophagus. Following surgery, the patient “Sam Shoeman”, who was in his seventies received bleak news. His liver scan was quite abnormal, suggesting extensive cancerous growths in the entire left lobe of the liver. Suspecting terminal cancer, his doctors told him that he had only a few months to live. Following the bad news from his liver scan, his whole purpose was merely to survive until Christmas, that he might celebrate it with his relatives. Shoeman made good progress and left the hospital late in October. He was readmitted just after New Year’s day, and died within 24 hours.

What is remarkable about this case is that the man did not really have terminal cancer. The liver scan had been botched and the autopsy revealed only a single 2-centimeter nodule of cancerous tissue that could not possibly have killed him. Why did he die? Like victims of the tribal court, Shoeman was convinced that he was about to die and all of the people around him shared the conviction. He had also received a deadline, so to speak, expecting that he would be lucky to make it past Christmas. Hence his death, of psychosomatic causes, on January 2.

The killer anniversary

This case history illustrates not just the powerful negative effect of an adverse diagnosis. (This is the opposite of the beneficial placebo effect and is referred to as a “nocebo.”) It also demonstrates that anniversaries such as Christmas can have a powerful effect on the timing of death.

Of course, this implies that the affected deaths are psychosomatic ones. I return to the killer anniversary phenomenon in a future post. 

1.Cannon, W. (1942). Voodoo death. American Anthropologist, 44, 169-181.

2. Lester, D. (2009). Voodoo death. Omega, 59, 1-18.

3. Cialdini, R. B. (1988). Influence: Science and practice (2nd ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

4. Meador, C. K. (1992). Hex death: Voodoo magic or persuasion. Southern Medical Journal, 85, 244-247.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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