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Can a Person Be Scared to Death?

Is it possible to die of fright? A pop culture report.

Can a person be scared to death? According to the American Heart Association, the answer is “a very conditional ‘yes.’” When a person is frightened badly enough, a blast of adrenaline shoots through their system, and the heart pumps rapidly in an effort to get more blood to muscles. This can create physical shock that might, especially in people with pre-existing medical conditions, result in heart failure. But, as cardiologist Vincent Bufalino explains, "You can have a sudden cardiac-related event related to an adrenaline surge, but I think it would be a stretch to say you could get that from someone coming in a werewolf costume to your front door."

In 1938, Orson Welles purportedly scared someone to death. His Mercury Theater put on a performance of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds on CBS Radio. Though prefaced with the announcement that this was a show, and Welles’ introduction clearly indicates that a story is about to be told, people tuning in late might have been fooled. They would have heard the sounds of an orchestra getting interrupted by increasingly horrific reports of invaders from space. Indeed, many listeners were swept up by the yarn. Some thought it was a real attack. While historians dismiss the idea that millions took to the streets in panic, some people did exit their homes in flight, and, according to one contemporary Washington Post report, a person dropped dead of a heart attack. (Though, as Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have noted, “No one followed up to confirm the story or provide corroborative details.”)

In fiction, getting scared to death is more likely. In my study of asylums in popular culture, I encountered many instances of people experiencing great terror and then “going insane,” getting committed to mental institutions. And occasionally, fear alone was enough to kill.

My favorite version of this is in an episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Grave,” which aired in October 1961. A hired gun saunters into an Old West bar determined to catch an outlaw named Pinto Sykes. Played by Lee Marvin, Conny Miller is a gruff and tough bounty hunter in a dusty overcoat and hat. But Miller is dismayed when he learns that his quarry has already been killed by the townsfolk. He’s spent the past four months tracking Sykes, only to arrive a day late. Worse, he learns that Sykes, on his death bed, had called him a coward. Things heat up when a bar patron challenges Miller to visit the baddie’s grave and stab a knife into the dirt. Sykes had prophesied that he would “reach up and grab” Miller if he dared to visit him. Miller wants everyone to know that he is no coward. He takes the bet and heads out to the cemetery at midnight.

Once at the cemetery, Miller meets the dead man’s sister, who creepily tells him her brother is “waiting for you.” At the grave, he tentatively pokes the knife into the earth, and then lifts it and stabs with full force. He begins to rise, but is yanked downward. The next day, the townsfolk visit the grave to find Miller still there, dead as a doornail. Someone explains that Miller had caught his coat-tail with his blade, the wind whipped it underneath, and he then died of fright. But Sykes’ sister points out that the wind is blowing the wrong way. It seems Sykes had reached up and grabbed the coat himself.

The tale told in “The Grave” is older than The Twilight Zone. Versions of it had been in print for at least several decades, but it feels even older than that. However, in 1961, it had new urgency. Americans stood above their own potential grave—the world was at the brink of nuclear war. Children practiced ducking and covering under school desks. Literally five days before “The Grave” aired, a standoff at the Berlin Wall saw American and Soviet tanks facing off, ready for battle, after an East German border guard tussled with an American official.

“The Grave” surely resonated, and not merely as a well-told scary story. At that dreadful moment in history, who would not see in the brash, gun-toting Conny Miller a version of ourselves: a big, loutish giant, bristling with armaments, yet totally helpless in the face of impending annihilation? In the Cold War landscape of Mutually Assured Destruction, an attack by one superpower would trigger the dead-handed retaliation from the other, ending everything. As in 1938, when Hitler was on the rise and the Depression had yet to release its hold, in 1961, fear traveled far and wide, helped along by popular media. As Rod Serling might say, when looking up being scared to death, it’s perhaps best to begin … in The Twilight Zone.

References

American Heart Association News (Oct 31, 2018). "Can you really be scared to death?" https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/10/31/can-you-really-be-scared-to-de…. Accessed 5/4/21.

Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow (Oct 28, 2013). "The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic." Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/culture/2013/10/orson-welles-war-of-the-worlds-panic-…. Accessed 5/4/21.

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