On Being Scared to Death

From the Wall Street Journal article “Inside Movies and Real-Life Risks,” we learn about the phenomenon of being scared to death:

Fear can be fatal. Martin A. Samuels, chief of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has collected hundreds of reports of people whose hearts have suddenly stopped during times of extreme stress or emotion.

“The heart muscles contract involuntarily in a characteristic pattern, and they don’t relax again because of the huge rush of stress hormones,” says Dr. Samuels, who thinks that many disaster victims may die from fear rather than injuries, although obtaining proof in autopsies is difficult.

Researchers have noted a spike in sudden cardiac deaths following earthquakes and other disasters. For example; there were triple the typical number of heart attacks at 11 Worcester, Mass., hospitals on Sept. 11, 12 and 13, 2001, immediately after the terrorist attacks, according to a study in the American Journal of Cardiology. People have also suffered sudden heart attacks at times of extreme joy or excitement—such as hitting a hole-in-one in golf or being acquitted of a crime.

And in rare cases, people have had fatal reactions to make-believe situations. One woman in Wichita, Kan., died of an apparent heart attack while watching the 2004 film “The Passion of Christ,” with its crucifixion depiction, and at least two children have apparently been scared to death on amusement-park rides.

Another interesting tidbit from the piece, which I never heard about before:

 In a famous 1986 experiment, Indiana University psychologist Dolf Zillmann interviewed 36 pairs of students after showing them excerpts of slasher film “Friday the 13th.” The more distressed the woman was by the movie, the more attractive her date found her. The less distressed the man was, the more attractive his date found him.

So gentlemen: next time, take your date to the scariest movie playing at the theater. Just don’t have a heart attack in the process.

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