Voodoo/Psychogenic Death: Credible?

I saw Ashley Montagu on a 1970s ‘Johnny Carson’ rerun and he made mention of something he called ‘voodoo death.’ This is something other than sticking pins in a doll made to resemble that certain despised aunt, but something, eh, ‘factual.’

He said that it had been documented that people in primitive cultures have died simply because they broke a taboo that could condemn them do death. What happens (as he described it) basically boiled down to the brain telling the rest of the body that it was going to die, and the resultant [chemical release] would end up causing organ damage leading to death.

Sounded like a load of horse hockey to me. The wiki on it allows for some skepticism, but I found it odd that someone as respected as Montagu would adhere to a belief like this.

Does any credible anthropologist subscribe to this idea today?

[If this description is too vague, I’ll replay it and type a transcript of exactly what he said.]

I’ll bet you one bazillion dollars that the documentation does not include double-blind studies.

No. I don’t think that credible anthropologists have ever subscribed to the idea as you describe it. You can try a google search on “self-willed death” if you want to see the literature on the subject.

What actually occurs is that the person being cursed stops drinking water and dies. There is no evidence, and never has been any evidence, that it is related to the the brain telling the body it is going to die or any “chemical” release.

Death results from dehydration, simple as that.

This cursing someone to death was a serious crime in Australia until 20 years ago, punishable as manslaughter. Even then, I’ve never seen any suggestion that reputable anthropologists or medicos ever believed it was caused by some sort of psychosomatic physiological change. It was a just crime because people died through refusing to drink.

When I was a child in a very remote part of Haiti in 1950, our laundress was reputed to be a Mambo, a voodoo priestess. For a reason I don’t remember, she put a fetish with a curse on it in the path of our gardener, whereupon he set himself down in bed facing the wall, refusing all food and drink. He insisted he knew he was going to die. After some days he was greatly weakened and developed a fever. My parents had him flown out to the hospital in Port au Prince where it was determined he had developed pneumonia. He was treated for that and probably also rehydrated, as I think Blake (message above) is correct about dehydration in these cases. Feeling better must have put a different light on things for him, as he did recover and later we brought him home. There was no question in anyone’s mind at the time that he would have died without intervention,


There is a real medical condition called stress cardiomyopathy (a.k.a. takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or more floridly ‘broken heart syndrome’) in which a severe emotional shock triggers physiological changes in the heart muscle that can progress to heart failure and death. It is most commonly seen in postmenopausal women (~80% of cases), but approximately 1-2% of patients being evaluated for heart attack actually have stress cardiomyopathy. Initial symptoms include chest pain, difficulty breathing, and fainting.

The mechanism by which this works is not totally understood, but roughly speaking it is thought that a flood of adrenaline and/or other stress hormones ‘stuns’ the heart muscle cells, and they no longer function properly. The heart actually contracts abnormally, and assumes a characteristic shape that can be seen on echocardiogram or angiography (the ‘takotsubo cardiomyopathy’ name derives from the fact that the abnormally contracting heart resembles a traditional Japanese ceramic octopus trap). The initial stressor can be physical, like injury or illness somewhere else in the body, but the condition has been seen in persons who suffer only a mental or emotional shock - the death of a loved one, extreme anger, surprise, etc.

Treatment is supportive until the heart muscle recovers; if the patient survives the initial insult, the heart normally recovers completely over a period of weeks. In the absence of initial supportive care, however, the heart failure can be progressive and fatal.

All of which is background for the idea that it is quite possible for a particular emotional or mental state to induce a physiologic state that leads directly to death; at least in susceptible individuals. Breaking a death taboo or believing that you are cursed would certainly fall in the right category of ‘stressor’.

Ashley-Montagu had lots of goofy ideas, like his belief that colic in infants was actually caused by “menotoxins” that were carried through menstruating mothers’ breastmilk.


In one of my books on the war in the North Atlantic in WWII, there’s a narrative about an Asian crewman rescued after the sinking of his merchant ship by a U-boat. In the stress of the moment, he says “I die now” and starts to collapse. His crewmates assure him that “you no die” and ply him with brandy etc. He survives.

Makes a good story anyway.