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The Strange Mystery of Voodoo Death

The human mind is a morass of weird and unexplained mysteries that we have only managed to barely scratch the surface of. It is an uncharted territory in many ways, elusive and holding within it all manner of anomalies and oddities, many of which we may perhaps never come to a conclusive understanding of. From the depths of history there have long been cases of mysterious curses that cause us to waste away and die, so is there perhaps a link between such tales and the powers of our own minds? One theory seems to point that there is such a link, and that our very minds have the ability to cause us to wither away and die, in a process that remains unexplained and in the realm of the unknown.

The term most often referred to as “Voodoo Death” or also sometimes as “Hex Death,” is the controversial and debated idea that death can be brought about not only by physical ailments, injuries, or diseases, but also by the mind itself. In such cases, stress, fear, shock, and simply the belief that one is dying can physically make it so, more or less a psychosomatic death brought about by the belief of incoming doom itself. The bizarre phenomenon was long known of by anthropologists, who noticed that in some tribal societies simply being cursed by magic would cause the victim to steadily deteriorate until they died, but this was only first brought to the public consciousness in 1941 by the American physiologist, professor and chairman of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School Dr. Walter Cannon. He theorized that in some cases, a human being could become in a sense “cursed” by a perceived outside force, to the point that their physical condition would deteriorate in response to psychological distress, sometimes quite rapidly, ending in their death.

Cannon suggested that such instances of Voodoo death were common in aboriginal societies or those in which belief in magic and the supernatural were particularly strong, and he would cite numerous examples of this happening. There were tribes in which a medicine man could point a “magic bone” at a victim and curse them, after which the person would experience a rapid decline in physical health and death sometimes as quickly as within 24 hours. In one of his famous cases, he explained the story of a Maori woman who ate a fruit that was no way poisonous, but when she learned that this particular fruit had come from a taboo place, she quickly lost her health and perished. In other cases, the spell was reverted, such as in the case of a report by a Dr. S. M. Lambert of the Western Pacific Health Service, working with a mission in North Queensland, Australia. According to the report, a victim called “Rob” came in complaining that he had been hexed and was dying, and Cannon would explain of what happened:

From the missionary he (Dr. Lambert) learned that Rob has had a bone pointed at him by Nebo (a “witch doctor”) and was convinced that in consequence he must die. Thereupon Dr. Lambert and the missionary went to Nebo, threatening him that his supply of food would be shut off if anything happened to Rob and that he and his people would be driven away from the Mission. At once Nebo agreed to go with them to see Rob. He leaned over Rob’s bed and told the sick man that it was all a mistake, a mere joke—indeed, and that he had not pointed a bone at him at all. The relief, Dr. Lambert testifies, was almost instantaneous; that evening Rob was back at work, quite happy again, and in full possession of his physical strength.

Cannon would collect a myriad of cases like this from such far-flung places as the tribes of South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the islands of the Pacific, and Haiti. Cannon basically believed this to be the ultimate effect of fear and stress caused by the deep belief in the supernatural forces being aimed against them, which had then caused a physiological response that had led to their deterioration and death, all further cemented by the reactions of others in their society who treat them as truly cursed and doomed to die. This would lead to a variety of negative affects on the body, including a division of the nervous system, a fall in blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, rapid breathing, and the sudden loss of appetite and will to live, which would all conspire against the victim. Cannon would say of this:

The victim will pine away; his strength runs out like water; and in the course of a day or two he succumbs. The combination of lack of food and water, anxiety, very rapid pulse and respiration, associated with a shocking experience having persistent effects, would fit well with fatal conditions reported from primitive tribes. Their medicine men have tremendous power over them: if they doom one of them to die, the unfortunate will accept his fate, isolate himself from his family and pass away within a short time.

In essence, our sense of reality and mental health was seen as having a profound effect on our physical health, with mind over matter being fatally real in such cases. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not restricted to just remote primitive tribes hiding away from civilization, and there are plenty of cases of this happening in modern society. One case happened in Nashville, Tennessee, with a patient who had been admitted to have surgery for cancer of the esophagus. He was then told that the cancer had spread and become terminal, with a prognosis of only a few months to live. His health then deteriorated rapidly until he passed away just as predicted. However, bizarrely it was found after his death that he did not in fact have terminal cancer, and that the scans had been botched. Indeed, there was found only a small tumor that in no way could have killed him. The theory is that he and his family were so convinced he was dying of cancer that his mind simply made it so, a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy. One physician has said of such cases:

The patient, when first confronted with the problem of his malignant disease appears to disregard it and be extraordinarily cheerful. Overnight the patient’s whole manner changes and he is physically and mentally transformed. He literally turns his face to the wall and lies inert in bed. He does not seem to be terrified but shows bland indifference. Within a month of the onset of his syndrome the patient will almost certainly be dead. If a necropsy is carried out there will often appear to be no adequate explanation for the cause of death.

Another famous report comes from 1960, when a business man named Finis P. Ernest, of Oklahoma City, began to display some strange symptoms that no one could explain. The owner of a successful nightclub, the normally healthy man had suddenly been beset with asthma attacks shortly after agreeing to sell his business. He was first hospitalized in January of 1960 in a semi-conscious state, suffering from breathing difficulties, but was soon released when his symptoms subsided. A few months later he would be admitted again with the same asthma-like symptoms, as well as convulsions and seizures, and he would be released and re-admitted like this over the next few months, all of this as the sale of his nightclub was going through. The attending physician, a Dr. James Mathis, could find nothing actually physically wrong with Ernest, yet his condition would continue to get worse, to the point that he was now being admitted to the hospital multiple times with “near-terminal” symptoms, the causes of which could not be ascertained.

Dr. Mathis began to see a pattern in these hospitalizations, in that they seemed to coincide with Ernest’s visits to his mother, and when he was advised to try not visiting her for a while his symptoms disappeared entirely. A look into the history of the two of them showed that they were uncommonly close, and not only that, but she had been strongly against the sale of his nightclub, of which she was his business partner. When he had decided against her wishes to sell it, she had allegedly told him, “Do this, and something dire will happen to you.” Two days later, his mysterious illness had started. In the end, on the day on which Ernest was to reinvest the money he had made off the sale of the nightclub he had gotten a call from his mother telling him that to go through with it would be the end of him, and he seemed to really believe it. His health took a steep downturn for the worse, and after a bout of intense lung difficulties he passed away in August of 1960. An autopsy could find nothing physically wrong with him, no evidence of a heart attack or stroke, nothing at all to explain why he was dead. The only answer doctors could come up with was that he had psychosomatically killed himself due to his extreme conviction that his mother’s dire omen had been true.

Is any of this real? Can our own minds, when convinced of attacks against us either magically or physiologically, cause us to have psychologically-induced body failure? At the moment it all seems to be highly anecdotal and unproven in the medical field, but it still lurks about on the periphery. Is our mind capable of killing us simply from being strongly suggested to do so? Are we at the whims of these little explained forces? It is hard to say for sure, and it is a curious medical mystery and proof that there is possibility that out beliefs and minds have a more profound effect on us than we may have previously thought possible.