Scared to death (actually)

By Kimberly Clark, Science Tuesday Editor

Ah, Halloween. What could be better than a night of costumes, candy and creeps? And by creeps, I initially meant that tingling sensation of fear that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. But upon further contemplation, I expanded my use of that term to include the weird guys that like to haunt the streets and ogle at passing females. They’re usually out and about every night, but they rally on Halloween.

So, for the most part, Halloween is a fun-filled night of tricks and treats, although the treats for adults come in a more liquid and intoxicating form. The morning after, with its sugar and/or alcohol-induced hangovers, not so much. But barring a run-in with a psychopathic murderer with an affinity for a chainsaw, everyone should come out on the other side of Halloween relatively unscathed.

Hitchcock's "Psycho"

A still from Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

Except the couple of people who were scared to death.

No, I’m not kidding. It’s a real thing.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, doctors from around the world are pinpointing cases in which otherwise healthy people have died suddenly as a result of fright coupled with a rare heart problem.

This heart problem, called stress cardiomyopathy, was first identified by Japanese doctors in 1990. They named it “takotsubo syndrome” because the shape of an affected person’s heart resembled Japanese octopus traps.

Dr. Martin A. Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has compiled hundreds of fear-related cases. Among them are children who have died on roller-coasters, car crash victims with only minor injuries, unharmed victims of muggings and break-ins and a man who leaped from the roof of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 1980 and sustained heart damage prior to any contact with the ground.

It is believed that the rush of adrenaline a person experiences when frightened can have negative effects on the heart, which can cause sudden death. The burst of adrenaline can cause an abnormal heart rhythm, called ventricular fibrillation, which can be life threatening.

Stress cardiomyopathy can also be brought on by extreme feelings of excitement or sadness. United States doctors refer to it as “broken heart syndrome” because it often affects people who have lost a loved one.

The symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack: chest pain, weakness and shortness of breath.

With all that in mind, maybe it’s best to leave the scary masks and fake knives at home? Maybe chill it with the scary movie marathons? Up to you.

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