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Voodoo Death: Some New Thoughts on an Old Phenomenon

Author(s): David Lester


Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Jun., 1972), pp. 386-390
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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Voodoo Death:Some New Thoughtson an OldPhenomenon


DAVIDLESTER
Stockton State College
Criticisms of the validity of the phenomenon of death by suggestion are reviewed
and rebutted. Two theories of the mechanism of death by suggestion, proposed by
Cannon and Richter, are described, and a new theory is proposed. The new theory
is based on Engel's concept of the giving up-given up complex in medically ill
patients and is shown to be capable of generating testable predictions about the
phenomenon of voodoo death.

studies indicated that death was a result of


overstimulation of the sympathico-adrenal
system. Cannon felt that voodoo death in
man bore a close resemblance to sudden
death in decorticate cats and he suggested
that a similarphysiologicalmechanismmight
be operatingin both cases. Individualsdying
under the influence of a hex may die as a
result of overstimulationof the sympathicoadrenal system. Prolonged hyperactivity of
the sympathetic nervous system reinforced
by the effects of adrenalinreleasedfrom the
adrenal medulla accompanied by loss of
blood plasma into the interstitial space of
the gastrointestinaltract resulted in a state
of hypovolemic shock. Cannon was able to
find instances of death in men due to
hypovolemic shock following minor nonlethal injuries.
Richter (1957) came to the study of
voodoo death via his work on rats. He found
THEORIES
PHYSIOLOGICAL
that, after trimmingthe fur and whiskersof
rats with clippers, some died within a few
Cannon (1942) reported on work that he hours. He investigatedthe physiologicalconhad carriedout on sudden death in men and comitants of sudden deaths in wild rats
animals. Cannon had observed that, when under stress, who succumb in this manner
cats were decorticated, they behaved as if much more often than domesticated rats,
they were in a state of rage.They had a very and concluded that, contrary to Cannon's
low threshold for the arousalof rage behav- belief, death appearedto result from hyperior, and the rage, when elicited, was not activity of the parasympatheticsystem. The
directed toward the frustratingagent but at heart rate of the animals appeared to
random. This behavior was called "sham decrease after the stress was applied and on
rage" to indicate its similaritiesto true rage autopsy the heart was found to be filled
and to emphasizeits differences.
with blood.
Cannon noted that cats occasionallydied
If domesticated rats were injected with
after showing intense sham rage and his cholinergic drugs which in general have a
IT HAS frequently been observed that
members of primitive societies have died
under the influence of a "voodoo" or a
"hex." (Indeed, one can find historical
references in less primitive societies to
individuals dying as a result of "black
magic".) For example, Spencer and Gillin
(1899) reported that membersof the tribes
in Central Australiaoften attributed deaths
to the use of a poison bone. All that was
necessary was for an enemy to point the
bone at you and intone a curse for a rapid
death to overtakeyou.
Those who have discussed this phenomenon have come up with many intriguing
speculations and many criticisms of these
speculations.My aim here is to reviewthese
debates and to suggest a new hypothesis to
account for the phenomenon of voodoo
death.

386

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VOODOO DEATH

Lester ]

parasympathetic-mimeticeffect, then they


too showed the phenomenon of sudden
death understress.
Richter speculated that the stressful
situation in which he placed his rats
(whiskers trimmed, restrainedin a jar filled
with water) allowed the rats no opportunity
for escape. They could not flee or fight. He
suggested that the situation was one of
hopelessnessand the animal behaves as if he
has literally given up. Richter concluded,
therefore, that victims of voodoo death die a
parasympatheticdeath of hopelessness.
CRITICISMSOF
THESETHEORIES
Barber (1961) has criticised, not only
these theories,but also the whole concept of
death by suggestion. Barberfelt that it was
open to question whether sorcery,
witchcraft, or suggestion was ever a direct
cause of death in primitive societies. His
reasonsfor his skepticismwere as follows:
(1) in the cases reported, the possibility
of poison had rarely been ruled out by a
toxological examination;(2) in the majority
of cases, it appearedthat the hexed individual refused food and water and his societal
membersoften refused to give him food and
water; (3) some instances of voodoo death
were probably due to organic illness;
(4) many of the reports of ethnographers
were based upon hearsay and so open to
distortion.
Barberwas able to find only one study in
which the report was not based upon hearsay and in which the possibility of poisoning
and organic illness was ruled out (Simmons
and Wolff 1954) and in this case the youth
had refused food and water during his nine
days of hospitalization and so death was
probablydue to dehydration.
Barber'scriticismsseem to be querulous.
That some reports of voodoo deaths are
based upon hearsay or may be due to
poisoning and organic illness does not rule
out the possibility of genuine voodoo
deaths. Indeed, Barberacknowledgesthis in

387

reporting the case described by Simmons


and Wolff.
Secondly, to note that the individualmay
hasten his own death by refusingfood and
water does not disprovethe notion of death
by suggestionbut, on the contrary,provides
one explanation of how it may operate.
Clearly,an incantationof a medicineman or
an enemy can induce a member of the
society to refuse food and water and so die.
This is clearly a case of death by suggestion.
An importantquestion is whetherwe can
find an instance that meets Barber'scriteria
for death by suggestion-a death in which
the role of poison and organicillnessis ruled
out, that is not basedon hearsay,and which
takes place suddenly. Barberwas not able to
find a case that met these criteria.
Before leaving Barber's criticisms,
mention must be made of a common errorin
talking of death by suggestion. Barberand
other writers (e.g., Holt 1969) commonly
assume that death by suggestion is a phenomenon found only in primitivesocieties.
This is not so. The phenomenon can be
found in more developedsocieties and Richter noted a parallel phenomenon has been
reported among the Negro population in
southernstates of this country.
SUDDENDEATH
The phenomenon of sudden death in
humanshas been noted for many years now.
In a recent review of cases of sudden death,
Dynes (1969) noted that there were two
types, both occurring without significant
anatomical findings at autopsy. One
followed prolongedexcitement and violence
and the other occurredinstantaneouslyand
without warning. The following is a case
reportedby Dynes.
One patient, 26-years of age had been
violent and difficult to control intermittently over a four year period priorto
death, but he did not have the terminal
exhaustion syndrome with high fever and
coma. The day of death he became
strangely quiet, although clear and
responsive and not in a stupor or coma.
He suddenly fainted and did not revivein

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388

AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST

spite of efforts to resuscitatehim [Dynes


1969:26].
Dynes concluded his review by noting that
we were far from an explanation of the
phenomenonof sudden death.
I would like to draw attention to one
speculative possibility here. Both Cannon
and Richter based their hypotheses as to the
physiologicalmechanisminvolvedin voodoo
death upon work with animals. Furthermore, their work was extremely limited.
Cannonstudied decorticate cats and Richter
stressedrats. It is possible that both mechanisms that they postulated may play a role in
voodoo death. Dynes reported two types of
sudden death, one following hyperactivity
and one following hypoactivity. These seem
to correspond to Cannon's postulated
mechanism and Richter's postulated
mechanism respectively. Perhaps sudden
death and voodoo death can result from
excessive stimulation of any system of the
body.
A NEWTHEORY
OF VOODOODEATH
The ideas I am about to propose are not
intended to replace the ideas of Cannon or
Richter. Rather, they are intended to look
for a conceptual framework for voodoo
death at a psychological level rather than a
physiologicallevel. The ideas are based upon
work with humans (and in particularthose
who are medically ill) rather than animals.
The use of research on humans and the
emphasis on psychological states will
perhaps involve less of a conceptual leap
than the ideas discussedabove.
Engel (1968) has spent a great deal of effort in seekinganswersto the question of why
people fall ill at the time they do. Whatkind
of clinicalstate precedesthe onset of illness?
Engel pointed out that most lay people take
it for grantedthat a person's frame of mind
can affect his propensity to fall ill and die.
But physiciansand behavioralscientists have
been reluctantto accept this idea.
Under stress (stress as felt by the individual himself and not as judged by an outside
observer who may minimize the stressful

[74,1972

event), Engel noted a consistent psychological pattern of responsesthat was associated


with the onset of illness and, on occasions,
death. He named this pattern the giving
up-given up complex. This complex has
severalessentialfeatures.
(1) The patient reports feelings of being
at the end of his rope, at a loss, at an
impasse. There are two possible affects here.
The patient experiencing helplessness
ascribeshis feelings of impotence to failures
and frustrationsfrom the environmentand it
is to the environment that he looks for a
solution. The people in his life have failed
him and it is they who can resolve his
dilemma. The patient experiencinghopelessness holds himself as responsible for his
inability to cope and has no expectation that
help from the environmentcan aid him.
(2) The patient's image of himself is as
one who is no longer competent. He may
feel worthlessor damaged.
(3) The patient no longer is able to
obtain gratification from the relationships
that he has or the roles that he can play. The
helpless patient feels abandoned and the
hopeless patient feels inadequate.
(4) The patient loses the sense of continuity between past, present, and future.
For the helpless patient there is no present
and for the hopeless there is no future.
(5) The patient has memories of earlier
periods of giving-upreactivatedand, if these
older situations were never adequately
resolved, then there may be a cumulative
effect.
Engel pointed out that this state is only
an exaggeration of a normal psychological
state. We all reach from time to time
psychological crossroads and occasionally,
when prompt resolution is impossible, we
find ourselvesalternatingbetween givingup
and strugglingfor a solution.
Engel felt that when an individual is
respondingto stress with the givingup-given
up complex, disease may supervene. The
body has at these times a reducedcapability
to deal with potentially pathogenic
processes. This psychological state, therefore, contributes to the emergence of the

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Lester ]

VOODOO DEATH

disease. It does not cause it. It is neither


necessary nor sufficient for disease development.
The disease that may develop may stem
from a pathogenic predisposition in the
individualor it may reduce the defenses of
the individual to infectious diseases. Such a
process can be illustratedby many kinds of
data: the increased mortality of spouses in
the first year after they are widowed
(MacMahonand Pugh 1965), the many cases
of collapse and death reported in the newspapers as a result of stress, and the many
medicallyill patientsseen in hospitals.
We might note here also in passing, that
many medicallyill patients appearto be able
to tell when they are close to death and can
prepare themselves psychologically for this
(Weismanand Hackett 1961).
Let us try to conceptualize the state of
the hexed individual in terms of this giving
up-given up complex. The individual is
doomed to die throughsome acts and verbal
behavior of one or more members of his
society (or deceased members of his
society). Because of the culturaltraditionof
his society he believesthis to be true and the
other membersof his society believe it to be
true. He therefore may well feel helpless or
hopeless, dependingon whether he tends to
externalize blame or internalizeblame. The
individual'simage is changed for the worse.
He has broken some societal norm or he has
offended some other memberof the society.
He is worthless or damaged. He can no
longer obtain gratificationfrom the relationships that he had, for his friends and
relatives draw back. To them, he is as good
as dead. To use Kalish's terminology, he is
socially dead and when he begins to accept
his doom he becomes psychologically dead
(Kalish 1966). There is no future for the
individual.He is to die.
Thus, the condition of voodoo death fits
the pattern of the giving up-given up complex very well and in this state Engel has
shown that the individualis more susceptible
to infectious diseases and any pathogenic
dispositions that he has are more likely to
appearand develop.

389

In cases of voodoo death it is frequently


reported that the hexed individual refuses
food and water. This makes good sense. He
sees himself as doomed. Nothing can save
him. Why accept food and water? To reiterate, this in a way makes his death less a result of suggestion.
It is interesting to speculate whether
helplessness or hopelessness characterizes
hexed individuals. It is conceivable that
either affective state may predominate.That
the spell is put upon him by another may
lead to helplessness,but the fact that often
hexed individuals refuse nourishment may
reflect their feelings that they are responsible for their doom, and this is hopelessness.
This suggestsan interestingstudy that could
be carriedout investigatingwhen and under
what circumstancesa hexed individualmay
refuse food and water. Does such a refusal
correlate with where the hexed individual
localizes the blame for his condition? Is
there a differencein voodoo deaths in which
the hex is put upon the individualarbitrarily
by an enemy as compared to those where
the individual first commits some socially
proscribedact?
It is clear that the present hypothesis is
capable of generating testable predictions
unlike previoushypotheses.
In conclusion, it seems querulous to
question the existence of voodoo deaths.
Sudden and unexplaineddeathsare common
in medically sophisticated countries, and
sudden and unexplaineddeaths are probably
common in primitive societies also. The
present hypothesis is based on extensive
researchon medicallyill patients in the more
developed countries and thus possessesmore
face validity than the older hypotheses based
on decorticatedcats and whiskerlessrats. It
also localizes the cause of voodoo death in
the psychologicalstate of the individualand,
clearly, death by suggestion must operate
through the individual'spsychologicalstate.
REFERENCESCITED
Barber,T. X.
1961 Death by Suggestion: A Critical

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390

AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST

Note.
Medicine
Psychosomatic
23:153-155.
Cannon, W. B.
1942 Voodoo Death. American Anthropologist 44:169-181.
Dynes, J. B.
1969 Sudden Death. Diseases of the
Nervous System 30:24-28.
Engel, G. L.
1968 A Life Setting Conducive to
Illness. Bulletin of the Menninger
Clinic 32:355-365.
Holt, W. C.
1969 Death by Suggestion. Canadian
Journal
Assocation
Psychiatric
14:81-82.
Kalish, R. A.
1966 Life and Death. Paper presented at

[74,1972

the American Psychological Association, New York City.


MacMahon, B., and T. F. Pugh
1965 Suicide in the Widowed. American
Journal of Epidemiology 81:23-31.
Richter, C. P.
1957 On the Phenomenon of Sudden
Death in Animals and Men. Psychosomatic Medicine 19:190-198.
Simmons, L. W., and H. G. Wolff
1954 Social Sciences in Medicine. New
York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Spencer, B., and F. J. Gillin
1899 The Native Tribes of Central
Australia. London: Macmillan.
Weisman, A. D., and T. P. Hackett
1961 Predilections to Death. Psychosomatic Medicine 23:232-256.

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