Writer Coco Ballantyne (seriously, I did not make that up) whips up a quick report on the mechanics of scaring people to death for Scientific American. From her report:
A Charlotte, N.C., man was charged with first-degree murder of a 79-year-old woman whom police said he scared to death. In an attempt to elude cops after a botched bank robbery, the Associated Press reports that 20-year-old Larry Whitfield broke into and hid out in the home of Mary Parnell. Police say he didn't touch Parnell but that she died after suffering a heart attack that was triggered by terror. Can the fugitive be held responsible for the woman's death? Prosecutors said that he can under the state's so-called felony murder rule, which allows someone to be charged with murder if he or she causes another person's death while committing or fleeing from a felony crime such as robbery—even if it's unintentional.
But, medically speaking, can someone actually be frightened to death?
Martin A. Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, sez hells yeah and explains how it happens:
In the modern world there is very limited advantage of the fight-or-flight response. There is a downside to revving up your nervous system like this . . .
The autonomic nervous system uses the hormone adrenaline, a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, to send signals to various parts of the body to activate the fight-or-flight response. This chemical is toxic in large amounts; it damages the visceral (internal) organs such as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. It is believed that almost all sudden deaths are caused by damage to the heart. There is almost no other organ that would fail so fast as to cause sudden death.
Specifically, the adrenalin OD screws with the operation of the muscle system that regulates the rhythm of the heart. An overwhelmed regulatory system can trigger a rhythmic pattern that is, in the understated parlance of the doctor, "not compatible with life."
The doc goes on to point out that any strong emotion can trigger a similar response:
Any strong positive or negative emotions such as happiness or sadness. There are people who have died in intercourse or in religious passion. There was a case of a golfer who hit a hole in one, turned to his partner and said, "I can die now"—and then he dropped dead. A study in Germany found an increase of sudden cardiac deaths on the days that the German soccer team was playing in the World Cup. For about seven days after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon there was an increase of sudden cardiac death among New Yorkers.