"Voodoo Death"

What lies behind ‘Voodoo Death’?

In tribal worlds, breaking a taboo provokes a curse entailing removal from the tribe. Anthropologists have been interested in the invariable consequences: the guilty party falls into a state of prostration and soon dies. This is the ‘Voodoo Death’. This tragedy is all the more surprising in that the post-mortem shows a great metabolic calm before death.

The Nocebo effect

Other cases are documented in the modern world: notably unexplained death, when the mortal but erroneous diagnosis has led to the death of the patient, by the ‘nocebo’ effect. Another tragedy recently documented: the case of newborns placed in orphanages who die from lack of human contact and affection. They need more than simple feeding and medical attention; the baby cannot do without some kind of warm physical attention. He/she is entirely dependent, and perceives the lack of affectionate acts as a mortal threat to which he can only react by falling into a catatonic state. The anguish and despair caused by the absence of a primordial caregiver (normally the mother) are such that the nervous system places the body in a metabolic immobility similar to hibernation. The infant cannot always survive if this state is continued for long. As for those who do survive, they remain traumatized for life.

Similarly, we find ‘vasovagal syncope’: the metabolism is excessively slowed by a disorder of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system. More precisely, by the sub-branch called the dorsal (because its source is in the anterior part of the nucleus of the vagus nerve in the medulla) of the parasympathetic system. This is the oldest part of the vagus nerve, that which immobilizes us before a mortal threat which we are powerless to combat. It is a primitive strategy of survival to which the organism has recourse as the ultima ratio, the last resort: the nervous system of prey seized by a predator has no alternative but to freeze the whole organism into a sort of paralysis. The issue is either the remote chance of survival or a painless death, as the brain is flooded by endorphins. If by some chance the prey escapes his fate, the dorsal vagus nerve relaxes in a discharge resulting in a restoration.

‘Voodoo Death’ thus is identical to this syncope and paralysis, but of a greater intensity. The dorsal branch of the vagus inaugurates a permanent state of deep paralysis from which the human metabolism does not recover.


It is important to understand that ‘Voodoo Death’ is to a great extent related to the attachment of its victim to his people, and the prospect of his loss. It is part of that fundamental instinct in the human being, the social animal, which decrees that we cannot live by ourselves but as part of a tribe, a group of relatives united by the common good. Aristotle remarked that in his time the foundation of social ties was the philia. This basic human tie was sustained by the belief that all were descended from an ancestor common to the whole tribe, by the experience of a relationship spanning the ages animated by the Spirit of the tribe, by the feeling of belonging to the land and to all that lives there, by the handing down of common stories, by the peaceful contemplation of familiar landscapes, and above all by the sharing in rites, from the simplest to the most elaborate. It is thus that the primal human experiences who he is, his ‘being in the world’, and finds meaning in his life.

A Canadian researcher, Bruce Alexander, studied the tragic fate of Amerindian tribes in the Vancouver region confronted by Anglo-Saxon colonization, and also of Highlanders displaced to the Hudson’s Bay. He demonstrates in his book, The Globalization of Addiction, that the removal from one’s land, from one’s culture and traditional social ties, provokes such distress that people subjected to this had no choice but to adapt in anaesthetizing themselves with drugs or other addictive behaviors. But it has been shown that young marginal Amerindians addicted to heroin, succeeded in recovery when they felt reintegrated into their tribe, its common story, and its rites.

The difficulty of shedding such a collective belief demonstrates how essential the need of social integration is felt to be. To distance oneself destroys the tie of community, and our instinct for survival tends to prevent us from endangering this tie, and thus from questioning a conviction which all share, even if this contains harmful elements. From the point of view of our need to live, it is much more important to protect our feeling of belonging to a society than to seek some abstract and useless ‘truth’. Furthermore, when this belief incarnates our identity, if only partially, then the difficulty of questioning it becomes insurmountable. This belief keeps us anchored in the collective story which structures our being, in fact it is vitally necessary.

Escape from collective surrender

The question arises: what are the mechanisms engaged when a people sees itself torn away from its identity by colonialism or any other form of social dislocation? The examples are past counting of the disaster awaiting a people subject to this treatment. Further, a conquest by extermination involves the destruction of rites and symbols as well as deportation of peoples: Amerindians, Australian aborigines, etc. One could even see here a slow and gradual form of ‘Voodoo Death’, involving both individuals and their communal bonds. Their survival instinct pushes them to adapt by anesthetizing themselves with psychotropics, especially alcohol, which ‘civilization’ offers in profusion ... Surrender, resignation, the feeling of helplessness engraved on the memory, is a subtle form of vagal paralysis. The nervous discharge which would free them becomes inaccessible because the victim has adapted to his condition, learned to block this discharge.

One of the keys to liberating oneself from this morbid state is ritual: not so much by an individual ritual act, which can lead to obsession, but some form of symbolic non-verbal language expressing the communal bonds. This is particularly difficult in that our societies are both fragmented and poor in ritual. Our shared stories and myths have disappeared. Thus, festive spectacles cannot be a priority. Let us turn our attention to the simple rites of welcome, for example, which we exchange on meeting: we salute each other, in what is in fact a ritual. However insincere it may seem, it accomplishes its purpose. The same is true of a shared meal, a game, or a friendly chat. They are all part of the most fundamental human rituals. One works with what one has; at least it’s real. And being in the here and now is one of the other keys that we must regain in order to find ourselves, freed from the weight of past defeats.

©2017 - Matthieu Smyth

Professor of anthropology at Strasbourg University

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