Take a seat travellers, gather around the fire. Plonk a marshmallow on your twig and listen, because boy do I have a story for you.
The year was 1803, and in Hammersmith, London, people were in a frenzy. There was a ghost around, you see, and reports were circulating of a tall white apparition appearing in fog-lit lanes surrounding a local church and attacking innocent people . Somebody had made a huge mistake and buried a man - who had committed suicide - on consecrated ground. A big no-no among both the superstitious and religious.
Actually, full christian burials conducted by the Church of England for suicide victims have only been permitted as of last year, and while the rule was often ignored, it's good to know that suicide victims will be offered a proper burial, despite what dusty old books say.
But back to our story. A young lady was one night taking what true believers would consider to be a very risky shortcut through the graveyard where the taboo victim was allegedly buried. I have no solid source on this but I believe she was in a hurry to get home for the final of whatever the Georgian equivalent of the X Factor was, and decided to brave the terrifying path between all the resting dead people.
A short way in, she heard a noise. In the corner of her eye, moving amongst the shadows was a figure, tall as a tree and as white as Bono. She started to hurry, but as she made her way to the exit, a hand seized her shoulder and pulled her back. Her heart ready to explode, her mind gave in and she passed out.
She was found a little later, wandering alone around in the cemetery like a woman possessed, and though she was safely rescued, she died a couple of days later, seemingly from extreme fright.
She wasn't the only victim. An old lady, was also sprung upon by the ghost, and dropped dead from the fright. After a while, and several eyewitness accounts, all of which described the ghost as a tall white cloaked man, people decided enough is enough. Hammersmith didn't have much of a police force, and so a group of overly eager dudes decided to form their own ghost-bustin' groups. What happened next would change the course of British law forever....
But that's not what we're here to talk about. The story goes on to get even stranger, and if anyone is interested enough, I'll be happy to tell it, but for now let's get to the matter at hand. What killed these women? And can fright alone cause a person to just drop dead?
Sudden death from fright and fear has been recorded throughout history. See here for a clipping from a 1942 newspaper that gives an account of people dying as a result of simply being told that their death is on its way. This account of "voodoo death" tells of a perfectly healthy hardened soldier whose body just straight up rejected any medicines as a result of his death being fortold.
For the deaths in our ghost story though, we can likely explain the weirdness using what we know of modern science. While we don't have the medical records of the two women, I think that for the old lady at least, we can make a safe assumption that it wasn't fear itself that killed her, but a heart attack brought on by the shock.
In this Scientific American article Martin A. Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston explains that to survive in the wild, animals have a fight or flight response. When under threat, their bodies will go into overdrive, increasing heart rate and pumping more blood into the muscles, allowing a greater chance of survival. In the Final Fantasy world this is called a 'Limit Break'.
However, to accommodate this, the body starts to produce a fun and exciting substance called adrenaline. However in some cases, too much adrenaline can cause the heart to overload and short circuit, leading to a terrible and chronic case of deadness.
Interestingly, it's not just fear that triggers this response. People have also been known to die in moments of happiness such as scoring a hole-in-one or having really good sex. A study mentioned in this article claims that the chances of dying during sex are 3 in 1 million per hour. I've sent a request asking if much shorter and less involved sessions are safer, y'know, just out of personal curiosity, but have yet to receive a response.
Of course there are numerous factors to consider. various congenital heart conditions can greatly increase the odds of dying from a fright, and the elderly are generally more at risk from heart failure. But what about the young lady? She survived for two days before coming to her wounds.
Well here's the twist in the tale: She was quite pregnant. pregnancy increases the risk of heart attacks:
Although the likelihood of having a heart attack during pregnancy is very low -- estimated to occur in 1 in 16,000 deliveries -- this risk is still three to four times higher in pregnant women than in non-pregnant women of the same age, according to Dr. Elkayam. As more women postpone having a first baby, the incidence of this condition is expected to grow.
Another possibility, is Broken Heart Syndrome - a condition that occurs almost exclusively in women. It is the weakening of the left ventricle - often as a result of stress, and it can lead to a heart attack, which of course can in turn lead to no longer being alive. Whilst most cases end up passing with no permanant damage, a small number do lead to eventual death. Could perhaps explain that weird period of two days before she fully and properly kicked it.
And a final point to consider: Medicine in the 1800's was far behind the standards that we enjoy today. Doctors were much more into the idea or removing blood through a process known as 'blood letting'. This was generally better at ending lives than saving them - see George Washington who in his final days had 40% of his blood removed. It didn't help that he also rode around in the snow after feeling a cold developing of course, but the medical implications of bacteria had yet to be fully discoved at the time so we'll let him off for that one.
Well there we have it. Fear itself didn't kill anyone in this particular case (at least we can safely assume based on modern knowledge) Sadly, these ladies weren't the last to die as a result of the Hammersmith ghost, but that's another story for another time.