In the season of ghosts and ghouls, is it possible to be scared to death?

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 4:57 p.m. MDT

Marcos Garcia, front, and Lionel Rodriguez, right, are frightened by a werewolf inside the Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Standing outside the city's newest haunted attraction, Darby DeHart started to second-guess her decision to visit the Fear Factory.

"I've never been to a haunted house before, so I'm a little freaked out," the Millcreek teen admitted.

DeHart's friends, seasoned veterans of the haunted house scene, assured her she would live to tell about experience.

Or would she?

Is it possible to be literally be scared to death?

"The answer is 'yes,'" says Dr. Jeffrey Osborn, a Intermountain Medical Center physician who specializes in heart rhythm disorders.

"There are people that have a condition called Long QT syndrome where emotions can actually lead them to fatal arrhythmia," said Osborn, an electrophysiologist.

While death from fright is possible, that outcome is quite rare because people with this disorder are in a small minority of patients diagnosed with Long QT syndrome, said Osborn. The disorder can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. In some patients, hearts may beat erratically for so long that it can cause sudden death, according the Mayo Clinic.

"It's an electrical phenomenon when the heart goes into what we call ventricular tachycardia followed by ventricular fibrillation. When ventricular fibrillation occurs, the heart is basically wriggling at 200-plus beats per minute. Unless you're a humming bird, that's not very healthy," Osborn said.

"So you end up dying suddenly if that happens on the street. The immediate treatment, of course, is to shock people out of it. That's why we have AEDs, or the external defibrillators that are prevalent in public places."

The vast majority of healthy people can readily endure an occasional surge of adrenaline, which nature intended as a protective mechanism to bring more blood to the brains and internal organs. "Basically, it sharpens our skills and our physical ability to fight," Osborn said.

That adrenaline rush, haunted house aficionados say, is why they seek out terrifying encounters with ghosts and ghouls.

"When you have an adrenaline rush, you wonder what is going to come next," said 13-year-old Camrynn Sessions.

Jannie Eschler of Millcreek said she also is a fan of amusement rides that make her heart pound. "If you combined a roller coaster with a haunted house, that would be my favorite ride ever," she said.

Again, for the vast majority of healthy people, the occasional fright poses no problems.

"Most people live through it. They don’t have a fatal arrhythmia or anything like that," Osborn said.

Interestingly, the immediate treatment for people who experience sudden cardiac arrest for any reason is a shock to the heart with an external defibrillator.

According to the Heart Rhythm Society, a leading research, education and advocacy organization for cardiac arrhythmia professionals and patients worldwide, about 250,000 people die each as a result of sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest is different than a heart attack, Osborn said. SCA is largely attributed to electrical system malfunctions in the heart that cause the heart to stop, which means no blood can be pumped to the rest of the body.

Meanwhile, a heart attack is generally considered a plumbing malfunction, such as a blockage in a blood vessel that interrupts blood flow to the heart.

A preventative measure for people who survive sudden cardiac arrest is to implant a cardiac defibrillator that monitors the heart and can deliver shocks and/or pace the heart as needed.

Joe Eschler, 12, said many haunted attractions he has visited have disclaimers that warn people with heart conditions and mental illness about health risks of sudden scares and viewing gore.

Does he believe these attraction are actually heart stopping?

"I think it could happen," the boy said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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