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Deadly Imaginings


Claim:   A man locked in an unplugged freezer imagined himself freezing to death and died as a result.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Collected via e-mail, 2002]

A man finds himself locked in a walk in freezer. He is convinced he will die and begins writing letters. His letters end with a final passage where he is saying he can not write anymore because his fingers are beginning to freeze. When they find him dead, not only do they find the letters but they discover that the freezer's temperature never dropped below 50 degrees. Thus, the man pretty much psyched himself to death.
 

[Van Ekeren, 1988]

The expression "worried to death" has more truth to it than you might think.

There is a story about Nick Sitzman, a strong, young bull-of-a-man, who worked on a train crew. It seemed Nick had everything: a strong healthy body, ambition, a wife and two children, and many friends. However, Nick had one fault. He was a notorious worrier. He worried about everything and usually feared the worst.

One midsummer day, the train crew were informed that they could quit an hour early in honor of the foreman's birthday. Accidentally, Nick was locked in a refrigerator boxcar, and the rest of the workmen left the site. Nice panicked.

He banged and shouted until his fists were bloody and his voice was hoarse. No one heard him. "If I can't get out, I'll freeze to death in here," he thought. Wanting to let his wife and family know exactly what had happened to him, Nick found a knife and began to etch words on the wooden floor. He wrote, "It's so cold, my body is getting numb. If I could just go to sleep. These may be my last words."

The next morning the crew slid open the heavy doors of the boxcar and found Nick dead. An autopsy revealed that every physical sign of his body indicated he had frozen to death. And yet the refrigeration unit of the car was inoperative, and the temperature inside indicated fifty-five degrees. Nick had killed himself by the power of worry.
 

Origins:   Can someone really think himself to death? That is the point of this legend: the mind is a powerful thing; so powerful that it can kill. This story has often been passed along by motivational speakers as an example of the power of one's mind.

We've been hearing versions of this story for years, tales in which the details change but the theme remains that of an unfortunate man who dies after he is trapped in a situation which he presumes to be dangerous but is later revealed not to have posed any real threat to his well-being: The air-tight room he's locked in turns out to have a vent to the outside which brings a steady supply of fresh air but the man suffocates because he believes he's used up all the oxygen; the cooling unit on the refrigerated
boxcar he's trapped in isn't turned on, but the man stuck inside the car slowly succumbs to hypothermia nonetheless.

Because this type of story involves a death caused by something contradictory to the physical evidence, a search of the deceased's pockets or a quick glance at the floor or walls will inevitably turn up a note detailing the final hours of his life. The note is a necessary plot element in this sort of tale, as the victim's thoughts just prior to his death are key to the story, and those are details we couldn't know without his conveniently having left a written record of what he'd been thinking.

The theme of a physically unharmed victim who passes away only because he believes himself to be dying underpins another urban legend. In "Lethal Indirection," a fellow who believes himself to have been executed dies of a heart attack.

Could someone really think himself to death? The jury may still be out on that concept, but we've yet to find any documentation for the claim that someone once died because his power of thought turned him into a corpsicle.

Barbara "cold comfort" Mikkelson

Last updated:   26 June 2014

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Sources:

    Osteen, Joel.   Your Best Life Now.
    New York: Warner Faith, 2004   (pp. 72-73).

    Waitley, Denis.   Empires of the Mind.
    New York: William Morrow, 1995   (p. 126).

    Van Ekeren, Glenn.   The Speaker's Sourcebook.
    Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1988   (pp. 390-391).