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Scared To Death: The Sickness Caused By Sheer Fright

Latin Americans believe evil spirits can cause illness and lasting anxiety.

Is feeling frightened an illness? Throughout Latin America, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Even before the Spanish arrived in the Americas, the native civilizations held the belief of an illness wrought by a strong impression. They called it “Susto” referring to an “absence of soul” caused by profound fear and can affect both human beings and animals.

Most people who suffer from this disorder are children, since they are prone to lasting impressions.

Among the symptoms that someone suffering from Susto has: low appetite, chills, susceptibility to loud noises, fever, headaches, crying, insomnia, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although there is a medical explanation for these symptoms, such as stress, Latin American cultures assign another meaning.

What are the different types of Susto that frighten Hispanics?

A legend among Latin Americans states that the Susto has supernatural origins, such as Chaneques — evil spirits that guard forests and mythical animals — that can cause the disorder. People believe just seeing one will leave a lasting impression on anyone.

The disorder can also happen as a type of hydrophobia, where a person had a bad experience in water bodies, and so developed a fear of drowning.

Moreover, an evil eye is also a possible cause. It can occur after a person gives someone a penetrating and robust look, to the extent that it leaves an “ai” in their head, causing them discomfort. Amulets called ‘Ojo de Venado’ can protect against these evil vibes.

Another variation is the “muerto”, which refers to the Susto caused by a confrontation with a deceased person’s ghost.

All the above are just various types of Susto, but for believers, any situation that creates fear or danger can cause the disorder.

In Latin America, may people believe in goblins or spirits, which can cause the so-called ‘espanto’, a type of terror. *** En América Latina, muchas personas creen en duendes o espíritus, los cuales pueden provocar el ‘espanto’. (Melanie Wasser/Unsplash)

How can you deal with Susto?

It is possible to cure Susto. Shamans, healers and those who know how to do “limpias,” a spiritual cleansing, can remove heavy negative energies from a person. After all, it has deep links to pre-Hispanic times.

In Mexico, many people opt to go to markets because they can find healers who can cure them.

“The Susto attacks the heart directly, which is why there have been reports of sudden heart attacks due to fright,” said Contreras. “This is why it should not be taken lightly, since the disorder may have fatal consequences if untreated.”

“It is common to cure people of Susto,” said Martin Uscanaga Yépez, who calls himself a shaman and doctor of white magic. “The main three causes would be if they saw a ghost, they are victims of an evil eye, or because someone scared them. I first clean the person with an egg and ask God and the saints for the body to be released. Then, with a bouquet of herbs, I sweep away all remaining evil energies. Finally, I sprinkle them with a mix of herbs and alcohol to collect any remaining ‘cold’ and liberate their souls.”

“Usually, we put a red ribbon or an amulet on them since they, being poor souls, are receptors of strong energies,” said Uscanga. “It does not necessarily mean they receive negative energies, but that they are more prone to an evil eye.”

Medicine men give a ‘deer eye’ charm to protect against ‘espanto’ terrors. *** Los curanderos dan como protección un ‘ojo de venado’, con el propósito de proteger a la persona de este mal. (Charlie Ramírez)

What is the opinion of the medical community?

According to Western medicine, a Susto can cause serious issues. The heart is one of the organs most affected by strong emotions. Moreover, a sudden fright can lead to heart attacks.

“Many times, people do not give this disorder the importance they should,” said Rafael Contreras López, a Mexican general practitioner who graduated from the Universidad Veracruzana. “They see it as a simple joke, or do not pay any attention to it, because they think the person with Susto has good health, but they do not.”

No Latin American who believes in Susto will ever take it lightly.

(Translated and edited by Mario Vázquez, edited by Fern Siegel)

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