Thanatomimesis is the simulation of death by a living creature. Perhaps the best-known example is "playing possum." Hunters and campers have observed that opossums sometimes feign death when threatened. This is accomplished by collapsing into a ball of inert fur. The head droops, the mouth hangs open and—most convincingly—the eyes are fixed in an empty stare. The most obvious explanation is self-protection: if a creature is already dead, why kill it? There is indirect support for this proposition from laboratory research in which opossums were shaken by an artificial dog jaw. The animals immediately took to shamming death, but their brain activity indicated a keen state of alertness, waiting for the danger to pass. At least some animals are capable of switching to a state of tonic immobility that contributes much to the appearance of death.
There has not been systematic research on thanatomimesis, but Charles Darwin observed thanatomimetic behavior in "seventeen different kinds of inspects belonging to different genres, both poor and first-rate shammers" (Carrington and Meader 1911, p. 51). Darwin compared these acts with the postures taken when either his subjects or others of their species were actually dead. He concluded, "the attitudes of the feigners and of the really dead were as unlike as they could possibly be" (Carrington and Meader 1911, p. 51).
Thanatomimesis has saved the lives of many people who escaped death on the battlefield or in other dangerous situations by pretending to be dead. The term itself is usually reserved for intentional efforts to escape harm. However, comatose or hypothermic people have also been misperceived as dead, especially prior to the development of improved methods of detecting physiological activity.
See also: Buried Alive; Cryonic Suspension; Definitions of Death
Carrington, Hereford, and James R. Meader. Death: Its Causes and Phenomena. London: Rider, 1911.
Kastenbaum, Robert, and Ruth Aisenberg. The Psychology of Death. New York: Springer, 1972.
Norton, Alan C., Arnold V. Beran, and George A. Misrahy. "Playing Possum in the Laboratory." Scientific American 211 (1964):64.
See Death Instinct; Gods and Goddesses of Life and Death.