The Psychology of Faking Your Own Death

By Janet Burns on at

Why would anyone fake their own death? Some seek a departure from royalty, a career as a pirate, or a quiet life after taking down the Third Reich. Usually, they’re chasing an escape from bankruptcy or bad marriages. But for some, it may seem that staging their own death is the only way to feel like they’re alive.

According to psychologists and pseudocide researchers, many people who go through with the scheme feel pushed to the brink and hope to swap their formal existence for something better. Since the invention of the internet, their methods have evolved, and their motivations remain complex and intertwined. Digging into these motivations can reveal a lot about our understanding of life, mortality, death, reinvention, hopelessness, and even self-esteem.

Life-or-death between a rock and a hard place

“For the vast majority of people who go through with it, the reasons are marital or financial, [and] they feel like they’re pushed up against a significant wall,” explained writer Elizabeth Greenwood. While researching pseudocide for her book Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World Of Death Fraud, Greenwood found that most cases resulted from someone feeling totally stuck.

“They really do feel they are saving their lives by faking their deaths.”

“The circumstances feel extremely exigent to them—whether or not they are, objectively, is a different question—but in these kinds of cases, they really do feel they are saving their lives by faking their deaths,” Greenwood said.

In many of the most famous pseudocide cases, those seemingly insurmountable exigent circumstances were financial in nature. Whether attempting to scam off life insurance policies or abandoning mass debt, these schemers have faked everything from disappearance-by-canoe to murder by Tamil rebels.

Some were quite literally escaping, like writer and psychedelic explorer Ken Kesey, who faced prison time for weed possession when he left his truck and a note by the ocean and snuck into Mexico. Back home, the headline “LSD GURU SUICIDE!” hit audiences, but authorities ultimately didn’t buy it.

Samuel Israel III, back in court after surrendering to the authorities. (Photo: AP)

Similarly but more malevolently, the former hedge fund manager Samuel Israel III, who defrauded investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme, attempted to stage his suicide on the day he was supposed to report for incarceration, leaving his car with a brief note written on it in dust (specifically, the M*A*S*H theme song title “Suicide Is Painless”) on a bridge in the US state of New York. Several weeks and one America’s Most Wanted appearance later, police tracked him down to a campground in the state of Massachusetts, where he surrendered.

Greenwood pointed out that such people often seem to believe they can “leave themselves behind” and then carry on as if their earlier self never happened. “They very much have the idea that they’ll be able to surgically excise this one part of their biography, whatever it is—legal trouble, bad decisions—to get rid of that part and go on living their lives, or that it will be a temporary solution to a problem,” she said. “Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, we are who we are.”

Psychological disorders link to pseudocide but don’t explain everything

The idea of separating one’s life into ‘living’ and ‘dead’ portions, or just faking a death generally, may seem unfathomable to many of us. In some cases, of course, people who feel cornered into pseudocide never explain their reasoning at all, whether in connection to their ‘past’ lives or the ones they hope to start anew.

As far as public record is concerned, it is still unknown why, for one, Nashville attorney William Grothe, who left his car and belongings scattered around before he called authorities claiming to be his own murderer, felt pushed to that extreme. Authorities quickly unravelled the ruse, and he was given five years’ probation, 32 hours of community service a month, and an order to pay $13,000 for the cost of the government’s search.

With regard to his behaviour, Grothe reportedly testified at trial, “I went down to Shelby Park, parked my car, went through what in my mind was a ritual of exactly how I felt, dead to the world.”

The psychic state of those who fake their deaths may be extreme and under stress, but it mostly hasn’t been considered a sign of mental illness or instability outright, whether or not particular catalysts to the act are reported. According to Dr Marc Feldman, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama, however, there are certain psychological disorders that can definitely lead to such behaviour.

Feldman, who specialises in factitious disorders (FD, formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome) and other behaviours linked to medical fakery, told Gizmodo in a phone interview, “A lot of people equate pseudocide with tangible reasons—crushing debt, a marriage situation—that they want to escape before quietly coming back in an alternate identity. But there can be a tremendous overlap with factitious disorders.”

In general, persons with factitious disorder are known for feigning or exaggerating illness in order to gain attention from or control over others. Malingering, on the other hand, is characterised by “skilful planning” to feign illness in order to gain a tangible advantage rather than an emotional one, and is not considered a mental illness, Feldman said. And because these motivations can overlap, it’s often hard for outsiders to distinguish the two.

Feldman also emphasised that no symptom or ailment seems to be outside the known range of factitious behaviour. “I can’t think of anything that hasn’t been faked for emotional gratification, for satisfaction, or to counter boredom; it sounds so trivial, but people do it,” he said.

“They tend to have personality disorders, which just means they have long-term maladaptive ways of getting their needs met, with hurtful actions rather than words. The distinct majority do in fact have a personality disorder, like borderline personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder,” he continued. “Factitious disorder seems inexplicable unless you postulate that something is going on inside for the patient.”

To be clear, this isn’t the same as what drives some people to fake their deaths for “some sort of gratification,” Feldman said.

“Lord” Timothy Dexter, engraved 1805, published 1806; “...a full length portrait of the Eccentric Character with his Dog, engraved from Life, by James Akin.”

For example, it seems unlikely that self-appointed “Lord” Timothy Dexter, an 18th-century American businessman and noted ‘eccentric,’ was experiencing FD (but possibly something else). Dexter, who as part of a lifelong campaign for admiration and upper-crust respect filled part of his estate with honorary statues (including his own), famously emerged from hiding during his own staged wake to berate his wife, who was in on it, for not mourning enough.

Nor would FD seem to apply for online forum user M Otis Beard, who staged his suicide online and then returned to general disapproval from fellow posters. As Wired reported, “After a gleeful pronouncement that ‘rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated,’ Beard announced that his ‘little escapade’ had been a method of testing the sense of community in the group and had been designed to offer a perverse sense of catharsis when the deception was revealed.”

In the case of faked suicide, which some experts refer to as “pseuicide,” Feldman said that the emotional weight and social stigma involved make it a particularly powerful—and in some ways increasingly common—method of deception and control. “Factitious disorder is not just about getting attention; it can be about manipulating people,” he said. “And there’s nothing that pulls at you, that grabs you, like suicide.”

Feldman recalled a case in the US state of Michigan where a man was hospitalised for psychiatric reasons and addiction, and “seemed to have done well enough that staff arranged an appropriate discharge with aftercare plans in place.” The next day, the man’s alleged father called and said he had died by suicide the evening after he was released.

“People with factitious disorder often want validation, but a person who feigns his or her own death is far beyond that.”

“It turned out [the caller] was this guy, who had a sadistic streak, and knew it would be very distressing for the staff on many levels,” Feldman explained. Hospital staff were able to uncover his deception not because the patient confessed, but by looking through Michigan’s database of people who’d died: he wasn’t in there.

“To claim falsely that you’ve committed suicide, you have to be at the peak of manipulativeness,” Feldman said. “It’s so angry: people with factitious disorder often want validation, but a person who feigns his or her own death is far beyond that.”

“Munchausen by Internet” and contemporary pseuicide

After years of research and hundreds of case studies reviewed, Feldman said he doesn’t think pseuicide happens often, but that it’s difficult to find data on when it does. “Common sense tells me that factitious suicide is rare, but the psychiatric literature provides no guidance on the frequency,” he commented.

The main reason for this, he said, is that the terms “pseudocide” and “pseucide” have been used in varying ways over the past several decades. “With such a shifting definition, statistics are currently impossible to keep, and I doubt even the FBI keeps track,” Feldman said.

In recent years, however, new technologies have uncovered evidence of a relative surge in a particular sort of invented death, said Feldman, who believes what he calls “Munchausen by Internet” (MBI) is steadily on the rise. In short, he’s argued, people who traditionally have had to go to great length to present false ailments in themselves or in others (as with Munchausen by Proxy) with the goal of gaining sympathy, can now do so fairly quickly online; the same goes for false deaths.

“The easy and ready access to the internet propagates MBI,” Feldman told Wired in 2009. “In fact, I believe that MBI is more common than [Munchausen Syndrome] in ‘real life’ ... it is so easy to use the net to research medical conditions, post fallacious materials, and engage others without the need to literally enact an illness.”

Online, those behaviours can manifest as faking illness in the user or invented persons (a.k.a. “sock puppets”), faking others’ deaths, or faking the user’s own. Feldman said he’s also come across reports of people faking their suicides online in response to perceived mistreatment or neglect by others. Some had gotten involved in online interest groups, or support groups for mental or mood disorders, he said, and then later on “somebody else supposedly posts online that they died because the group wasn’t [nice or] supportive enough.”

Over the past decade, it has seemingly gotten harder to fake maladies or death for yourself or others online, but people apparently keep trying. And whether or not a person suffers from FD, Feldman said, online medical hoaxers seem to come out of the network for recurring and psychically significant reasons. “Many of these people seem to be very lonely, and the internet offers a readily and continually-available source of unconditional support.”

With regard to the reasons that people enact digital or real-life pseuicide, there is similarly “a web of factors, both tangible and intangible,” Feldman said. “People may feign suicide to punish people, but also have a voyeuristic motivation to see how other people would react to their death. We’ve all fantasised about what would happen after we died, and who would come to our funeral,” he added.

Life, death, and self-esteem

Whether or not our careers and lifestyles are particularly risky, it seems the vast majority of people spend a lot of time thinking about death, anyway: their own, their families,’ and how it relates to their ongoing lives.

According to researcher Sheldon Solomon, who’s spent decades studying how we feel and react in response to human morality, this could help explain why pseudocide is an often intriguing and occasionally attractive notion.

“The preponderance of pseudocide is for fraud purposes,” Solomon said. “But you could also imagine, from a psychodynamic existential point of view, that for some folks it could be an attractive way of wiping the proverbial slate clean in a life that, from one’s own perspective, doesn’t seem to be meaningful, and from which it’s hard to derive the feeling that you have value.”

In most cases, our posthumous fantasies imagine that we’re greatly missed and treasured, which aligns with what Solomon and his colleagues have discovered about basic mindsets in life. “Our view, based on our work, is basically that people, by virtue of being conscious—and therefore, to varying degrees, aware of the inevitability of their own demise—go to extraordinary lengths to perceive that life has meaning and that we have value.”

Awareness of one’s own impending demise is, of course, incredibly common, Solomon said. It’s also fundamentally human.

“On one hand, it’s great being smart enough to know that you’re here; in our final moments, it’s tremendously uplifting to be alive and to know it. But on the other hand, if you’re smart enough to realise that you’re here, you’re smart enough to realise that, like all living things, your life is of finite duration and could end at any moment for reasons you can’t anticipate or control.”

“In the overall scheme of things, you’re an inconsequential speck of carbon-based dust, born in a time and place not of your choosing, for a tiny amount of time, before expiring in an unfathomably large universe. That’s demoralising and potentially debilitating.” He points to social anthropologist Ernest Becker, noting how we are drawn to belief systems that “provide social rules that enable us to perceive ourselves as people of value in a world of meaning.”

“If we’re able to do that,” Solomon continued, “that’s what Becker calls self-esteem.”

And self-esteem—not to be confused with psychological narcissism, Solomon points out—is particularly helpful in buffering our anxiety about death. In numerous studies, Solomon and his team have found that being reminded of death brings out our cagey, defensive side, makes us more aggressive toward nature and non-human animals, and exacerbates existing mental disorders or fears.

Our discomfort with death also seems to make us “squander non-renewable natural resources,” eat more, and go shopping more—behaviours that could fit Kierkegaard’s idea that we are “tranquilised by the trivial,” Solomon said. “I’d add social media to that category.”

Most of us have grown up surrounded by the phrase ‘self-esteem,’ but its meaning has often gotten lost along the way, Solomon said. “People have said it’s self-indulgent; we would respectfully disagree. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, ‘Without confidence we are as babes in the cradle.’”

“It’s almost common sense masquerading as psychological insight,” Solomon continued. “To have the capacity, or even audacity, to accept oneself ultimately on one’s own terms… I’m not sure what higher aspiration one could have as far as psychological well being.”

At the end of the day—however many we’ve got left—it also seems likely that we humans, as existentially insecure as we’re prone to be, shouldn’t rely too heavily on advice like “fake it ‘til you make it,” or on other people’s definitions of success. In the history of pseudocide, and of human life generally, there are many poignant examples of how compromising our life’s values can send the whole thing off the rails.

In 1974, for example, British member of Parliament John Stonehouse went missing and was presumed drowned off the coast of Miami following two decades of “ambitious” political work. He was found alive a year later, and while speculation during his absence that he was a spy would later turn out to be true (one of many astonishing details in the case), it was still “probably not the reason” he faked his death, the Guardian explained in 2013.

Stonehouse, who had fled to Australia with his secretary, and had some accounting issues with a charity he was involved in, addressed the House of Commons in October, 1975 regarding his actions. He described a “psychiatric suicide” that occurred before he faked his death, and often referred to his real self in the third person:

I assumed a new parallel personality that took over from me, which was foreign to me and which despised the humbug and sham of the past years of my public life. The collapse and destruction of the original man came about because his ideals in his political life had been utterly frustrated and finally destroyed by the pattern of events beyond his control which had finally overwhelmed him ...

There seemed no escape from the awesome pressures, which were squeezing the will to live from the original man. Everything he was living and working for seemed to be damned … The original man had become a burden to himself, his family, and friends. He could no longer take the strain, and had to go.”

We may never know for sure why another person chooses to end their lives on paper, or how to make sense of the division once they do.

Because only when we work to create our own sense of meaning and value can it eventually take hold in the only reality, the only life, that most of us can ever expect to know—even if some of us become more focused, perhaps from fear and anger toward life or death, on controlling how it ends.