If you want to know how to fake your own death, you have many exemplary mentors to choose from: Andy Kaufman. Tupac Shakur. Elvis Presley. Jesus Christ. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The art of pseudocide is a revered tradition throughout human history. The most popular way to fake death is by drowning, as it eliminates the need to provide a body, though the 9/11 attacks also provided a convenient excuse for escape artists to vanish into thin air. The motives for pseudocide are many: most folks who fake death are evading the law, but there’s always the ever-popular publicity stunt, or fraudulent collection of life insurance. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, faked his death and fled to Paraguay in 1966 to avoid jail time for possession of marijuana. “Lord” Timothy Dexter, a New England businessman and famous kook, faked his death in the early 1800’s just to see how people would react. (His wife refused to cry at his funeral, for which he later caned her.) Connie Franklin faked his death by homicide in 1929. Later that year, the “Arkansas Ghost” was discovered in a nearby county and was brought to court to testify at his own murder trial.
But pseudocide isn’t just a lame plot device or a conspiracy theory for fans who can’t cope with a celebrity death. (I know you’re reading this, Stephen Jay Gould!) Animals use the tactic of faking their deaths to get out of a pinch, just as humans do. You know it by its more common name: playing possum.
You may wonder why the Virginia Opossum, better known to us as simply the “possum” or as “redneck road chicken,” is the only marsupial in North America. The fact is, South America is full of opossums, with over sixty species. And during the Great American Interchange about 3 million years ago, sort of a zoological swap meet between the continents, the opossum was dearly bought. For just one opossum, one armadillo, the porcupine and the beaver, we North Americans traded wolves, deer, horses, elephants, rabbits, cougars, squirrels, rattlesnakes, and hundreds of other awesome animals. Those famous llamas and alpacas of Peru? Those were ours first. (You’re welcome, cabrones.) So we should feel lucky for the one opossum we’ve got. Even if, let’s be honest, it’s probably the creepiest opossum in the world.
Death is the opossum’s natural habitat. It has a lifespan of only two to four years, unusual for a mammal of its size. Its success in North America as the only non-placental mammal depends largely on its opportunistic, omnivorous diet, its near immunity to snake venom, and its ability to pop out up to 13 little opossumplings at a time. The semi-prehensile tail (not strong enough to hang from as an adult, but still useful for climbing) is unique to animals north of Mexico, and both the pouch and the bifurcated genitalia common to marsupials is unheard of for any other North American mammal. But the real ace up their sleeve is their penchant for histrionic fainting.
It’s called “playing possum,” but there’s nothing playful about it. When presented with extreme danger, an involuntary set of physiological changes takes place in the opossum, starting with the loss of consciousness. Their teeth are bared and mouth foams in a facsimile of the dead man’s grin, and they effect the stiffness of rigor mortis. Now, you would think that fainting in front of a predator would simply save it the work of killing you, turning you into furry fast food. But the possum puts a convincing final touch on its death throes: a musk emitted from its anal gland that makes him smell like he’s decomposing.
If the skunk’s putrid scent is enough to deter most predators, why does the opossum bother with the whole pseudocidal ruse? Because many animals have taboos surrounding death, too. Let’s pretend you are a great horned owl, which has no real sense of smell and therefore no problem picking off an angry skunk. You see an opossum, apparently dead, curled below a tree. How long has it been dead? Like, a day? You can deal with day-old possum. But what if it’s been, like, two weeks? How long has this Chinese food been sitting in the fridge? Better to just throw the whole thing out rather than risk a night driving the porcelain schoolbus.
There’s a better name for this phenomenon: Thanatosis. It’s a form of self-mimesis; instead of mimicking another creature, the animal mimics the dead version of itself. The act of feigning death isn’t limited to opossums: Beetles, wasps, and crickets will do it, and the Eastern Hognose Snake put on a particularly dramatic death display, turning over and releasing that scent of putrefaction from its cloaca. Hognose snakes don’t just play possum to avoid predators; if a female is being wooed by an unwelcome suitor, she may fake her own death just to lose the creep. (Sort of an extreme version of, “Not tonight, I have a headache.”) Ironically, the animal that can stay unconscious and “dead” the longest has the best chance of survival. Unless, of course, your predator happens to be an oncoming truck.
Long ago, when I was an actor in a theatre company, I relished death scenes. We staged a production of “Hamlet,” so just about everyone got to fake their own death at least once. It is a challenge to try to effect unconsciousness on command, to relinquish control over both muscles and mind and decide which of your breaths will be your death rattle. But recently a friend told me about ninjas who, when hiding in an enemy castle, could become unconscious or “asleep” by sheer force of will, waking only when danger had passed. Concealed in a cupboard or in the rafters, a “sleeping” ninja could slow his breath and limit his need to shift in place, becoming as close as possible to an inanimate object as an animal can be. When the time was right, he could gain consciousness, raise his heart rate, and continue with the assassination. So perhaps it is possible for humans to bring ourselves closer to death using only willpower, and perhaps ninjas have something new to teach us about the uses of thanatosis. It seems that faking your own death isn’t a product of a clever publicity stunt, but an innate animal ability. As that master escape artist Houdini might tell you, defying death is just mind over matter.