Dead Men Walking – The Bizarre Condition Known as Cotard’s Syndrome

One of the world’s strangest and rarest mental disorders is Cotard’s Syndrome. Also known as the Cotard Delusion, the Nihilistic Delusion, and the Walking Corpse Syndrome, CS causes sufferers to believe that they are dead (figuratively or literally) and do not exist.

I always thought the walking dead only existed in movies and video games. Until I read about Cotard’s Syndrome (CS), that is. Apparently, people who suffer from this rare but very real mental disorder actually believe that they have died and are not of this world anymore. The condition is named after a 19th century French neurologist, Jules Cotard. In 1880, he presented the first patient to be diagnosed with the condition at a lecture, calling her Mademoiselle X. She is said to have suffered from significant self-loathing, a denial of the existence of God, the Devil, and several parts of her own body. She also believed she was damned for eternity and incapable of dying a natural death, so she had no reason to eat anymore. Mademoiselle X eventually starved to death.


Other, more bizarre versions of Cotard’s Syndrome have been reported as well. For instance, some believe they have lost all their blood and internal organs, while others are convinced they are putrefying. Most people who suffer from CS are also diagnosed with schizophrenia., but sometimes, CS also occurs as an adverse reaction to Acyclovir, an anti-viral drug used to treat herpes simplex virus. In medical terms, the area of the patients’ brain that recognizes faces is affected. As a result, these people lose all emotional feelings while viewing the faces of those familiar to them. This causes complete detachment from the living world, leading to the inevitable belief that one is dead. The disease occurs in stages – germination, blooming and chronic. In the first stage, psychotic depression and hypochondria occur, marked by a vague feeling of anxiety. In the blooming stage, the symptoms aggravate and the syndrome develops completely. In the final, chronic stage, severe delusions and chronic depressions occur, with a completely distorted view of the world. Neurologically, CS is considered a close cousin of the Capgras Syndrome, another delusion in which an individual believes that a loved one has been replaced by an impostor. Treatment for Cotard’s is slow, but possible. The use of anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and other mood stabilizers have been known to provide patients with considerable relief.


One of the more interesting cases of CS reported is that of a victim of a motorcycle accident. Due to the complications that arose during his recovery, he believed he had died. What made things worse was his mother decided they both move to South Africa shortly after the accident. Since his new surroundings were so hot, he was quite convinced he was actually in hell. I’ve used the phrase, ‘hot as hell’ several times myself, but I suppose there are a few unfortunate souls out there who take it quite literally.