A faked death, also called a staged death or pseudocide, is the act of an individual leading other people to believe that the individual has died when the person is still alive. People who commit pseudocide can do so by leaving evidence, clues, or through other methods. In fandom slang, pseuicide is faking a suicide.
Committing pseudocide may be done for a variety of reasons, such as to fraudulently collect insurance money, to evade pursuit by others, escape from being held hostage by abductors, or as a practical joke.
Unless in the furtherance of a crime (such as fraud or avoiding debt or jail), faking one's own death is not necessarily illegal.
False claims of death, including false claims of suicide, are not uncommon in social media accounts. The people who do this are often trying to get an advantage for themselves, such as more attention or likes, and they lie about their deaths "without thinking about the fact that there are people who would be upset, hurt or psychologically affected by the news of their death". It may be an intentional effort to manipulate other people's emotions or to see how people would react if they had died. Online, people have claimed to be dead as a response to real or perceived mistreatment on social media, and posting news of their death, especially their suicide, is a way to punish the other users.
Examples of faked deaths on social media include BethAnn McLaughlin, a white woman who claimed to be Native American under another name on Twitter, and whose deception was uncovered after she claimed to have died during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 21st century, the advent of mass surveillance has made it much harder to hide after faking a death. Credit cards, social media, mobile phone systems, and other technological situations make it difficult to make a clean break with the past identity. Widespread use of facial recognition tools can connect new identities to old social media accounts.
While some people fake their deaths as a prank or self-promotion effort, or to get a clean start, the most common motivations are money or a need to escape an abusive relationship. People who fake their deaths often feel like they are trapped in a desperate situation. Because of this, an investigation may be triggered if the person disappears, no body is found, and the person is in significant financial difficulties.
People who fake their own deaths often do so by pretend drownings, because it provides a plausible reason for the absence of a body. However, drowned bodies usually appear within a few days of a death, and when no body appears, a faked death is suspected.
Notable faked deaths
- Timothy Dexter was an eccentric 18th-century New England businessman probably best known for his punctuationless book A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress. However, he is also known for having faked his own death to see how people would react. His wife did not shed any tears at the wake, and as a result he caned her for not being sufficiently saddened at his passing.
- Georgy Gruzinsky, a Russian nobleman, faked his death in 1798 to avoid a court sentence. He reappeared when he was effectively pardoned in 1802, and actually died in 1852.
- Grace Oakeshott, British women's rights activist, faked her death in 1907 to get out of her marriage. She lived the remainder of her life in New Zealand and died in 1929.
- Violet Charlesworth, a British fraudster, faked her death in 1909. She was sentenced to three years in prison and released in 1912. Nothing is known of her life after her release.
- C. J. De Garis, an Australian aviator and entrepreneur, faked his death in 1925 and became the subject on an eight-day nationwide search, before being spotted on a ship in New Zealand. He committed suicide in 1926.
- Aleister Crowley, English occultist and author, faked his death in 1930 in Portugal, and then appeared three weeks later publicly in Berlin. Crowley actually died in 1947.
- Alfred Rouse, an English murderer, set his car on fire in 1930 with an unknown man inside in an attempt to fool the police that he died in the vehicle. He was arrested and convicted, and executed in 1931. The identity of the victim remains unknown.
- Alexsandr Uspensky, Russian government official, faked his own suicide in 1938 in an attempt to avoid capture by Soviet authority during the Great Purge. He was captured in 1939 and executed in 1940.
- Ferdinand Waldo Demara, American fraudster, faked his death in 1942. He actually died in 1982.
- Juan Pujol García, Spanish spy, faked his death of Malaria in Angola in 1949, with help from the British spy agency MI5. He lived the remainder of his life in Venezuela and died in 1988.
- Lawrence Allen Bader, an American salesperson, disappeared in 1957 and was presumed dead. He was found alive five years later under the name John "Fritz" Johnson, working as a local TV personality. Bader may have suffered amnesia of his previous life. He actually died in 1966.
- Ken Kesey, American novelist, faked his suicide in 1965. He died in 2001.
- John Allen, a British criminal and murderer, faked his own death in 1966 to avoid prosecution for crimes he had committed. Allen actually died in 2015.
- John Stonehouse, a British politician who in November 1974 faked his own suicide by drowning to escape financial difficulties and live with his mistress. One month later, he was discovered in Australia. Police there initially thought he might be Lord Lucan (who had disappeared only a few weeks earlier, after being suspected of murder) and jailed him. Sent back to Britain, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud.
- Jerry Balisok, an American professional wrestler, successfully convinced the FBI that he had died in 1978 in the Jonestown massacre. He was arrested in 1989 living under the name Ricky Allen Wetta. Balisok actually died in 2013.
- Audrey Marie Hilley, an American murderer, jumped bail in 1979 and lived under the assumed identity of Robbi Hannon. In 1982, under a different alias, she announced the death of Hannon. She was captured and imprisoned, and died in 1987.
- David Friedland, a former New Jersey senator, faked his own death via scuba-diving accident in 1985 while awaiting trial on racketeering charges. In December 1987, he was arrested by officials in Maldives, where he had been working as a scuba dive master and had posed in scuba gear for a picture post card. He eventually was returned to the United States and served nine years in prison.
- Charles Mulet, a corrupt Louisiana policeman, had been accused of molesting a teenage girl in 1988. Mulet left his truck alongside a bridge and sent a note to his police department. The suicide was ruled inconclusive after police failed to find a corpse in the river, and a hiker reported to police a man opening fire on him without warning, whose description matched Mulet's. After the case was profiled on the television show Unsolved Mysteries Mulet was captured.
- Philip Sessarego, British author, faked his death by car bomb in Croatia in 1991 for unknown reasons, and lived under an assumed name for the next 17 years, with his own family only learning he was alive when he appeared in a 2001 TV interview. He died in an accidental poisoning in 2008.
- Francisco Paesa, agent of Centro Nacional de Inteligencia, the Spanish secret service. In 1998 he faked a fatal cardiac arrest in Thailand, after having tricked Luis Roldán, known for being the general of the Spanish Civil Guard when a big scandal of corruption arose in 1993, into stealing all the money that Roldán had previously stolen in that case. He appeared in 2004. During these years, he opened an offshore company, as it was exposed thanks to Panama Papers.
- Friedrich Gulda, Austrian pianist, falsely announced his death in 1999 to create publicity for a following "resurrection concert". He died in 2000.
- John Darwin, a former teacher and prison officer from Hartlepool, England faked his own death on 21 March 2002 by canoeing out to sea and disappearing. His ruse fell apart in 2006 when a simple Google search revealed a photo of him buying a house in Panama. Darwin was arrested and charged with fraud. His wife, Anne, was also arrested and charged for helping Darwin to collect his life insurance of £250,000.
- Clayton Counts, American musician, reported himself dead on his website in 2007 as a prank. He actually died in 2016.
- Samuel Israel III, an American hedge fund manager who was facing twenty years in prison for fraud, left his car and a suicide note on the Bear Mountain Bridge in an attempted fake suicide in April 2008. His girlfriend later confessed to aiding in the deception, and Israel surrendered himself to authorities on July 2. It was always suspected that his suicide was faked since, among other things, passersby reported that a car had picked someone up on the bridge from near Israel's abandoned car. Two years were added to Israel's sentence, which he is currently serving.
- Marcus Schrenker, a financial manager from Fishers, Indiana, was charged with defrauding clients, and in 2009 attempted to fake his own death in a plane crash to avoid prosecution. The plane crash was quickly discovered to be staged, and Schrenker was captured after a multi-state, three-day manhunt that followed. In October 2010, after pleading guilty to state charges, Schrenker was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was fined $633,781
- Chandra Mohan Sharma, Indian activist and murderer, murdered a homeless man, placed the body in his own car, and set the car on fire, in an attempt at faking his death in 2014 to get out of his marriage. He was captured by police and arrested later that year.
- Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist living in Ukraine who in 2018 faked his own assassination, which was widely reported in the international press, as part of a sting operation aimed at exposing an agent sent to kill him. Babchenko's appearance at a press conference the day after his "death" caused an international sensation.
Pseudocides in fiction
- Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare) To avoid a forced marriage, Juliet drinks a vial that shuts her system down for 24 hours, appearing dead to her family. This backfires when Romeo hears of her death, unaware she was going to wake up, and kills himself, leading to Juliet also killing herself.
- In The Adventure of the Empty House, Sherlock Holmes re-appears to Dr. Watson several years after his presumed death grappling with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. He explains that he survived the fall where Moriarty did not, but had to remain "officially" dead while Moriarty's lieutenant, Sebastian Moran, was still at large. This event was loosely adapted by Steven Moffat for the 2010s television series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the episode The Reichenbach Fall. Sherlock is the subject of Jim Moriarty's work to undermine him in the public's view to drive Sherlock to suicide. Moriarty instead kills himself and Sherlock appears to kill himself to save his friends but survives with the help of brother Mycroft Holmes and returns to his work in the next episode, The Empty Hearse.
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – to escape both his drunken father and his strict legal guardian, the main character fakes his own murder.
- The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin
- Gone Girl (2014): In the bestselling book and film, the Dunne marriage is falling apart after the husband is discovered to be having an affair and the wife commits pseudocide and travels to the western United States where she plans to kill herself. However her plan fails and the two are later reunited.
- House, M.D.: Dr. Gregory House, the titular character of the television series, fakes his death in the series finale by switching dental records with a deceased patient. Gregory House, based on the character of Sherlock Holmes, commits pseudocide just as Holmes did in The Adventure of the Empty House.
- The Outsider (1953) by Richard Wright tells the story of Cross Damon, who survives a subway accident but leaves his coat on another man's severely disfigured corpse. Investigators assume it is Cross' body, and he takes the opportunity to escape his previous life.
- Pretty Little Liars (2010): A high school student fakes her death in order to rid herself of a stalker in the episode "-A". Mona Vanderwaal, another character, also attempted to fake her own murder.
- The Simpsons: Homer Simpson fakes his death to take a day off from work in the episode "Mother Simpson". In another episode, Krusty the Clown twice fakes his death in "Bart the Fink".
- Conspiracy theories about Adolf Hitler's death
- Factitious disorder – faking illness to gain an emotional advantage
- Cotard delusion – living people who believe they are physically dead
- "Pseudocide: The Art of Faking Your Death". Psychology Today. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
- "Pseudocide definición y significado - Diccionario Inglés Collins". www.collinsdictionary.com. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
- Burns, Janet (27 October 2018). "The Psychology of Faking Your Own Death". Gizmodo. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
- Alvarez, E. (19 September 2018). "Why are people pretending to be dead on Instagram?". Engadget. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
- Viren, Sarah (2021-05-25). "The Native Scholar Who Wasn't". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-05-27.
- Reese, Hope (2018-06-04). "How people fake their own death — and why". Vox. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
- Kohn, Isabelle (2019-08-26). "Inside the World of Investigators Who Know You've Faked Your Death". MEL Magazine. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
- Gillespie, Tom (19 February 2019). "You only live twice: The man who catches people who fake their own death". Sky News. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
- "3 Steps To Faking Your Own Death From The Author Of 'Playing Dead'". NPR. 9 August 2016. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
- Little, Becky. "A 14th-Century Nun Faked Her Death With a 'Dummy' to Escape Convent Life". History. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
- Todd, William Cleaves Timothy Dexter. Boston, Massachusetts: David Clapp & Son., 1886: 6.
- Robertson, Geoffrey (1999). The Justice Game. London: Vintage. pp. 62–63. ISBN 978-0-09-958191-8.
- MP planned fake death for months, 29 December 2005, BBC, retrieved at 2 September 2014
-  CNN
- Johnson, Dirk (2009). "A Man With Everything, Including a Lot to Flee". The New York Times.
- Jay Reeves and Rick Callahan for the Associated Press, via Yahoo news. Jan 13, 2009. "Investors Complained About Missing Ind. Pilot
- Brooke Baldwin, Kevin Bohn, Kathleen Johnston and Tristan Smith for CNN. January 14, 2009 Affidavit: Fugitive pilot seemed ready to stay on run
- Staff, RTV6/ABC. October 8, 2010 Schrenker Sentenced To 10 Years In Prison
- "'Murdered' Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko is alive". BBC News. 30 May 2018. Retrieved 30 May 2018.