illness

Stop and Smell the Poison

As children, many of us wasted away hours traipsing through our parents’ gardens, pretending to be princes or princesses, witches, dragons, and all kinds of other fantastical things. Our imaginations ran wild, and with such a beautiful backdrop like the sweet-smelling flowers planted by our parents, it was the perfect scene to set the mood.

Photo courtesy of Jacqui via Flickr

Photo courtesy of Jacqui via Flickr

The world is full of many different gardens that range in size and beauty. One such place is the Alnwick Garden, located in North East England. This garden, however, is unlike the ones we all grew up playing in for more reasons than one. For behind all the roses, and tulips, and tiger-lilies, far at the back, a black, iron gate is found, warning all those brave enough to enter. Because The Alnwick garden is very beautiful indeed. But it’s also the world’s deadliest garden.

In 1995, when Ralph Percy became the 12th Duke of Northumberland, his wife, Jane Percy (now the Duchess of Northumberland) obtained ownership of Alnwick Castle’s garden. Her husband instructed her to do something about the garden, which had fallen into an unfortunate state of disuse over the years. Not wanting to have just any lovely, traditional garden, the Duchess, taking inspiration from a trip to Italy’s poison garden, Medici, decided to gather as many of the world’s most lethal plants as she could find, and plant them for her own collection. Today, the Alnwick Poison Garden gathers around 600,000 visitors a year, so the Duchess was clearly onto something.

The garden is full of all manner of poisonous and deadly plants. With a range of different plants, from the simple cannabis plants, to those much more vile, such as Amorphophallus Titanum - also known as ‘the corpse flower’ which is named for the fact that it smells like a dead body. The symptoms and effects the plants in this garden have on people also vary. Some simply smell horrible, while others have horrifying, physical effects: Hemlock causes muscular paralysis, including the muscles required in breathing. Foxgloves, in addition to hallucinations, also cause vomiting, blurry vision, seizures, and death. And one of my personal favourites, Atropa Belladonna, more commonly known as “Deadly Nightshade”, has the ability to cause dilation of the pupils, hallucinations, rashes, and death.

Atropa Belladonna; Photo courtesy of DerWeg via Pixabay.com

Atropa Belladonna; Photo courtesy of DerWeg via Pixabay.com

In the past, these plants have been primarily used for innocent means, leaving the user to learn a little too late of the real effects. Deadly Nightshade, for example, was often used by Venetian women in drops from the berries juice, because as mentioned above, it dilated their pupils, and they believed this made them more attractive. Too bad it also made them go blind, in addition to its other less-than-pleasant effects mentioned above.

Angel’s Trumpet was thought to be a strong aphrodisiac, and Victorian women often added a little of its pollen to their tea in order to experience its high. Unbeknownst to them, Angel’s Trumpet, in addition to hallucinations and delirium, also causes comas and death. Not exactly worth the high if you ask me.

Photo courtesy of Duncan Andison via Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Duncan Andison via Shutterstock

Because of the degrees of deadliness of all the plants contained within, Alnwick’s poison garden is littered with warning signs, discouraging all visitors from eating, touching, smelling, or even getting too close to the plants. However, there are always those that choose not to listen, and it should come as no surprise a number of people pass out in the gardens each year, and there are countless health and safety reports written up. Word to the wise: don’t ignore the signs.

The signs, however, are not the garden’s only means of security for the general public against these plants. The garden was granted special permission to grow coca plants (cocaine) and marijuana plants (weed), both of which are kept in metal cages within the garden because of the effects they can have on the human body. Duchess Jane Percy uses these plants to get across an anti-drug message to children who tour the garden, telling Smithsonian Magazine that “it’s a way of educating children without having them realize they’re being educated.”

Ultimately, that’s the goal of the garden: to showcase something unique, but also to teach everyone who visits about the world’s most dangerous plants, and what they can do. In fact, not every plant in the garden is just lethal - some actually have other uses too that, when handled properly, can actually be quite helpful.

Opium Poppy; Photo courtesy of Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock

Opium Poppy; Photo courtesy of Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock

Take, for instance, the opium poppy. It has a wide array of uses that range from harmless to harmful, depending on which part of the plant you use, and in which concentration. Its ripe seeds can be harvested as an ingredient in some baked goods, oils and seasonings, and can even be used as birdseed. The capsules of its unripe seeds, however, fall on the more dangerous end, as the milky latex within is what is used to produce drugs such as opium, morphine, codeine, and heroin, all of which have positive medical uses, but are lethal when overused.

Of course, not everyone to ever have made use of these kinds of plants used them for pure reasons. In London in 2010, a young woman was arrested for crushing up Monkshood seeds and sprinkling them in a curry for her ex-lover.

Thankfully, no one has ever died in the garden. So if you’re like me, and itching for a chance (no pun intended) to get into this garden and have a peek around, check out places such as Trip Advisor. Just remember to heed the warning signs, lest you be one of the many visitors to pass out among the beautiful, but deadly plants.


I couldn’t even begin to cover all of the plants in this awe-inspiring garden, but feel free to leave a comment below about your favourite deadly plant, and what exactly makes it so harmful. Perhaps I’ll even re-visit this topic in the future, and do a post on some of the specific plants behind the black iron gates.


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Maggie Kendall

Maggie Kendall spent the first fifteen years of her life furiously avoiding all things horror, but then her friend forced her to watch Paranormal Activity, and there’s been no turning back. She still checks the bathroom mirror for Bloody Mary before getting in the shower.

Stranger Than Fiction

Special effects combined with the imagination of writers and producers make so many impossible things possible in movies and television these days. Some people are born with part wolf genes, others are bitten by sharp fangs, and others still are somehow reanimated after death. We watch all of these things happen and never question it because anything is possible when you plunk yourself in front of screen and suspend disbelief just a little bit.

Medical shows are just another in a long line of programs these days that take certain liberties with what’s possible out in the real world, and while quite a few people grumble and groan about lack of realism, there is still something to be said for the value of entertainment. Nonetheless, no one can claim that there aren’t a few things in medical dramas that aren’t real.

That being said, there are also a number of conditions out here in the real world that sound like they’ve been plucked off the silver screen. Let me give you a brief overview of five such diagnoses:

Walking Corpse Syndrome (Cotard’s Syndrome)

Photo courtesy of Paradise studio via Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Paradise studio via Shutterstock

Cotard’s Syndrome, otherwise known as Walking Corpse Syndrome, was named after Dr. Jules Cotard, who was the first to diagnose a patient with this peculiar mental illness. His patient was referred to only as Mademoiselle X, and she insisted that she was lacking her brain, chest, stomach, and intestines. Because of these missing organs, Mademoiselle X refused to eat, citing that she no longer needed to, and subsequently died of starvation.

This syndrome has taken on the nickname of Walking Corpse Syndrome because of its startling similarities to zombie-like viruses seen in movies. However, in real life, it is a mental disorder in which a patient believes that they are dead or missing one or several vital organs.

According to studies, this syndrome affects less than 1% of the world’s population. Nonetheless, it exists, and researchers and scientists are still working on finding a proper treatment. For more detailed information on Cotard’s Syndrome, check out Dead Alive on Medical Daily.

Witches Brew (Ergot Poisoning)

In Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and a number of them were hanged for it. To make matters worse, the Salem Witch Trials were only one of many witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries. For more on the Salem Witch Trials, one of Voices in the Attic’s member’s, Rachel Small, already wrote a post on it. Today we’re focusing on a very specific aspect of the witch trials.

During this period of time, accusations were hurled with very little actual proof provided. Instead, the accusers relied on evidence such as victims that they claimed had been bewitched by the so-called ‘witches’.Those supposedly bewitched exhibited a wide variety of symptoms, such as: convulsions, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, and crawling sensations on the skin. Countless victims exhibiting such symptoms were brought to court as proof of witchcraft.

Photo courtesy of the Botany Department of University of Hawai’i via their website

Photo courtesy of the Botany Department of University of Hawai’i via their website

However, there is another explanation: Ergot poisoning. It’s believed that what people didn’t know during the time of the witch trials, is that victims exhibiting these symptoms were in fact not bewitched, but suffering from ergot poisoning.

Ergot bodies are found in plants such as barley and grass before harvest. They are dark purple or black kernels, and a proper separation process is required in order to get rid of ergot bodies before processing the plants for edible products. This process involves soaking the grains in a brine solution, because while the grains meant to be consumed will sink, ergot bodies float.

The problem is, this process didn’t exist at the time of the witch trials, and so people were being poisoned upon consumption without realizing, and were in turn quickly looking for something - or someone - to blame.

Rye is believed to be one of the main transmissions of ergotism, and that’s where the epidemic during the witch trials that history records as witchcraft likely came from.

Oh the things we learn with just a little bit of hindsight!

Exploding Head Syndrome

I’m sure that to many readers, Exploding Head Syndrome sounds like the worst thing on this list, but in reality, its name is significantly more dramatic than its symptoms.

Photo courtesy of Matic Stojs via Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Matic Stojs via Shutterstock

Exploding Head Syndrome is a sleep-related disorder characterized by a loud crashing sound ringing in a person’s head, much like the sound of a gunshot, a car crash, or an explosion, while the person is falling asleep. The kicker: it’s entirely imagined.

Not a lot is actually known about this syndrome, but it’s suspected that it could be related to extreme stress or fatigue, or minor seizures. It seems to occur more in women than men, and tends to show up after the age of fifty, as well as being, naturally, very disruptive to sleep. It’s not certain how many people experience this, but it seems that among those that do, some experience it once in a while, while others experience it several times a night.

For more on Exploding Syndrome, check out “Exploding Head Syndrome” on tuck.com. Unfortunately there is no proper cure for it, but there are some treatments doctors can try, beginning with studying a patient’s sleep patterns.

Dissociative Fugue

Dissociative fugue differs a little from the previously mentioned ailments in this post in that it isn’t so much unbelievable as it is terrifying.

Dissociative fugue is a kind of amnesia where the sufferer suddenly forgets absolutely everything about themselves, including their entire past and their entire identity. While it has been found to be caused by extreme psychological trauma, it comes on suddenly, and leaves the sufferer in a state of confusion that, in many cases, results in them wandering off. There have been reported cases of someone suffering from dissociative fugue where the sufferer completely abandoned their current life and struck up an entirely new one.

It is a very rare kind of amnesia, and in most cases only lasts for a few hours. However, it can last for days or weeks, and in some cases, even longer. What’s more, once the sufferer ‘wakes up’ from their state, they usually have no recollection of what transpired during that time.

There is so much to this disorder, as is the case with most diagnoses, and I can’t hope to cover it all here. But I do encourage you to look more into it if you’re curious. An excellent place to start is, perhaps, one of the most famous cases of dissociative fugue: Agatha Christie. Psychology Today wrote an article summarizing the events of her 11-day disappearance into another life, but there are a number of sources that cover it should you find your curiosity piqued.

Sleep Paralysis

Last but by no means least on my list today is sleep paralysis. I couldn’t make a list of creepy medical conditions without including this, because I suffer from it myself and know first-hand how scary it can be.

Sleep paralysis is a disturbance that occurs just as you’re falling asleep or just as you’re waking up, when R.E.M sleep occurs while you’re still awake. It’s not terribly common, but there are still a number of people who experience it.

Photo Courtesy of Africa Studio via Shutterstock

Photo Courtesy of Africa Studio via Shutterstock

Sleep paralysis is characterized by the inability to move your body. Some people find that they can’t even open their eyes. Another symptom - which really only serves to escalate the panic while experiencing sleep paralysis - is an inhibited ability to breathe, almost as though something is pressing on your chest. I don’t personally feel like anything is pressing on me, but I do find it extremely difficult to draw breath, and my breathing feels very shallow.

A large majority of people who have experienced sleep paralysis also claim to feel or see a presence in the room with them, that feels malevolent. Others report audio hallucinations as well, such as growling and other loud noises in their ears. This is just a trick of the mind brought on by the sleep paralysis, but it doesn’t make it any less scary in the moment. I haven’t personally experienced the visual hallucinations, thankfully, but I do know of a couple people who have. I do, however, on very rare occasions, hear a loud noise in my ears, not unlike the sound of a train rushing by in the distance.

If you’d like to know more about sleep paralysis, whether you suffer from it or simply out of curiosity, feel free to conduct your own research. But before I go, I’d like to assure you that it cannot harm you. It only lasts for a few minutes at most, and if you focus on taking deep breaths, it will all be over soon.


These are the five creepy medical conditions I’ll leave you with today, but please remember that I am a writer, not a medical professional. I cannot diagnose you or offer you any kind of medical advice. If you think you suffer from any of the above mentioned conditions, please seek proper medical assistance.


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Maggie Kendall

Maggie Kendall spent the first fifteen years of her life furiously avoiding all things horror, but then her friend forced her to watch Paranormal Activity, and there’s been no turning back. She still checks the bathroom mirror for Bloody Mary before getting in the shower.