Frightening and Hell Like NDEs

26 Jul

Since last week I’ve had a lot of enquiries about frightening NDEs because Matthew who was interviewed for the Bio Channel series ‘I Survived… Beyond and Back’ described a NDE where he felt he was in hell.


Frightening NDEs certainly occur but there is far less attention given to them. American cardiologist Dr Maurice Rawlings was the first to draw attention to these frightening NDEs in the 1970’s and subsequent research was undertaken by British researcher Dr Margot Grey in the 1980’s, Professor Bruce Greyson and Nancy Evans Bush, PMH Atwater and Dr Barbara Rommer.


Professor Greyson and Nancy Evans Bush classified the frightening NDEs as:

1)      The usual NDE but interpreted in an unpleasant or frightening way

2)      The eternal void of darkness

3)      The hell like experience which in many cases is terrifying

 Dr Rommer added a fourth category where the NDEr relived a frightening life review where they were judged by a higher power.


I came across two patients who had frightening NDEs in the prospective hospital research that I undertook. The first was the Type 1 described above and the second was a Type 3. I also have a vivid memory of looking after a dying lady when I was a student nurse about 20 years ago. She was terrified of dying and said she had died before and it was awful as it was hell. It was one of those cases that has always stuck in my mind because she was in such spiritual distress. It’s only since I’ve undertaken my NDE research that it seems likely that she’d had a frightening NDE in the past. All of these experiences are briefly described in my forthcoming book.


Some researchers have described the frightening NDEs as being confusional and suggest that they may be attributable to high levels of carbon dioxide or due to anaesthetics but I don’t agree with any of these explanations. The people in my research were not at all confused and the lady who had the hell like experience did not have elevated levels of carbon dioxide, nor was she recovering from anaesthetic at the time of her NDE.


Some frightening NDEs transform into the pleasant NDEs but not all and many people are left with resultant psychological trauma. Many people never disclose their frightening NDE because they may feel a sense of shame that they experienced something frightening and not the usual pleasant NDE. Many simply can’t understand their experience. In some cases the memory is so frightening that the person will deliberately try to suppress it.


It is clear that far more research into the frightening NDEs is needed and that people who undergo the frightening NDEs need to be supported as they come to terms with understanding their experience.


Past-President of IANDS, Nancy Evans Bush has launched a blog devoted to the frightening NDEs which is a very helpful resource. Nancyis herself a NDEr of the frightening kind and it took her ‘30 years and a Master’s degree to piece together’ what she experienced. I had the good fortune of being invited to a meeting at The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo in 2007, at which many other NDE researchers were present including Nancy. It was an honour to listen toNancy as she retold her experience first hand.


 Check out Nancy’s blog at:

If there is anyone out there who has had a frightening NDE, I would love to hear all about it. I can be contacted by the email address given at the top of the blog or at my website.


23 Responses to “Frightening and Hell Like NDEs”

  1. Max_B July 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Some of the ‘Hellish’ type NDE’s I’ve seen have an element of violence/fear going on, either for the person affected, or for those around the person at the time of the incident.

    I think Matthew’s ‘hellish’ experience, which he describes after being shot in the head during a drive-by shooting in “I survived… beyond and back.” is interesting, he describes being restrained, then suspended, then put into a cell, this imagery is acompanied by intense feelings of evil and fear.

    Matthews death did actually occur in frightening and perhaps evil circumstances, he was restrained as he was strapped into the stretcher, he was also suspended as he was lifted, and I guess he was then put into an ambulance. Later he is surrounded by those who are unafraid, and are fighting for his life, a large hand breaks through to him.

    NDE imagery is extremely dream-like…

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 26, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

      Yes, some NDEs do have an element of violence and fear but there are also NDEs that occur in the absence of violence or fear. Interestingly many of the Type 2 frightening experiences have been reported during childbirth. There are also Spiritually Transformative Experiences (STEs) which are very similar to NDEs but occur spontaneously and not when a person is near death. There are many reported cases of frightening STEs in the archives of the Alister Hardy Society / Religious Experience Research Centre at Lampeter University.

      You have good points about Matthew’s actual experience – he would have been restrained etc. Was his severely injured brain just interpreting events that were actually happening? Was his mind trying to make sense of something from what it could feel? Was Matthew’s experience just a mind model? The simple answer is that we simply don’t know.

      However, when I tried to investigate this aspect with my research it didn’t seem to be the minds of the patients just trying to make sense of the experience. My control group of cardiac arrest survivors were asked to re-enact their resuscitation – this was to verify if the NDE / OBE was due to residual sight, background noise or tactile stimulation. The majority of the control group didn’t have a clue and couldn’t even make a wild guess. There were a few who made guesses based on TV hospital dramas but they were incorrect and there were misconceptions of what procedures were carried out. A few who guessed thought they had been defibrillated when in fact they had only had CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation) and drugs administered.

      People who have NDEs describe them as ‘realer than real’ and describe a heightened state of consciousness as opposed to dream like experiences. Also people are rarely changed by their dreams whereas NDErs are often radically changed by their NDE. Dreams are usually forgotten but NDEs remain etched in the minds of the experiencers for the rest of their lives.

  2. Max_B July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    “However, when I tried to investigate this aspect with my research it didn’t seem to be the minds of the patients just trying to make sense of the experience.”

    Just like dreams, the strongly emotional content of these experiences tend to be more important than the detail of the imagery, but I agree these experiences often impact people, and can be life changing.

    Strong emotional content is linked to ‘telepathy’ (broadcast in the present time, but over space), and ‘apparitions’ (broadcast in the present space, but over time).

    I strongly believe that both ‘telepathy’ and ‘apparitions’ are probably the same thing, but viewed from two different positions. (i.e. You ain’t seeing an apparition, you are seeing what somebody else is saw from that position in the past, and it’s in your head – as it were).

    OBE’s, NDE’s, Dreams etc all fit together in the same group in my view. We don’t yet understand the significance of emotions, or their strange ability to breach time and space. We simply don’t yet understand the true nature of our reality. The micro-circuitry of our brains is theoretically small enough to intereact at a quantum level. Quantum mechanics, and theoretical physicists like Wheeler (information), Susskind (holographic principle) are pointing us towards something.

    Anyway… I’m way off subject here…

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 27, 2011 at 9:36 am #

      Yes, you’re right we don’t yet understand the true nature of reality. I find it really exciting to be doing this kind of research at this time because our technology is leading us to make new discoveries every day.

      I find the new discoveries from quantum mechanics to be fascinating (although I don’t thoroughly understand it all!).

      I think it’s important that we embrace these new discoveries rather than dismiss them because they don’t fit in with the current worldview.

  3. Tim July 27, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    Hi again, Penny.
    Wasn’t Matthew actually dead, though ? I seem to remember that he was and if he was, you can’t dream, you can’t do anything. There shouldn’t be any experience. Ward Krenz was definitely dead ( 100%) and yet had something to tell about what he saw. Bizarre, but it indicates that mind and brain are indeed separate.

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

      Hi Tim,

      Yes, according to Matthew’s doctors on the TV programme he was dead which makes his experience all the more interesting.

      Some people may say that the NDE occurred as he lost consciousness or as he regained consciousness. If it occurred as he lost consciousness (before his heart stopped) then how could he recall anything with such clarity because his brain function would have been severely impaired in the events after loss of consciousness.

      If his experience occurred when he regained consciousness then it would have been incongruous with the events going on at the time i.e. when he regained consciousness he was no longer restrained or suspended as he was when he first lost consciousness because he was then lying in a hospital bed.

      We should also take into account that Matthew had been shot in the head so the trauma caused by the bullet would have caused a huge neurological insult yet he recalled a very real, lucid and clear NDE – how can this be so if consciousness is created by the brain?

      I think these NDE cases clearly highlight that the current view of consciousness is severely limited and it’s time to explore other explanations of what consciousness is.

      • Tim July 27, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

        Thanks for the reply, Penny,

        Your reasoning is perfectly logical and yet when sceptical doctors are presented with information like this, they seem to ‘shut off’ as if they don’t want to hear it. It’s a kind of blind spot in their world view. As more and more of these curious anomolies (NDE’s during cardiac arrest etc) of the
        mind/brain occur we should be closer to a new paradigm but do you see any real hope for that at the moment ?

      • Dr Penny Sartori July 28, 2011 at 8:50 am #

        It is unfortunate that some people do shut off to this sort of information. I can see both sides of the debate but one thing that actually doing this kind of research in the clinical area has taught me is that I must remain open minded.

        I have been studying NDEs for 16 years now and my views change constantly. When I began my prospective study I (quite naively) thought I’d be able to explain the NDE at the end of it but I found that my research raised more questions than it answered. My logical explanations for explaining NDEs were not supported by my research and now I realise its because I had pre-conceived ideas about NDEs and little understanding of the full range of this very complex phenomena. Professor Bruce Greyson has made a very valid comment which I will quote below:

        “Without exception, every report of a large study of NDEs published in a mainstream medical journal has concluded that these phenomena cannot be explained as hallucinations. Such unanimity among scientific researchers is unusual and should tell us something. Why is it that scientists who have done the most near-death research believe the mind is not exclusively housed in the brain, whereas those who regard NDEs as hallucinations by and large have not conducted any studies of the phenomena at all?”

        I think things are changing slowly. Certainly in hospitals – when I first began my hospital research (14 years ago) many of my colleagues laughed at me and didn’t take it that seriously. However, their attitudes began to change as my work progressed. I remember one of the consultants explaining to the junior doctors about my work and gave them an article I had written and made them read it to familiarise themselves with NDEs. By the time my research was completed most of the doctors were very intrigued and often we had discussions. I am lucky, I worked with a great team of healthcare workers who then used to alert me to patients who they thought may have had NDEs. Many of the consultants then involved me in end of life issues etc.

        There is no getting away from the fact that NDEs happen, we simply don’t understand them. I am really excited because NDEs are now being taught in schools and colleges so the younger generation will be familiar with them and will be less likely to be so dismissive and hopefully will be open minded about finding explanations for NDEs. Coupled with the ongoing research into NDEs I am very optimistic that things will change and that we are at the begining of a new paradigm.

  4. Fernando July 28, 2011 at 2:36 am #

    Hi Penny! Someone knows what kind of experience had Ward Krenz? Because I dont find any video wich he said something about he saw..

    • Dr Penny Sartori July 28, 2011 at 8:55 am #

      Hi Fernando,
      There was a TV showing on The Discovery Channel in the UK last week and although Ward Krenz described in detail how his NDE came about he didn’t say a great deal about the experience itself. From what I could understand his NDE was so ineffable that he simply could not find the words to describe it. As with many NDEs words are not adequate to describe such a transcendental experience.

      Also, what I have found is that sometimes the NDEs is so deeply personal that many people don’t want to share it – some may describe bits of their NDE but the rest is so sacred to them that they keep it to themselves.

      • Tim July 28, 2011 at 11:59 am #

        Thanks for the reply, Penny.
        That’s good news. The quote from Bruce Greyson is so accurate as well. Why would that be. It says a lot about the phenomenon.

    • Tim July 28, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

      Fernando, Hi,
      This is what Ward Krenz ‘said’ about what he saw ( a summary-not verbatim )It was clear he didn’t want to say too much because I guess some of it might have been very personal, I guess.

      “What I saw was all wonderful, no pain, you can’t even describe it, take your best ever happiest feeling and
      multiply it by a million and you might be close. I tell people that ask me, not to be afraid of death, that death is a beautiful experience”

      I hope that satisfies your curiosity, Fernando. I have to say, I was just as curious as you, probably everyone is 🙂

      • Tim August 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

        Hi again Penny,
        On the IANDS website there is a special report on NDE’s from Bob Woodruff (five segments) very interesting. One of them is highlighting the NDE of an atheist, Margaret Downey who remains an atheist and insists that it’s just brain chemicals. I thought her interpretation of her experience was rather odd considering that she claimed to ‘see herself’ and the nurses below when she was out of body. Obviously if one can see one’s own body, something, some entity that survives must be doing the watching. I wondered if you have come ever come across someone who reported an NDE but remained convinced that it was just brain chemicals. I believe I have seen one or two, but I can’t remember where. Regards Tim

      • Dr Penny Sartori August 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

        Hi again Tim, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Another well known case of an atheist having a NDE was the philosopher A J Ayer. He changed his views about his ideas on life after death initially but then changed them back again apparently.

        Yes, I’ve come across two other people who had NDEs and just thought they were due to their brain malfunctioning.

        The first was a nurse who I worked with about 15 years ago. Her NDE occurred during childbirth but she just described it to me and said ‘it was just my brain hallucinating’ and it didn’t seem to have any after effects either. She didn’t attach any sigificance to it at all.

        The second case was a lady I met at The Lifebridge Foundation in The Catskill Mountains in New York in 1999. She described her NDE but was quite adamant that it was nothing other than her brain creating the experience. She wouldn’t entertain any other possible explanation.

        These experiences are so fascinating and so are the reactions to them by those who experience them. The vast majority of NDErs I have spoken to are convinced that their experience was ‘realer than real’.

  5. Tim August 12, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    Thanks so much for the reply, Penny, that is interesting. This is a little off topic but I thought your case report of Mike R (I saw his name in a newspaper) the carpenter, was as close as any researcher has come yet to ‘proving’ that ‘something’ left the body. It was a simply stunning case, all the more for the spontaneous remission of his hand condition (palsy ?)I thought the observation of the pink lollipop etc and the ‘peering around the curtain physio’ was extraordinary. I presume the sceptical objections to this were that Mike had seen the oral sponge before and the physio peering around the curtain was to be expected. I don’t buy that at all. That case is extremely suggestive of separation and one has to really stretch with special pleading to say otherwise. I believe Dr Fenwick was very impressed with the case and rightly so, in my opinion.

    • Dr Penny Sartori August 13, 2011 at 10:00 am #

      Hi Tim,
      Yes the case of Patient 10 was remarkable – even more so for me because I was actually there looking after him as it occurred. When he regained consciousness and reported the NDE and OBE I was astounded at the accuracy of what he reported. It is one thing to read about OBEs / NDEs but to be present and actually have my observed actions reported back to me so accurately was incredible.

      I’ve tried to think of all possible explanations for this like, as you mention, was it because he was familiar with the procedures, was it because he could hear what was going on etc. Whichever way I tried to be objective about it I found that nothing could sufficiently explain all aspects of what he reported. The full exploration of possible explanations is written up in full in the article I published in the 2006 Winter edition of the Journal of Near-Death Studies.

      Most remarkable of all was the fact that his hand which had been in a contracted position for 60 years (he has cerebral palsy) was able to fully open. I checked with the doctors and physios to see if they could explain this but none of them could. This should not be possible without an operation to release the tendons. In fact the superindendant physio who has over 20 years experience of treating hospital patients has even called this a miracle.

      • Tim August 13, 2011 at 10:45 am #

        Can you tell me how to best access your JNDS article, Penny. I don’t mind paying for it. I would love to read it.
        In the newspaper reports of Mike’s case, it was ‘said’ that the ‘Jesus figure’ ‘actually touched him on the hand.’ This would be a journalistic embellishment, I suppose, at least I assumed it was. Or did Mike actually say that occured ? Thanks again.

      • Dr Penny Sartori August 13, 2011 at 11:08 am #

        Hi Tim,
        The JNDS is available through the IANDS website.

        Yes, the newspaper reports were slightly embellished. The ‘Jesus figure’ didn’t touch his hand.

  6. Tim August 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    Thanks Penny,
    I’ll check it out asap.

    Yes, I thought they might have been. Still, it is a stunning case regardless.

    • Tim August 14, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

      I studied the article very closely, Penny. All I can state is …it is exceptionally evidential for those with an open mind. For sceptics..of course, it won’t quite be enough because the ‘target was not seen’ although everything else but the target…was seen. How frustrating that must have been not to get the bulls eye. Nevertheless when I read it and try to make the reductionist case for the mind model etc, it is like trying to cram a grossly ill fitting shoe onto one’s foot. Sceptics can live like/live with… that. They can gnore the discomfort.

      However, this case, together with the hundreds of other veridical OBE’s in the literature should be enough to indicate that materialism is false, IMHO. Thanks again for all your hard work.

      • Dr Penny Sartori August 15, 2011 at 9:47 am #

        Hi Tim, thanks for your comments.

        Yes, this case really made me think. It is one thing to read about NDEs and OBEs but to actually be present while it was occurring then to have the patient report back to me my exact actions as well as those of the doctor and the physiotherapist was really remarkable. I know what he said was accurate because I was undertaking the very actions that he described. At the time he was deeply unconscious – his Glasgow Coma Score was 3/15 which is the lowest measure for consciousness. He was not responding to painful stimuli or to command, he was completely unresponsive.

        I’ve nursed thousands of unconscious patients over the past 21 years and when patients recover from unconsciousness they are usually dazed, disorientated and a little confused but when this patient recovered he was completely lucid and very forthright about what he experienced. Its made me realise that I have no option but to have an open mind and look for alternative explanations to what our current science offers.

  7. Jack September 7, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

    Hello, Penny, thank you for your blog. I think the most maddening thing about hellish NDE’s is that there is no way to predict who will have them. We are all like sitting ducks. A good person can have a hellish NDE and a bad person can have a beautiful one. So living a good life is no ticket to heaven, even though most all of the hellish NDE’s are finally resolved in favor of coming into God’s presence in one way or another–in other words, eventually being extracted by some higher Power from the hellish conditions if one screams for help. Nancy Bush is a splendid example of the capriciousness of these experiences. It took her years, she says, to come to a place where she could find mental and psychological rest from the trauma. But how does one who has had such an experience face their demise with peace when all those memories come flooding in right before they die?

    As a teen (in the 60’s) I was given pentothal and then gas by an oral surgeon when the penthol didn’t put me under. The combination knocked me for a loop. I’m not sure if he knew what he was doing but when was knocked out I found myself in a huge fiery tunnel. It only lasted for a few seconds as I recall and then I was awake. I don’t know if I “died” temporarily or it was just a hallucination, but I still remember it vividly and I worry about that, despite the thousands of pleasant NDE’s recorded by atheists and non-Christians because I’ve read of others who have experienced being in a tunnel that suddenly turned to fire, exactly like mine.

    Nancy is right. These experiences are in one room and religious beliefs are in the next. There is absolutely no way of knowing who will have good ones and who will have bad ones and that drives me crazy.

    • Dr Penny Sartori September 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

      Hi Jack, thank you for your comment. I was very interested to read about your childhood experience of being given gas by your oral surgeon. You are quite right, no one knows who will have a good experience and who will have a bad experience. Nancy Bush is doing a great job of making people aware of the distressing NDEs as well as the pleasant ones. It is so much easier to just overlook the distressing kind but I think it is really important that we know more about them.

      I came across two distressing NDEs in my hospital research and I think it is imperative that we have a greater understanding of them so that we can support the people who have them.

      Professor Christopher Bache has written a really interesting chapter on distressing NDEs in his book Dark Night, Early Dawn. He suggests that distressing NDEs may be due to the experiencers accessing the collective unconscious of the whole of mankind. It is quite a deep explanation that he has and I think it is very interesting and helpful and one that I will keep in mind.

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