The behavior of apparent stress for normal-fault earthquakes at subduction zones is derived by examining the apparent stress (?? a = ??Es/Mo, where E s is radiated energy and Mo is seismic moment) of all globally distributed shallow (depth, ?? < 70 km) earthquakes with normal-fault mechanisms that occurred in or near subduction zones between 1987 and 2001 for which Es and M o are available. Accurately determined hypocentres from the Engdahl-Hilst-Buland (EHB) catalogue establish the fine detail of the Wadati-Benioff zone. In many cases, we can relate trends in apparent stress to specific features within the subduction zone and compare these with trends for interplate-thrust earthquakes in the same subduction zones. There are two depth ranges over which ??a, for normal-fault earthquakes shows maxima. The highest and most anomalous values of ??a are found in the deeper depth range from 35 to 70 km. The high-??a, events (up to 5 MPa) are characteristically intraslab and in proximity to zones of intense deformation such as a sharp slab bend or where opposing slabs collide. High-??a events in the region of the shallower maximum (hypocentres between 10-35 km and ??a > 1 MPa) are also generally intraslab, but occur where the lithosphere has just begun subduction beneath the overriding plate. They usually occur in cold slabs near trenches where the direction of plate motion across the trench is oblique to the trench axis, or where there are local contortions or geometrical complexities of the plate boundary. Lower ??a (< 1 MPa) is associated with events occurring at the outer rise (OR) complex (between the OR and the trench axis), as well as with intracrustal events occurring just landward of the trench. The average apparent stress of intraslab-normal-fault earthquakes is considerably higher than the average apparent stress of interplate-thrust-fault earthquakes. In turn, the average ?? a of strike-slip earthquakes in intraoceanic environments is considerably higher than that of intraslab-normal-fault earthquakes. The variation of average ??a with focal mechanism and tectonic regime suggests that the level of ?? a is related to fault maturity. Lower stress drops are needed to rupture mature faults such as those found at plate interfaces that have been smoothed by large cumulative displacements (from hundreds to thousands of kilometres). In contrast, immature faults, such as those on which intraslab-normal-fault earthquakes generally occur, are found in cold and intact lithosphere in which total fault displacement has been much less (from hundreds of metres to a few kilometres). Also, faults on which high ??a oceanic strike-slip earthquakes occur are predominantly intraplate or at evolving ends of transforms. At subduction zones, earthquakes occurring on immature faults are likely to be more hazardous as they tend to generate higher amounts of radiated energy per unit of moment than earthquakes occurring on mature faults. We have identified earthquake pairs in which an interplate-thrust and an intraslab-normal earthquake occurred remarkably close in space and time. The intraslab-normal member of each pair radiated anomalously high amounts of energy compared to its thrust-fault counterpart. These intraslab earthquakes probably ruptured intact slab mantle and are dramatic examples in which Mc (an energy magnitude) is shown to be a far better estimate of the potential for earthquake damage than Mw. This discovery may help explain why loss of life as a result of intraslab earthquakes was greater in the 20th century in Latin America than the fatalities associated with interplate-thrust events that represented much higher total moment release. ?? 2004 RAS.