Post 105 – Ask Prof: How real is it on the movies when they twist someone’s neck to kill them?

How gruesome. Someone in one of my classes wanted to know if you could kill someone by twisting their neck like in the movies.

Here is what happens from the anatomy-physiology side. They’re imagining that the neck breaks at C1 or C2, and sends pieces into the upper spine to cut off breathing or heartrate regulators. It’s a slower death than they make it look like in the movies, but someone can be paralyzed easily if those chards break off the crucial parts of the spinal cord.


It’s harder than the movies make it look. It seems so easy to twist and pop the neck like they do, but in reality, the opponent is struggling. The neck muscles are stronger than they appear in the movies. Someone needs a good grasp and break a specific spot.

You can die from a C2 fracture, but to get that to break, you need A LOT of force, more than what it appears they show in the movies. This fracture often happens in a car crash. A C2 fracture like this is called a “hangman’s fracture,” see below regarding hanging.


This reminds me of when I was hired to help make a scary Halloween movie look realistic. I think it was around 2005-2007. The writers and producer asked me how long it would take to kill someone when that person is isolated or trapped in a box or a trunk of a car.

I said something like it would take a long time, depending on the size of the box. Person would suffocate, jerk around in a panic, and then go unconscious. Could still be recoverable at this time, but it’s a slow, non-exciting death.

Needless to say, it wasn’t what they were looking for. They paid me for my time and then dismissed me from the project. I don’t even think I made the credits.

What happens in the movies doesn’t always happen in real life. Real life can be boring. Real life doesn’t always sell tickets.

Other neck breaks – hanging:

The gruesome discussion got me thinking about hanging deaths. I remember studying this in pathology. If the neck is broken, again it requires a lot of force, they are thinking the C2 (again) breaks off and severs the spine.

If you don’t get enough force, it’s likely the person will just suffocate and die that way.

More details on this Wikipedia site =

Other neck breaks –  Superman:

This reminds me also of Christopher Reeve, who became a quadraplegic after a horse-riding accident. His injury is an example of what may happen with a C1-C2 fracture. Based on a Wikipedia article, it appears that the horse suddenly stopped and he was thrown over and landed on his head. His helmet saved his cranium from any fractures, but the force of his 200+ pound body on his neck caused the fracture there.

Footnotes, because I feel responsible:

Be responsible! Do not let me be an accessory to murder or suicide. Get help if you (or someone you know) need it. Material items I talked about above can be found widely found online with a Google search (which is what I did, to add on to some of my background knowledge). Some discussions were retrieved from martial arts blogs and discussions.

Like all other postings on this blog, I strive to help my alums understand anatomy (and sometimes physiology and microbiology). We’re focusing on the medical aspects – trying to understand things people rarely talk about, without limitations, if I can help it.

Please get help, if you need it – these hotlines are open now (24/7):

  • Suicide Crisis Line, serving Orange County, CA: 877-727-4747
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255

Join the discussion – is this a fair post? Am I being irresponsible?

Online References:



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