Oh, snap!
September 24, 2008 7:52 AM   Subscribe

KillingFilter: Death by neck-snap?

In movies and television, people are sometimes killed with a simple-looking snap of the neck (this last one is full of awesome). This always seemed cheesy to me. Is it really this easy to kill someone? And do they die instantaneously? Wouldn't the would-be killer just be creating a quadriplegic?

Bonus question: As I was writing this question, I was envisioning the Action Hero sneaking up on and dispatching the bad guy's minions and henchmen with this method. However, all I could find on youtube was women being killed this way. Rule 34 strikes again?
posted by Mountain Goatse to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sayid on Lost snaps a man's neck, so it's not always women.
posted by jschu at 8:02 AM on September 24, 2008

This sort of thing is called "spinal shock" according to this doctor. Spinal shock, covered more in depth in this textbook article, isn't fatal on its own necessarily, but can cause death.

I think the reason you see this happening to so many women and not men is because there needs to be a size differential to really do this effectively and done ineffectively you've just pissed off your victim and gotten close enough for them to really mess you up.
posted by jessamyn at 8:08 AM on September 24, 2008

Most likely the medical effect is similar to what happens in a hanging when "properly done", see summary here. What happens in a spinal cord severing at C3 or above is not "just" creating a quadraplegic but also the loss of diaghragm function, eliminating the ability to breathe.
posted by beagle at 8:10 AM on September 24, 2008

It's relatively new as a movie fight move. I'm not aware of any martial art that uses it.

It's good for film because it doesn't take space, good actors, or complicated choreography. You can shoot it in a single medium shot while standing. The dead actor only turns his head to the side and slumps. The only simpler movie move is the Vulcan Death Grip, and that's limited to highly trained Vulcans.
posted by lothar at 8:19 AM on September 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

To expound on what jessamyn said a bit, it is possible to kill someone this way, but you a) have to be very familiar with exactly how to hold the person's neck and in which ways to apply the required force, and b) have to have the strength to actually pull it off (hence the size differential thing - although conceivably a smaller but stronger dude could do this to a larger person).

A much more effective manor of accomplishing essentially the same effect on an opponent would be a well-executed Judo throw. The general idea of a Judo throw (in the martial-art sense, not the olympic-sport sense) is to land an opponent on their head, or more specifically at the top/back of their neck where it meets the skull. This utilizes gravity and the opponent's own body-weight to do the muscle work that otherwise you have to use your own upper body for when trying to cause severe spinal trauma from a standing position.

If, however, for some reason (tight quarters, need for speed/stealth, etc.) you do need to dispatch an opponent in the standing position, a choke that cuts off the main artery leading to the brain (not the windpipe, people can survive for minutes with that cut off), is nearly just as effective, incapacitating the opponent within 10-20 seconds.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:22 AM on September 24, 2008

Usually in the movies no one ever sticks around to make sure whether any of those people are really dead -- what's important to the storyline is that they are permanently incapacitated. It may be usually implied that the injury is fatal, but it's certainly ambiguous.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 9:01 AM on September 24, 2008

I was envisioning the Action Hero sneaking up on and dispatching the bad guy's minions and henchmen with this method. However, all I could find on youtube was women being killed this way

Buffy has certainly used this technique, but I expect that the particulars of the nervous system as relates to vampires are altered from that of humans. Demons of course generally would likely possess different spinal anatomy altogether, even if bipedal.
posted by desuetude at 9:19 AM on September 24, 2008

The neck is a lot less brittle than those clips would imply. And as they said in judo, where the head goes, the body follows; in all of those clips, the victim's shoulders would most certainly twist with the head, and for the victims caught by surprise, there would be some serious neck spraining, but no death or paralysis.

For the attacker to twist the head so that it would actually break the neck (which wouldn't kill the victim), they'd have to lock down the rest of the victim's body. If you're using both of your hands to do the twisting, it's impossible to do by yourself while standing. So maybe, if you had the opponent on the ground with your legs or knees locked over their shoulders, you might be able to do it. That's an awkward position to obtain and retain, though, and I could see the opponent rolling their legs back to get a hold of your torso.

Eddie Bravo has specialized in a technique that submits opponents by putting pressure on their spines and necks called the Twister. It works by pulling the neck, not by actually twisting the head with your hands, though. If you got someone in position for it, you would break a neck.

However, the most comment neck cranks used in jiu-jitsu are the guillotine (which is also a choke) and the crucifix. Neither of these involve rotating the neck, and both require you to lock down the rest of the body, however.
posted by ignignokt at 10:18 AM on September 24, 2008

Not the same thing at all, but mice used in research are often killed by a similar move. Hold the body firmly, and pull the head away swiftly until there is a "pop".
At least I think I got that right (I've never personally done it).
posted by nprigoda at 10:26 AM on September 24, 2008

Shinya Aoki recently neck cranked his opponent from a somewhat upright position recently. (Fight starts at around 7:00, slow motion replay at around 8:00.)
posted by ignignokt at 11:51 AM on September 24, 2008

I would think that crushing someone's trachea would be easier.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 12:34 PM on September 24, 2008

Of course, chiropractors manage to inflict a very dangerous (and occasionally fatal) arterial dissection on several people a year by manipulating the neck in a much more "gentle" way.

Looking at the geometry of these arteries, it's not hard to see how twisting the neck could pinch or even sever them - they pass through little "rings" on the vertebrae of the neck.
posted by Crosius at 1:05 PM on September 24, 2008

There's actually a chapter (Ch. 29) on this in Massad Ayoob's "The Truth About Self Protection".

The upshot of it, as far as I can make out, is that there is a distinct technique to it (not seen in any of these videos) that makes it as easy as it looks. It should be considered potentially lethal ie. don't be surprised if doing this kills someone.
Also, women ARE a lot more susceptible to this this kind of injury as their necks are more fragile. Female-on-female fatality is way more likely than male-on-male usage of the technique.
According to Ayoob.

It would be much easier for me to just copy the chapter out but obviously I'm not going to do that. ISBN 0936279133 if you're really interested!
posted by 999 at 1:11 PM on September 24, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers, everyone! I certainly now understand the physical mechanism of death by neck-snapping.

I guess there is still some question over whether it could really be done as easy as it is portrayed. Both ignignokt and 999 seem to have convincing, opposing viewpoints on this.
posted by Mountain Goatse at 1:48 PM on September 24, 2008

and there's no such thing as a vulcan death grip. It's the vulcan nerve pinch and isn't fatal....as imaginary moves go
posted by Redhush at 2:21 PM on September 24, 2008

The upshot of it, as far as I can make out, is that there is a distinct technique to it (not seen in any of these videos) that makes it as easy as it looks.

Which means it's probably never really done and he's perpetuating a myth. How do you train and develop your technique if you can't just kill a bunch of folk? To learn to throw a really decent punch takes thousands of repetitions, and that's a relatively simple move.
posted by The Monkey at 12:25 AM on September 25, 2008

I don't know whether that's a serious question or not, but given Ayoob's experience and reputation, the fact that the technique is taught by John Peters (who is 'considered one of the top [police] defensive tactics instructors in the United States'), and it has appeared in a book authored by Peters and Takayuki Kubota, I'm inclined to believe that it might have some basis in truth.

The reason why it supposedly wouldn't work as in the videos is due to the muscles in the neck being quite strong from holding up a head for all your upright life. The technique as taught alters the angle of the head so these strong muscles can no longer prevent torsion of the neck. The idea is that it is a very simple technique to employ by inexperienced fighters when their life is in danger.

I have no idea whether it would work or not, though it's not the kind of thing I'd like to find out from either side of the argument. Just thought I'd share bits from the book as Ayoob is so highly respected within this field, and he dedicated a whole chapter to the technique.
posted by 999 at 3:51 PM on September 29, 2008

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