Risus sardonicus

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Risus sardonicus

Risus sardonicus or rictus grin is a highly characteristic, abnormal, sustained spasm of the facial muscles that appears to produce grinning.

The name of the condition, which has its roots in the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, derives from the appearance of raised eyebrows and an open "grin" – which can appear sardonic or malevolent to the lay observer – displayed by those suffering from these muscle spasms.


It is most often observed as a sign of tetanus.[1] It can also be caused by poisoning with strychnine[2] or Wilson's disease.

In 2009 scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy claimed to have identified hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) as the plant historically responsible for producing the sardonic grin.[3][4] This plant is the most likely candidate for the "sardonic herb," which was a neurotoxic plant used for the ritual killing of elderly people in pre-Roman Sardinia.

In popular culture[edit]

Arthur Conan Doyle's hero Sherlock Holmes used the term to describe the facial distortion of the murder victim Bartholomew Sholto in Doyle's story The Sign of the Four. This also led to Dr. Watson confirming strychnine poisoning.

A case of risus sardonicus features in the short story "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell, later used as the basis of the 1961 William Castle movie Mr. Sardonicus.

In his song "The Irish Ballad", Tom Lehrer portrayed a poisoning victim as dying "with a spoon in her hand/And her face in a hideous grin".

In the Batman comic book series, The Joker used a toxin on some of his victims that induced a highly stylized version of this condition.

In "True Romance: Part 1", a third-season episode of the UK TV series Cracker, a body is found that exhibits risus sardonicus secondary to the cause of death being electrocution.

The Mercury Prize-nominated UK art rock band Everything Everything uses "rictusgrin" as their artist username on the online knowledge website Genius.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Tetanus". World Health Organization. 
  2. ^ Bryson, Peter D. (1996). Comprehensive Reviews in Toxicology: For Emergency Clinicians. CRC Press. p. 791. ISBN 978-1560326120. 
  3. ^ News Scan Briefs: Killer Smile, Scientific American, August 2009
  4. ^ G. Appendino; F. Pollastro; L. Verotta; M. Ballero; A. Romano; P. Wyrembek; K. Szczuraszek; J. W. Mozrzymas; O. Taglialatela-Scafati (2009). "Polyacetylenes from Sardinian Oenanthe fistulosa: A Molecular Clue to risus sardonicus". Journal of Natural Products 72 (5): 962–965. doi:10.1021/np8007717. PMC 2685611. PMID 19245244. 
  5. ^ http://genius.com/rictus_grin

External links[edit]