Is this horror film scene plausible?

In the film Wolf Creek the villain stabs someone in the spine and turns them into a “head on a stick” rendering them unable to move but still alive. He uses the same method in the sequel. The real life killer the film was based on (Ivan Milat) was alleged to have done the same thing.

My question is is this something that could be plausibly reliably done to people or not?

In a word, no.

Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are too awful to make light of so I’m not going to go into details but a cursory look at spinal nerve anatomy will illustrate why.


It’s called “quadriplegia”, and it can be a result of spinal cord injuries. There’s a fine line between paralyzing someone and killing them, though, and I highly doubt that a psycho with a knife could do it consistently.

You are basically talking about damaging the spine similar to how Christopher Reeve was injured. He suffered damage to the top two vertebrae in his spine, right under the base of the skull.

The victim in the movie scene was stabbed in the thoracic region of the spine (somewhere about midway down her back). She would have lost control over her legs, but her breathing and her arms would not be affected. She would not have been quadriplegic.

Damage to the cervical spine (the top 7 vertebrae, basically all in your neck) can cause quadriplegia, but the nerves that control breathing might also be affected, resulting in suffocation and death.

Christopher Reeve was unable to breathe on his own. Initially he had to use a ventilator to breathe. Later, they implanted electrodes in his diaphragm so that he could breathe more naturally.

I don’t want to make light of anything but refreshing myself on spinal nerve anatomy doesn’t make it obvious to me. What am I missing?

Diaphragm control is C3 to 5. An isolated injury at say just above T1 would spare diaphragm function while paralyzing the body.

Unsure about a psycho with a knife, and it wouldn’t be mid thorax, but ISTM theoretically less impossible than many fictional horror scenarios.

I don’t want to make light of anything either. While the OP references a horror movie, I’m treating this like a general question about how the spine and nervous system work, which relates to spinal injuries in general and isn’t specific to the horror movie situation described in the OP (in other words, injuries like what happened to Christopher Reeve and others who have broken their neck in sports injuries, car accidents, or what have you).

This is NOT my area of expertise, and I’m happy to be corrected by someone with more medical knowledge than I have, but my understanding is that an injury just above T1 would not completely paralyze the body since she would be able to lift her arms. She would not have complete arm control, only control over the shoulder muscles that lift the arms.

See this diagram:

For complete paralysis of the arms, you would need the injury to be around C3 to C4, which gets you into control of the diaphragm.

I don’t know enough about what each nerve bundle does to say if severing it right at the C3/C4 boundary would allow enough diaphragm control to allow breathing or not. It seems like it might be plausible to me, though I have some doubts about whether someone would be able to cause that specific of an injury reliably.

As you said, it’s more plausible than many fictional horror scenarios. It’s just depicted wrong (the stab would have to be in the back of the neck, not mid-way down her back).

It’s not just the location of the cut vertically on the spinal cord, it’s that the spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that is only 6.4mm - 13mm across (1/4" - 1/2"). Precisely severing it just enough to produce the desired effect consistently would be near impossible in an operating room, let alone in near darkness, through clothes, in a garage in the middle of Bumfuck, Australia.

I believe those are sensory dermatomes, not motor control.

But yeah not complete. There likely would be bit of movement left at shoulders and arms, with beginning impairment of diaphragm movements.

Jeebus! I knew about his accident and paralysis but didn’t realize it had been that extreme! Looking up his bio, it appears that Reeve led a surprisingly productive and exemplary life after the accident, directing, acting, and writing two books. He survived nine more years with various other health problems and died from what appeared to be the side effect of an antibiotic.

I had a C7/T3/L3 set of injuries from a bad fall skiing [cross country, go figure =) ] and when 6 years old a S3 fracture that has eternally given me issues. It took me a total of 18 months hospital and rehab, had some residual loss of ultra fine control with the left hand. Was mostly fine until my body started crapping out on me in 2000.

I recently [Feb 14th 2021] had my asshole removed [ok, proctocolectomy, effectively they cored me like field dressing a deer] and other than some residual pelvic floor issues, a major issue I have now is if you look at the illustration of the man and spine, S4 and S5 no longer have a wodge of tissues supporting the tail end of the spine, so if I sit wrong it is like getting a sledgehammer to the tail. Consulting my original surgeon, they can go in and lop off the offending bones, or fuse them but that may not totally end the issue. I do also have lumbar stenosis - and when it totally cuts me off at the waist, I plan on adding an urostomy - I refuse to sit around in a wheelchair with a wet diaper =)

I saw a movie where a guy made a “head on a stick” but the differences between that and the OP’s movie are
The guy doing it was a med student or a doctor.
The victim was unconscious meaning the doctor could work carefully on his cuts.