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When the Joker's Death Grin is Real

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.


One of my favorite supervillain out there is The Joker. Like the lead superhero he fights, he is very much human, and never had special powers. Yet I found him more unsettling simply because he resembles psychos in real life, especially in recent reincarnations.

Up to now, I can’t decide who is the best Joker in the cimenatic universe. It could be Jack Nicholson’s gangster clown, Heath Ledgers anarchist, or Joaquim Phoenix’s demented comedian. They are good in their own rights, and each represents the different horrors of humanity, which added to the depth of their character. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a nod to the organized crime boss, while Heath Ledger’s Joker is the personification of terrorism. Joaquim Phoenix mentally disturbed Joker seems to tell the world what the incels could do to the public.

And in the real world, people could die like the Joker’s victims.

Later we will tackle the Joker’s preferred means of dispatching his victims. We all know that the Joker is not real, but somewhere out there are forms of deaths that will leave you with a morbid grin. It could be a concocted poison, or an illness. But whatever the means of death, dying with a smile is a nasty isn’t exactly a fun way to go.

The Joker Venom

An unfortunate victim of the Smylex.

An unfortunate victim of the Smylex.

Depending on the versions of the comic books and the film adaptations, the Joker may operate or behave differently. But he is known for his signature weapon known as the Joker Venom. Basically, it’s a toxin dispersed as gas, that makes the victim laugh. In the lethal version, the uncontrollable laughter will lead to death, leaving the victim with a morbid grin. He did carry a nonlethal version, that will only give you fits of cackle. Basically, the Joker Venom is an extra strong laughing gas that could be fatal.

In the film adaptation, Jack Nicholson’s Joker terrorized the Gotham population with the theatrical version of the Joker Venom. I love how his Joker introduced his Smylex in the film through a demented TV Ad. Dark humor was used, with his victim’s corpse displaying the deathly grim. And yes, it also exists in gas form, though some deaths we saw resulted from the use of contaminated household products.

So far, the Smylex chemical is the closest thing the film adaptation came close to the Joker Venom. In the Dark Knight, we saw a more imposing Joker thanks to Heath Ledger’s awesome portrayal. But this version of the Joker is a more physical type, killing his victims with knives, firearms or explosives (and bare hands). And the Joker Venom here is missing. As a nod to the original Joker’s weapon, Heath Ledger’s version carved a Glasgow smile to his victims.

Going back to real life, it’s highly unlikely that one could get killed by a laughing gas sprayed by a killer clown. But it is still possible for an unfortunate fellow to die with a nasty grin.

Risus Sardonicus

A patient with a sardonic grin.

A patient with a sardonic grin.

When you contracted tetanus, I suggest that you seek medical attention at once. You could get tetanus when you are cut with an object contaminated by the bacterium Clostridium Tetani, which lives in filthy environments. We will get to that later in the article, but one of its nasty after-effects is dying with an evil grin.

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There is a medical term for such an abnormal expression caused by illnesses, poisons, genetic disorders and even hanging. In the field of science, it is known as Risus Sardonicus, or the rictus grin. Simply, muscles spasms in the face will cause a patient to appear as sardonic, or even malevolent to the observer. In this case, the eyebrows became raised and the mouth stretches into an open grin.

Now, to be sardonic is to be cynically humorous. And the term sardonic is associated with the Mediterranean Island of Sardinia, where a plant called sardonion could be found. And this herb will delight comic book fans when they learn how it affects an unfortunate victim.

The Real Joker Venom

The toxic hemclock waterdropwort.

The toxic hemclock waterdropwort.

Before the arrival of the Romans, the people of Sardinia, called Sardi or Sardoni has a rather merciless custom when it comes to getting old. Because when you reach retiring age in this part of the ancient world, you will be killed. You are simply too frail to work and to sustain yourself, hence the people will do the right thing and erase your existence.

Now, for the Sardis, laughing while someone is dying is an act of piety, as it transforms death into new life. Hence when it is time to murder their senior citizens, they are killed by their folks while laughing (which gave birth to being sardonic). And when they did, they use the herb called sardonion to hasten death. In 2009, the scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy suggested that the said neurotoxic herb is the hemlock water dropwort.

This poisonous plant is related to the carrots and resembles celeries, something I found disturbing. Its poison, the oenanthotoxin could kill a cow, and obviously potent enough to kill a human. And its resemblance to edible plants means anyone lacking proper knowledge could mistake it for vegetable. What’s more unlike other poisonous plants with bitter tastes, water dropwort is sweet and pleasant smelling. And if someone did ingest it, the effects include slurred speech, dizziness, nausea, airway obstructions and cardiac arrest. The muscles also experience rigidity and spasm, with the face forming the creepy sardonic grin. Comic book fans will find this familiar since it affects the bodily system the same way as a Joker Venom. And if that’s the case, then the Sardis were using the Joker Venom way before the Joker hits the pages. And overall, we could picture their ritual murder of their old people.

They first concoct a poison from the herb sardonion to intoxicate their grandparents, with the toxin causing muscular convulsions, and the evil grin as an after effect. This was done with the observers laughing, as an act of piety. And to make sure their seniors were dead, they were thrown from high places or beaten up.

The Joker was never been so proud.

Dying from Tetanus

Bacterium of the tetanus disease.

Bacterium of the tetanus disease.

And going back to tetanus, dying with an evil smile seems to be adding insult to injury, or death in this case. Tetanus does this by inducing trismus, or lockjaw, and spasms in the facial muscles. And when facial muscles go into spasms, a morbid grin form. Good thing though that tetanus could be prevented simply by immunization, hence anti-vaxxers have higher chance of becoming a natural Joker victim. And once you got infected, better get a muscle relaxant while some patients will need mechanical ventilators to stay alive.


No one wished to go in a nasty way, and we could consider ourselves lucky that the Joker never existed. There are real-life versions of that psychotic clowns, not to mention historical parallels of his venom. Hopefully, no one will have a smart idea of emulating the Joker and use hemlocks as weapon. If that’s the case, we need a real-life version of Batman.


1. Hinfey, Patrick, MD (2 April, 2013). "What is Riscus Sardonicus in Tetanus (lockjaw)."

2. Vladimir Propp (1984), "Theory and History of Folklore." Ritual laughter in folklore, pp. 134-35.

3. Owen, James (2009-06-02). "Ancient Death-Smile Potion Decoded," National Geographic News.

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