I was recently interviewed by Zafer Yilmaz (Hacettepe University) about the snuff phenomenon. The interview is published here on the SineBlog in Turkish
Below is a translation into English:
Films shot for entertainment and profit that show real murders and rapes, are referred to as “Snuff” movies. Do Snuff films really exist?
As far as documented cases are concerned, no. Reportedly, the FBI’s criminal investigations into snuff have not uncovered any such material. The principal criterion for defining snuff is that the footage should contain (usually, culminate in) murder. The term ‘snuff’ conveys that a life has been extinguished (“snuffed out”). The hypothetical footage might include other types of violence – such as sexual violence, torture, and so forth – but these other acts are not in themselves sufficient for a film to be classified as snuff. Also, as you note, the motivations matter: snuff is filmed murder for the sake of entertainment and profit.
Note the term “murder” here: the footage has to be of an intentionally caused human death. To illustrate: a film such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was shot with the intention of generating profit and was meant to entertain an audience. The film includes real animal deaths, which were staged specifically for the film. For instance, the cast kill and eat a large turtle. The turtle’s death would not have occurred otherwise. However, killing an animal is not classed as murder, and therefore such footage is not snuff.
Many fictional, staged films seek to emulate what snuff might look like, and that sustains the myth that there are real snuff movies. I call these fictional emulations ‘faux-snuff’ films. Usually, vérité techniques (natural light, ambient sound, handheld camera and so forth) are employed to suggest that the footage has been captured by amateurs rather than professional filmmakers. That branch of snuff was almost certainly influenced by uses of vérité techniques in cinema more broadly (and perhaps in Cannibal Holocaust specifically), and by mondo films. Mondo films are documentaries that detail (and sometimes stage) events that would not normally be recorded on film. One famous relevant example is Faces of Death (1978), which contains authentic footage of animal deaths, genuine images of dead humans (taken, for instance, from news footage), and staged emulations of human deaths. The compilation of elements is presented as a documentary, and the vérité approach is employed where human deaths are fabricated, to pass off the footage as “real”. Furthermore, faux-snuff is likely influenced by the film Snuff (1976), which reputedly contained a real murder, which was clearly staged: multiple camera set-ups are employed, and the footage is obviously edited according to traditional conventions to establish continuity. In veering towards a vérité style, faux-snuff filmmakers seek to avoid those overt tell-tale signs that the footage has been intentionally constructed.
Some filmmakers use additional techniques for added realism, or to blur the lines between fiction and “fact”. In Shane Ryan’s Amateur Porn Star Killer series (2007-2009), genitally explicit images of sex are included alongside the staged murder. Since we can see that the sex unambiguously really happened, it is implied that the ostensible murder also could have occurred. Elsewhere, Fred Vogel’s August Underground’s Mordum (2003) includes footage of one performer cutting herself and self-inducing vomiting. Again, since these acts are genuine, it is implied that the staged FX-based murders are also “real”.
Two Serbian films released around 2010s (The Life and Death of a Porno Gang and A Serbian Film) raise the subject of snuff. Are snuff rumours commonly found in other geographical contexts?
Snuff appears in a wide variety of cultural contexts. Many faux-snuff films or films about the snuff myth are American. Obviously, there is Snuff (1976), but also Hardcore (1979), Run if You Can (1988), 8mm (1999) and so forth. Some of the more recent entries such as The Great American Snuff Film (2004), The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), and The Cohasset Snuff Film (2012) put America or American place names in the titles. Cumulatively, it feels as if these American filmmakers are laying claim to the mythology in some way.
Some of those American films are set in other countries. Famously, Snuff was marketed as being filmed in “South America, where life is cheap”. Other films follow suit: King of the Kickboxers (1990) features a New Yorker traveling to Thailand to expose a snuff ring, Live Feed (2006) features American tourists encountering snuff production in China, and so on. These films have been accused of xenophobia or orientalism because they depict Americans encountering abhorrent “exotic” behaviours in “foreign” lands. Other countries have reflected that relationship too: perhaps in response to Snuff’s depiction of South America, Reel Savages (1977) depicts a Brazilian snuff filmmaker who feigns being North American, for instance. The Italian film Emanuelle in America (1977) also presents an American journalist encountering a snuff film production in an undisclosed location (implied to be outside the US, given that it is accessed by private jet).
There are numerous other examples of European snuff-themed films, including the Spanish film Tesis (1996), the Belgian film C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vou (1992), the Italian film Snuff Trap (2003), as well as the British films The Last Horror Movie (2003) or the “Sick Room” segment of Cradle of Fear (2001), and the Irish film RedRoom (2017). Japan has also produced its share of faux-snuff and snuff-themed films, perhaps most famously the early entries in the Guinea Pig series (1985), but also Abnormal: Ingyaku (1988), and Muzan-e (1999).
What I'm suggesting is that the snuff theme is an international phenomenon. These films probably play differently when contextualised against these various cultural backgrounds. I could not speak to that with any authority. In the UK, the spectre of snuff is still tinged by the video nasties panic and the connotations of “media effects” associated with that controversy. The idea that films – especially unregulated films, distributed in clandestine ways and consumed in private – are somehow intimately linked with real-world violence remains baked into British horror film culture. Those connotations have almost certainly helped to shape and sustain the snuff myth in the UK.
In your work, you refer to the film Snuff (1976) as a key moment in the development of pseudo-Snuff films and in anti-pornography feminists' responses to the phenomenon. What is the relationship between Snuff-myth and pornography?
Famously, protests were staged outside screenings of Snuff, based on its alleged depiction of a man actually killing a woman (which, to be clear, was faked). Whether those protests were authentic feminist protests, whether they were staged as part of the film’s publicity campaign, or whether it was a combination of both varies according to which sources one consults. In any case, Snuff garnered attention from feminist campaign groups such as WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women). The attention to Snuff was amplified by the staged killing happening on a bed, and its initial presentation as a sexual scenario. Snuff played into concerns various feminist groups were raising about pornography at the time. Broadly speaking, such campaigners suggested (to various degrees) that even mainstream hardcore pornography regularly and overtly depicts sexual violence, that women are commonly harmed when making pornography, that pornography encourages sexually sadistic attitudes among its viewers, and that porn goads viewers into committing violence and sexual violence in the real world. Snuff is an extension of these ideas: in this view, men routinely gain sexual pleasure by consuming images of women being harmed, so it is only a slight amplification of that paradigm to suggest that men would gain sexual pleasure from seeing a woman killed on camera. At the root of this model is the idea that porn is misogynistic, and that porn consumers are principally aroused by seeing women being harmed or degraded. Remember that in this view, such forms of porn are thought to be readily available and mainstream, so these attitudes are presented as if they are normative.
In the writings of anti-porn feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Caputi, snuff is frequently presented as a type of pornography. That way of presenting snuff is replicated in popular culture too. Even in its title, Hardcore (1979) represents snuff films as a branch or extension of hardcore porn. Since snuff is only a myth, it isn’t possible to pin down a typical snuff consumer or to pinpoint the average mode of snuff consumption. Instead, a more familiar model (porn production and consumption) is employed as a substitute.
That slippage is further naturalised by porn’s associations with illicitness and taboo content. One would imagine that if a murder were staged purely for a commercial film, the footage would be banned from distribution, not only because it is evidence of a crime, but also because it is offensive. The extant framework for expressing how improper it would be to distribute such footage is to dub it “obscene”. Obscenity laws usually focus on sexual depictions, because presenting the “private” act of sex in explicit detail is broadly considered to be improper. So, the association between snuff and porn also possibly expresses an attempt to articulate what precisely is objectionable about snuff. A murder entailed during the creation of a hypothetical snuff movie would obviously be objectionable, but I would assume many would not be satisfied if such a murder were prosecuted without reference to the filming and intent to commercially distribute the footage – the latter is an additional wrong, and “obscenity” helps to pin down that wrong according to a familiar legal model.
What do you think are the socio-psychological and cultural foundations that prepare people to believe in Snuff-myth? How instructive do you think the media-effects model can be in this regard?
People are probably prepared to believe in the existence of snuff because it is within the realms of possibility. Filming a murder then distributing the footage is a remarkably unwise activity (most murderers would seek to remove evidence of their crime rather than reproducing it). Nevertheless, people engage in other serious crimes for financial gain, so it is conceivable that someone might become involved in snuff production if the promise of financial reward were significant enough.
Even if most people would not want to see authentic footage of a murder themselves, one might also readily imagine that someone might want to. It seems at least conceivable that a niche audience might watch snuff (if it existed), based on morbid curiosity about murder. That morbid curiosity might initially seem alien because murder is so horrific, but a cultural fascination with the idea of homicide is quite widespread. Certainly, many people might find crime fiction appealing because they enjoy imagining murderers being brought to justice. There is undoubtedly comfort or satisfaction in the re-enforcement of moral norms. However, the prevalence of crime fiction centred on murder and murderers also suggests that people might be curious about killing and the kind of people who are capable of taking another’s life. That curiosity is probably fuelled by most people believing that they are incapable of such action (outside of self-defence) or are unable to seriously conceive of themselves committing homicide. Crime fiction offers a safe way into exploring those ideas without the moral baggage of engaging with a real murder or murderer, and divorced from the reality of a victim’s grieving loved ones. Documentaries and true crime books also garner large audiences who are interested in actual murder cases, and those texts seem more directly invested in unpicking what drives killers to homicide. Again, part of the appeal might stem from the reinforcement of moral boundaries (marking differences between the killer and the viewer). In any case, however abhorrent murder is, it evidently fascinates many people, for a multitude of reasons.
Faux-snuff or snuff-themed fiction offer alternative windows into the horrors of murder. The vérité aesthetic might imply immediacy, but I assume viewers a priori understand that they are engaging with fiction. I'm sure most viewers would turn away from a faux-snuff film if they ultimately believed it to contain genuine murder. Knowing that it is only fiction, faux-snuff viewers might find vicarious thrills from being close to the killer (seeing what the murderer sees), but others almost certainly focus on the victim’s position, and others on the kind of person who would watch such footage if it were real. The fiction provides a space to safely engage with this triangulation of killer, victim, and consumer, and to explore moral complexities by oscillating between these different positions. In particular, since the viewer of faux-snuff occupies a similar (but, importantly, different) position to the snuff consumer, faux-snuff presents opportunities to explore the extent to which snuff consumers would be implicated in and responsible for the murder they pay to see. That question is built into the faux-snuff structure.
The media effects model takes the opposite stance on a relationship between viewer and film. The model is not interested in the varied appeals of such fiction – it does not account for why someone might watch – instead presenting the viewer as a mindless blank who mechanically replicates whatever they see onscreen in the real world. The media effects model is so reductive that I do not recognise the picture of viewership it presents.
In some interpretations, snuff encompasses historical films that entertain people by showing murder, and even propaganda murder videos made by terrorist organizations. What is your opinion on this matter? Are the criteria of "entertainment" and "profit making" indispensable in classifying snuff? What ties are there between capitalism and snuff?
If we take it that snuff is filmed footage of a murder, that the murder was intentionally staged for the film, and that the film was created for the dual purposes of entertaining an audience and generating profit, then these examples would not fit the classification.
Footage capturing genuine deaths is abundant, and some of that footage has been repurposed and sold for entertainment. Films such as Traces of Death (1993)compile that kind of footage under the auspices of entertainment. However, that footage usually captures death incidentally. For instance, camcorder or CCTV footage of a fatal accident might be included. The death was not staged so that it could be captured and the footage sold.
One might argue that a terrorist beheading video captures a genuine murder that was staged for camera, but the footage was not intended to be sold for profit or to entertain an audience. It is possible to repurpose the footage and watch it for some kind of entertainment; sites such as Ogrish, for example, specialised in repurposing footage of death, bloodshed and injury seemingly for the morbid curiosity of its users. However, the footage was not made for that purpose, and so it fails to meet the criteria for snuff. Nor was the footage created as a commercial venture. Its intention is to elicit a response and/or to make a political statement rather than to generate profit.
These distinctions might seem purely semantic, but they are vital in pinning down what snuff is and why the myth endures. The snuff myth is not really about the brute fact that a death occurred and was filmed: it is about moral violation. To put it crassly, killing is bad, but some forms of life-taking are deemed morally worse than others: we penalise manslaughter or second-degree murder less severely than first degree murder, and some consider euthanasia to be permissible. Motive matters in our moral assessment.
Snuff is a powerful myth because it flags two particularly callous motives for taking a life: the filmmaker is seeking profit and the viewer is seeking to be entertained. The monetary value and entertainment value gained from the interaction are obviously insignificant compared with the value of the life lost, and the premise of snuff is that the life was only lost to entertain those who pay to see homicide. It is also suggested that their viewing pleasure is contingent on the idea that the murder is exclusively for their entertainment. The sheer callousness of that interaction and the compounding of moral violations is what sustains the myth. The questions underpinning snuff are who would make that kind of film just for profit, and who would pay to watch (and why)?
How do you think the snuff myth (or the production of real snuff) will evolve in the future, particularly after COVID-19 and the a potentially post-democratic world)?
On one level, I would not expect the snuff myth to change much at all in light of recent events. As I’ve indicated, the premise is much more fundamental, being rooted in deeper moral questions about the value(s) of life. Indeed, the snuff myth has sustained in the cultural imagination in more-or-less the same form since the 1970s, surviving multiple recessions, changes in governments, the digital revolution, and so forth.
That said, the moral violation has a monetary component at its heart. Snuff derives much of its power from the notion that it would be morally heinous to profit from murder, to kill simply for profit, or to pay to watch murder. The idea of putting a price tag on lives has become increasingly pressing in recent decades under what many have called a neoliberal or late capitalist state. In fact, I am currently writing a book on how exploitation films explore shifting attitudes towards human life and dignity under late capitalism. The snuff myth may shift if COVID-19 disrupts what have become economic norms. If capitalism were to collapse, I imagine snuff would either vanish or flourish. The myth might vanish because it hinges on the idea that enough money can buy anything, and ultimately can allow people to indulge in their most morally heinous fantasies. That way of thinking might simply not mean much if broader attitudes towards money and its perceived importance shift radically. The concerns snuff raises about putting a price tag on life might become alien to the culture if capitalism falters. Alternatively, snuff may flourish - rather than coming across as the antiquated product of a lost era, the absolute horror of the monetary transaction might be thrown into even starker relief.