Is there such a thing as a snuff film?

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Dear Cecil: Please settle a debate for us before somebody gets killed. Is there really such a thing as a snuff film? snopes, Canoga Park, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

This is the weirdest urban legend of all: that there are underground movies in which people are literally murdered on camera for purposes of entertainment. The question isn’t whether there are people sick enough to traffic in such things (in a world containing Jeffrey Dahmer and Geraldo Rivera, there probably are), but whether they actually do. All we can say is that in the nearly 30 years stories of snuff movies have been circulating, no genuine example has ever come to light.

“The [snuff movie] rumor evidently originated in publicity circulated in 1970 by Alan Shakleton of Monarch Pictures, a low budget sado-porn movie distributor,” Penn State folklorist Bill Ellis tells me. Shakleton “bought up a Latin-American Manson family ripoff titled Slaughter, had it subtitled, added a scene in which a woman was murdered (cut out of another film), then marketed the film under the title Snuff in New York City. Rumor has it that that he then incited women’s groups to picket the film under the [erroneous] impression that the murder scene was an actual killing. Certainly the publicity Shakleton used implied that it was: ‘Made in South America Where Life Is Cheap.'”

Every few years since then snuff movies have been back in the news, either because some nut is accused of trying to make one (never successfully) or the tabloids report some sensational claim, e.g., that the main centers for the snuff movie industry are London, Amsterdam, and Bangkok. But pornography experts for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies say they have never seen a genuine snuff film.

Many people are convinced snuff films are real, possibly because it suits their ideological bent. For example, in her book Feminism Unmodified, feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon says flatly that snuff films exist. But when I asked her to elaborate she declined, and indeed was quite mysterious about the whole thing. She just knew.

That’s not to say there aren’t movies purporting to show people actually being killed. These fall into several categories:

  • News footage and the like in which a death is filmed by happenstance. One commonly cited example is the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. One underground video series, Faces of Death, depicts numerous grisly deaths, some of it apparently drawn from newsreel outtakes, with a lot of reenactments thrown in.
  • Porn films gone wrong. Ted McIlvenny, director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and caretaker of what’s probably the world’s largest collection of sex movies — 289,000 films and 100,000 videos — says that in his 25 years of following the porn business he’s seen exactly three films in which someone was killed on camera. In two cases the death was unintended: (1) a guy died of a heart attack while being beaten during an S&M scene; and (2) a man accidentally strangled himself during an autoerotic asphyxiation.
  • Anomalous weirdness. McIlvenny says the third film involving an actual death was a bizarre religious number from Morocco in which a hunchbacked kid was torn apart by wild horses while men stood around and masturbated. Sick, but not intended as commercial pornography.
  • Filmed executions from Southeast Asia, etc. McIlvenny says he saw a film showing these once.
  • Realistic fakes.
  • Home videos by psychopaths. A commonly cited case involves Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, who in the mid-80s murdered at least 11 women in Lake’s California cabin and made videos of several victims begging for mercy. I haven’t been able to confirm that anyone was actually killed on camera in this or similar cases, but wouldn’t be surprised.

None of the above constitutes a snuff movie as the term is usually understood. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that one will yet turn up. But the notion that there is some sort of snuff movie industry out there, complete with film crews, lab technicians, and, God help us, sacrificial actors; that these people film themselves committing capital crimes and sell the result to strangers; and that for nearly 30 years they’ve succeeded in concealing all traces of their handiwork, strikes me as absurd.

Cecil Adams

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