2007-06: Snuff. Remarks on a forensically relevant topic of movie and internet history

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Source: Minerva Medicolegale
(2007) 127(2):91-95

Snuff. Remarks on a forensically relevant topic of movie and internet history

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The movie genre snuff appeared in the late 70s and shows the allegedly real, often very cruel killing of people. More recently, a growing number of short video clips has been distributed via the internet. They also belong to this category, and were clearly recognized as fictional on the basis of technical details in two independent forensic investigations. By means of a brief review of movie history, this article shows that snuff movies originated from a certain prevailing trend in the 1970's, influenced by the murder of actress Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson group, the development of B horror movies, and a promotional campaign for a film which flopped in 1971 (renamed several times by the distribution company from American cannibal to Snuff to Big snuff). Retrospectively, there are no clues that snuff movies, i.e., movies openly distributed and actually available to the public, exist. In contrast, there are private documentations found by the police at the homes of killers during investigations of homicides (such as in the murder series of the couple Bernardo/Homolka) that do show actual killings; however, these videos are never available on the market. Other types of actual footage are used in documentary collections like Faces of death which do, however, never claim that the killings were performed for the reason of movie making.

1. Introduction and Historical Retrospective

Due to the low resolution of many movies distributed in the internet (always 72 dpi compressed), it becomes increasingly difficult to decide if a movie shows a real killing or not. The most recent case was the filmed killing of Nick Berg[2] in which no blood spatter can be seen. From our own case work experience we do however know that persons experienced in beheadings of animals will not necessarily produce blood spatter on crime scenes. Fort lay persons, the lack of spurting blood makes it difficult to judge about the actual events depicted in the movie. Whilst in this case, the video may very well show real events, in most other cases that are submitted to us, the videos are fake but seem to look more realistic to lay persons because of either an excess of blood or body movements that seem to be appropriate.

The term "Snuff" has been taken to movies that purport to show the actual killing of humans in their production [4,5,10-12]. They are to be kept apart from documentary movies and photographs that were not marketed after having been secured in the course of criminal investigations, such as in the North American case Bernardo/Homolka [13].

Creating the "Snuff" category was originally a marketing gag of a movie distributor who tried to use this name to make failed movie productions more attractive by hooking them to motives known to the general public and akin to popular perceptions and beliefs at that time (e.g., [1]). One of those referred specifically to the murder of actress Sharon Tate, who was killed on August 9, 1969, seven months pregnant, in her own house, by a group led by Charles Manson.

The court proceedings against Manson started in the summer of 1970; they established a personification of evil that persists to this day. The rock musician Ed Sanders wrote a book titled "The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion". In this book, he maintains that there must be photographic evidence of the killings committed by the Manson group [5]. It may be hidden somewhere, or even be in circulation. He thereby started a legend that intertwined reality (those killings) and assumptions (there must be photographic evidence) in a manner that cannot be disentangled by outsiders. Thus started the belief that there is a chance to exploit "Snuff Movies" for commercial and promotional purposes. The creation fictional stories helped to promote cheaply produced movies with horror stories, often including erotic elements, in which sensational action substituted for quality.

As a matter of fact, in some developing countries, human’s life was sometimes not well protected. This became very obvious in the 1970’s and is until today reflected in the the very frequently heard urban legend of a kidney that is cut out of a victim's body at the end of a drinking bout “somewhere in Mexico or Southeast Asia”; the stolen organ is allegedly sold, and the victim wakes up in an ice cold bath. The context of such alleged violence in developing, allegedly “wild” countries together with the atrocities in the Vietnam War, established fictional as well as non-fictional photographic images in the mind of the people.

Finally, in early 1976, a movie was to be shown in Manhattan with the promise it would depict an actual killing of humans. A poster announcing it used, for the first time, the word "Snuff"[3]. The poster showed a blood-soaked naked woman, cut to pieces. The inscription said: "Never has a camera witnessed such bloody action. This movie had to be produced in Latin America, where a human life does not count for much."

There were protests in front of the movie theater, with the motto "Murder is not a form of entertainment". Not even the New York newspapers however understood that the images were largely a marketing gag [5]. The movie had actually been produced years earlier, in 1971, originally titled "Slaughter". Its low budget had caused it to be shot in Argentina. Its producer, "Monarch Releasing Company" (usually dealing in explicitly erotic movies) then decided it was of such low quality and would, in addition, have to be synchronized for English speaking audiences, and therefore, it did not even publish the movie for years.

It was only after Lynette Alice Fromme, another member of the Manson group, attempted to murder President Ford, that things took a different turn. Court orders now forbade the publication of documentation of the group's activities in parts of the U.S. At that time, the Italian movie "Savage Man, Savage Beast" (1975), pretended to show actual images of the killings of U.S. aborigines; and a movie titled "Brutes and Savages" (also 1975), showed images of a man's dying after being bitten by a crocodile. That is when Allan Shackleton, head of Monarch Release Company, decided to offer his movie "Slaughter" for distribution with the new name "Snuff". Its many shortcomings could now be explained in terms of the illegality of its origins. This aspect was strengthened by the omission of all further headlines, names of actors, directors, technicians, etc.

For editorial reasons, additional elements were specially added in a second version of “Snuff”, such as a scene depicting a castration or the killing of a pregnant woman. There is also an element of "double fiction", where a technician is being killed while shooting the movie. This movie is then the one that is allegedly shown. Director Shackleton originally told the magazine "Variety" that "Snuff" showed true documentary materials; but he retracted this statement later on and admitted that the core elements were fictional. Until today, these statements were not generally perceived.

2. Further Developments

The materials covered by the original Snuff movie clearly indicated the time it originated: there were women as killers (Manson family, women's movement), allegedly illegal documentation of killings (again, exploiting an existing legend, and faking its contents by inserting real, filmed acts of violence in a new context), the murder of a pregnant woman (again, originally by the Manson family), and the alleged shooting of a movie in economically weak regions, where acts of violence look more likely – all this were popular beliefs at that time.

The "Snuff" motive has persevered to this day, depicting killings purposely committed for films such as "Special Effects" (1984) and "8 mm" (1998) [7]; but it was never again exploited as viciously as in the 1970s.

The movie "8 mm" shows most clearly the connection to problems of its time. It deals with the murder of a child, a topic close to what happened at the time. Other movies, such as "Snuff - Vitimas do Brazer" (Victims of Pleasure), where the movie producers kill the principal actress in 1977 under the direction of Claudio Cunha, even made sure the topic was clear in the movie's title.

The success of the movie "Snuff" opened up chances for several additional directions of production, where loose sequences of (mostly true) animal killings and the showing of already dead people are accompanied by descriptive comments. That means these were not truly Snuff movies. The most popular series in this context (real killings yet not snuff) became "Faces of Death", parts 1 through 4, produced from 1978 to 1990.

A related genre of movies popped up in the 1970s, called "Mondo" movies. They purported to deal with "true" habits of people all over the world; they depicted what were apparently authentic descriptions of a sexual and violent nature. They also exploit existing albeit deeply anachronistic elements of popular beliefs, such as, for instance, opinions of what was seen as "wild" habits of people living in other continents and cultures.

A third type of movies is separately treated under the descriptive name of "Thrill Kill". It clearly defines itself as invented. A typical motif is a film crew travelling to the location of cannibalistic crimes: the material of the film action is then later found by unrelated travelers, thus showing up as double fiction. Good examples for this category are Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal" (1976) and "Cannibal Holocaust" (1979), which was marketed also under the titles "Jungle Holocaust" or "Canibal Holocausto" [3]. Here, true killings of animals such as turtles or pigs are combined with the apparent killing of humans, including the film crew, in a manner that looks realistic to the layman but is put together with movie techniques (as, for instance, an impalement).

The motif of recently detected movie rolls or video tapes, always showing the killing of the film crew, was recently picked up with enormous success by the movies "Blair Witch" (1999) and "Book of Shadows" (2000) [2,6]. The fact that these movies were intentionally described on the internet as showing events that really happened saw to it that "Blair Witch" was taken for a documentary film by many credulous people.

There are many other clearly fictional movies that deal in often very cruel ways with the belief that snuff movies could exist by introducing those movies as alleged “extra footage”, e.g. in “Emmanuelle in America” (1976, alleged “Venezuelan copy”, director: Joe D’Amato) and to a lesser extent “Thesis” (or “Tesis”; 1996, director: Alejandro Amenábar). However, of particular interest today are movie clips that come along recently over the internet, and put the police in a difficult position because they have harly any trails to follow.

However, during the 80th annual meeting of the German Society of Legal Medicine, two working groups clearly recognized the fictional character of a number of brief movie sequences that were massively appearing on the Internet [8,9]. They resemble their movie ancestors from the 1970s in both contents and form with the exception of their digital technology, low resolution, and forensic errors. In that sense, they continue a movie tradition that has been around since 1975.

3. Final Remarks

A short review of movie history shows that when filming became cheaper in the 1970s, and special effects became more easily available, together with the psychological changes occurring in those years, favored the development of new kinds of genre movies. They pretended to deal with actual depictions of sexual and violent acts with a focus on excessive force and killings. Those movies can be purchased or rented in specialty stores, as this author is constantly confronted with in case work. The relevant movies are usually not blacklisted; even in the United States, they can be rented in larger cities (especially the original movie actually named "Snuff" is available in two different versions; also, "Cannibal Holocaust", a precursor of “Blair Witch”, is a quite polular DVD in the genre; fig. 1).

Summarizing our findings, there are no indications in movie history that Snuff products are based on actual instances of the killing of human beings for the purpose of selling the footage. There are movies available in video rental stores, on the black market, and in the internet that do show killings, yet they were filmed for the purpose of selling the footage.


This author wishes to thank movie director Jörg Buttgereit (Berlin, Germany) and the staff at Kim's Video store in Manhattan (St. Mark’s Place) for providing relevant information.


1. Benecke M. Spontaneous Human Combustion. Thoughts of a Forensic Biologist. Skeptical Inquirer 22:47-51, 1998
2. Berlinger J. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Artisan Entertainment, Santa Monica, 2000.
3. Deodato R. Cannibal Holocaust. F. D. Cinematografia/Substance Films, Canada, 1979/2000.
4. Findley M. Snuff. Cultvideo, o. O., 1974.
5. Kerekes D, Slater D Killing for Culture. Creation Books (London, San Francisco), 1994.
6. Sanchez E, Leonard J. The Blair Witch Project. Haxan Films/Artisan Entertainment, Santa Monica and New York, 1999.
7. Schumacher J. 8mm. Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment, Culver City and New York, 1998/1999
8. Schyma C, Mattern R, Bratzke H. Execution scenes on the internet: real or virtual? Rechtsmedizin 2001;11:147
9. Seidl S, Hausmann R, Betz P, Sources of error in the assessment of "Snuff Videos" Rechtsmedizin 2001;11:138
10. Shackleton A. Snuff. Substance Films, Canada, 1975/1999.
11. Smith J. Snuff myth. Escapade 1982;8: 22-25, 92-94 (quote by Stine).
12. Stine SA. The Snuff Film. Skeptical Inquirer 1999:23(3)
13. Williams S. Invisible Darkness. The Strange Case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Bantam Books, Random House (New York), 1997.
14. Benecke M. The Bernardo/Homolka Case. In: Murderous Methods, Columbia University Press (New York), 2005, p. 140-175

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