A snuff film is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "A movie in a purported genre of movies in which an actor is actually murdered or commits suicide." It may include a motion picture genre that depicts the actual murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of financial exploitation, but that detail is extraneous, so long as it is "circulated amongst a jaded few for the purpose of entertainment".  Some filmed records of executions and murders exist but have not been released for commercial purposes.
The first recorded use of the term "snuff film" is in a 1971 book by Ed Sanders, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. He alleges that The Manson Family was involved in making such a film in California to record their murders.
The metaphorical use of the term "snuff" to denote killing appears to be derived from a verb for extinguishing a candle. The word has been used as such in English slang for hundreds of years. John Camden Hotten lists the term in the fifth edition of his Slang Dictionary in 1874 as a "term very common among the lower orders of London, meaning to die from disease or accident." The word is descended (via the Middle English "snuffen" or "snuppen") from the Old English "snithan", meaning to slaughter and dismember, from "snide", meaning to kill by cutting or stabbing, from "snid", to cut.
The Michael Powell film Peeping Tom (1960) featured a filmmaker who committed murders and used the acts as the content of his documentary films, although no real murders are seen in the film. The concept of "snuff films" being made for profit became more widely known in 1976 with the commercial film Snuff. A low budget exploitation horror film entitled Slaughter was directed by Michael and Roberta Findlay. In an interview decades later, Roberta Findlay said that the film's distributor Allan Shackleton had read about snuff films being imported from South America and retitled the film to Snuff to exploit the idea; he also added a new ending that depicted an actress being murdered on a film set. The promotion of Snuff on its second release suggested it featured the murder of an actress: "The film that could only be made in South America... where life is CHEAP.", but that was false advertising. Shackleton put out false newspaper clippings that reported a citizens group's crusading against the film and hired people to act as protesters to picket screenings.
In the wake of Snuff, numerous films explored the idea of snuff films, or used them as a plot device. They include Last House on Dead End Street (1977), Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979), Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline (1979), the Ruggero Deodato film Cannibal Holocaust (1980), David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), the Nine Inch Nails film The Broken Movie (1993), the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), the Alejandro Amenábar film Tesis (1996), the film Strange Days (1995), the Anthony Waller film Mute Witness (1994), the Johnny Depp film The Brave (1997), the Joel Schumacher film 8mm (1999), the John Ottman film Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), the Fred Vogel film August Underground (2001) and its sequels, the Mariano Peralta film Snuff 102 (2007), the Nimród Antal filme Vacancy (2007), the Srđan Spasojević film A Serbian Film (2010), the Wes Craven film Scream 4, (2011) the Scott Derrickson film Sinister (2012) and the Ridley Scott film The Counselor (2013).
Internet snuff films are alluded to in the Marc Evans film My Little Eye (2002), and the film Halloween: Resurrection. The Showtime TV series Dexter features an internet snuff scene as also does the shooting of a snuff film. The subject has been addressed in British film director Bernard Rose's film Snuff-Movie (2005), the Nimród Antal film Vacancy (2007) and also in the WWE film The Condemned (2007) and the Gregory Hoblit film Untraceable. Rockstar Games, the controversial game publisher, released the snuff-themed Manhunt in 2003.. Most recently (2014) a snuff movie shooting has been shown in the American Horror Story: Freak Show which is the fourth season of the FX horror anthology television series American Horror Story.
Some murderers have recorded their acts on video. Documentary film makers and television news crews have also captured footage of executions, suicides, and accidental deaths. The resultant footage is not usually considered to constitute a snuff film because the deaths were not, specifically, enacted for inclusion in a for-profit film; the deaths, although filmed, occurred in entirely different contexts and would have occurred even had they not been filmed.
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The assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934 was one of the first to be captured on film. The sinking of the HMS Barham in 1941 and the 1955 Le Mans disaster were both captured on film and have been widely shown since then. The American public was gripped by the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The self-immolation and death of Thich Quang Duc, a monk who protested against the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem during the Vietnam War, was not only one of the most notable figures to have his death captured on film, but he was one of the first individuals to have his suicide recorded. The Passenger, a film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, includes film footage of a firing squad execution. The stabbing death of Meredith Hunter by a Hell's Angel at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway was captured and shown in Albert and David Maysles' documentary film Gimme Shelter. The 1995 documentary film Executions showed several executions of people condemned to death.
The 2001 Daytona 500 witnessed the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the event after he was in an accident. The footage of the wreck was not shown on live television, as the camera was fixed on race leaders, but was shown afterwards in replays after the race was over. NASCAR has not replayed Earnhardt's wreck, but videos of the incident exist on the internet. Nodar Kumaritashvili's fatal accident during training prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics luge competition was televised to millions of viewers.
On September 11, 2001, hundreds of millions of people saw television news coverage after the attacks that included footage of people jumping to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center in New York City.
News footage or intentional political records that captured murders, executions or suicides, including those of Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, Kim Sun-il, Eugene Armstrong, Daniel Pearl, Inejiro Asanuma, Lee Harvey Oswald and Yitzhak Rabin, and the suicides of Ricardo Cerna and Budd Dwyer have been posted on the Internet. Such footage was either of a real event and shot for documentary purposes, or the assassins filmed a murder to use the record for political purposes. The resulting footage cannot be called a snuff film according to its definition.
The Faces of Death video series is sometimes referred to informally as a snuff series. However, the series only compiles footage of real events (such as police film from accident scenes and leaked execution footage) from other media. Neither Faces of Death nor the footage it presents can be defined as snuff films.
Video recordings of battery
In several cases murderers and serial killers have recorded aspects of their crimes, although they filmed their victims while still alive. These include:
- In 2007, Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, members of a Russian neo-nazi skinhead gang, were convicted with their partners for brutally assaulting and murdering dozens of migrants in Russia while filming the incidents and posting the videos online. However, Ryno was only sentenced to ten years of hard labour because he was considered a juvenile at the time. Ryno's and Skachevsky's films sprung copycat incidents by similar far-right groups in Russia that continue to circulate online.
- Between 1983 and 1985, Americans Charles Ng and Leonard Lake videotaped their torturing some of the women whom they would later kill.
- In the early 1990s, Canadian serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka separately videotaped some of their sexual assaults of victims. They did not film their murders.
- In 1997 the German murderers Ernst Dieter Korzen and Stefan Michael Mahn recorded their torture of two prostitutes whom they had kidnapped. They killed one and the other woman escaped, leading to the men's arrests. They were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Prosecutors claimed there was an international market for such videos, and that Korzen and Mahn intended to sell their film. Korzen and Mahn were the first persons convicted for making a snuff film, although their video was never distributed.
Video recordings of murder
- In 2001, Armin Meiwes videotaped the killing of Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes. Brandes had met with Meiwes to be willingly killed and eaten by him.
- In 2008, a video (known as "3 Guys One Hammer") surfaced on the Internet showing Viktor Sayenko and Igor Suprunyuck, known as the Dnepropetrovsk maniacs, torturing and killing a 48-year-old Ukrainian man. Sayenko and Suprunyuck were subsequently convicted of the murders of 21 people.
- In the rise of reported far-right activity in Russia, the Russian National Socialist Party released a video in 2008 titled Execution of Tajik and Dagestani, which depicted the murders of Shamil Odamanov, a migrant worker from the Dagestan region, and an unnamed Tajik migrant. Accompanied with heavy metal music, Odamanov was beheaded and the Tajik immigrant was shot to death by two masked men purported to be members of the group. Since its release, the video has gained notoriety and has been circulated in Russian ultra-nationalist websites.
- In May 2012, a video surfaced online titled "1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick" that depicted a man being attacked with an ice pick and being subsequently dismembered. The video has been linked to the arrest of Luka Magnotta.
- The Islam-inspired terrorist group Daesh has published videos on the Internet showing murders of hostages.
False snuff films
The Guinea Pig films
The first two films in the Japanese Guinea Pig series are designed to look like snuff films; the video is grainy and unsteady, as if recorded by amateurs. In the late 1980s, the Guinea Pig films were allegedly one of the inspirations for Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki's murders of preschool girls. The Guinea Pig film he owned was "Mermaid in a Manhole".
After viewing a portion of Flower of Flesh and Blood, the actor Charlie Sheen thought that the murder depicted was genuine and contacted the MPAA, which contacted the FBI. FBI agent Dan Codling informed Sheen and the MPAA that the FBI and the Japanese authorities were already investigating the film makers, who were forced to prove that the murders were fake. While the Guinea Pig films are not snuff films, two were purported to be based on snuff films. The Devil's Experiment was supposedly based on a film sent to the Tokyo police showing a group dismember a young woman. Although Flower of Flesh and Blood was supposedly made after manga artist, Hideshi Hino, received snuff materials, it was based on his own manga.
Other than graphic gore, the film contains several scenes of sexual violence and the genuine deaths of 6 animals onscreen and one off screen, issues which find Cannibal Holocaust in the midst of controversy to this day. It has also been claimed that Cannibal Holocaust is banned in over 50 countries, although this has never been verified. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Cannibal Holocaust as the 20th most controversial film of all-time.
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