Snuff film

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A snuff film is a genre or video that purports to show scenes of actual homicide. The promotion of these films depends on sensational claims that are generally impossible to prove, and there are sophisticated special effects for simulating murder.


A snuff film, or snuff movie, is "a movie in a purported genre of movies in which a person is actually murdered or commits suicide. It may or may not be made for financial gain, but is supposedly 'circulated amongst a jaded few for the purpose of entertainment'".[1] Some filmed records of executions, murders, and deaths in war exist, but in those cases, the death was not specifically staged for financial gain or entertainment.[2]


The first known use of the term snuff movie 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.[2][3]

The noun snuff originally meant the part of a candle wick that has already burned; the verb snuff meant to cut this off, and by extension to extinguish or kill.[4] The word has been used in this sense in English slang for hundreds of years. It was defined in 1874 as a "term very common among the lower orders of London, meaning to die from disease or accident".[5]

Film studies professor Boaz Hagin argues that the concept of snuff films originated decades earlier than is commonly believed, at least as early as 1907. That year, Polish-French writer Guillaume Apollinaire published the short story "A Good Film" about newsreel photojournalists who stage and film a murder due to public fascination with crime news; in the story, the public believes the murder is real but police determine that the crime was faked.[6] Hagin also proposes that the film Network (1976) contains an explicit (fictional) snuff film depiction when television news executives orchestrate the on-air murder of a news anchor to boost ratings.

According to film critic Geoffrey O'Brien, "whether or not commercially distributed 'snuff' movies actually exist, the possibility of such movies is implicit in the stock B-movie motif of the mad artist killing his models, as in A Bucket of Blood (1959), Color Me Blood Red (1965), or Decoy for Terror (1967) also known as Playgirl Killer.[7] The concept of "snuff films" being made for profit became more widely known with the commercial film Snuff (1976).[8][9][10] This low-budget exploitation horror film, originally titled Slaughter, was directed by Michael and Roberta Findlay. In an interview decades later, Roberta Findlay said the film's distributor Allan Shackleton had read about snuff films being imported from South America and retitled Slaughter to Snuff, to exploit the idea;[11] he also added a new ending that depicted an actress being murdered on a film set.[12] 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",[13] but that was false advertising.[12] Shackleton put out false newspaper clippings that reported a citizens group's crusading against the film[8] and hired people to act as protesters to picket screenings.[14]

False snuff films[edit]

The Guinea Pig films[edit]

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, and extensive practical and special effects are used to imitate such features as internal organs and graphic wounds. The sixth film in the series, Mermaid in a Manhole, allegedly served as an inspiration for Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who murdered several preschool girls in the late 1980s.[15]

In 1991, actor Charlie Sheen became convinced that Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985), the second film in the series, depicted an actual homicide and contacted the FBI. The Bureau initiated an investigation but closed it after the series' producers released a "making of" film demonstrating the special effects used to simulate the murders.[16]

Cannibal Holocaust[edit]

The Italian director Ruggero Deodato was charged after rumors that the depictions of the killing of the main actors in his film Cannibal Holocaust (1980) were real. He was able to clear himself of the charges after the actors made an appearance in court.[17]

Other than graphic gore, the film contains several scenes of sexual violence and the genuine deaths of six 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,[18] although this has never been verified. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Cannibal Holocaust as the 20th most controversial film of all-time.[19]

Down in It[edit]

In September 1989, during the filming of the music video for "Down in It" by Nine Inch Nails in Chicago, Trent Reznor acted in a scene which ended with the implication that Reznor's character had fallen off a building and died, an effect achieved by covering him in corn starch made to look like injuries. To film the scene, a camera was tied to a balloon with ropes attached to prevent it from flying away. Minutes after they started filming, the ropes snapped and the balloons and camera flew away; after traveling over 200 miles, the contraption landed on a farmer's field in Michigan. The farmer later handed it to the FBI, who began investigating whether the footage was a snuff film portraying a person committing suicide.[20][21] The FBI identified Reznor and the investigation ended when Reznor's manager demonstrated that Reznor was alive and the footage was not related to crime.[20][22][23]

August Underground trilogy[edit]

This trilogy of films, purportedly portraying amateur footage made by a serial killer and his friends, and depicting gore, sex, torture and murders, has some of its scenes distributed on the darknet as if the footage were real.

Fictional examples[edit]

  • A racket in which prostitutes are brought illegally from Mexico into the United States to be killed on film is the plot premise of the movie Cold in July.
  • Paul Schrader's somewhat autobiographical crime drama Hardcore (1979).
  • Videodrome is a 1983 film about a TV station owner who searches for the source of a satellite signal that appears to show people being tortured and murdered.
  • The video game Manhunt tells the story of James Earl Cash, a death row inmate who is seemingly executed for murder before being "resurrected" and forced to participate in a series of snuff films, most of which are centered around him murdering gangs of armed men in different settings, for a disgraced film director-turned-underground snuff producer. It was released by developer Rockstar North in 2003.
  • In the Wes Craven film Scream 4, the killers record and upload videos of their murder spree to the Internet to purport themselves as survivors and become famous.
  • Johnny Depp directed and starred in the 1997 film The Brave, in which a poverty-stricken Native American man sells his life to a producer of snuff films in order to provide for his family.
  • In Tesis (1996), Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar's debut feature, a young university student writes a thesis on audiovisual violence and snuff films.
  • In American Horror Story: Freak Show, the fourth season of the thriller and suspense television series American Horror Story, the character Elsa Mars is trapped and her captors have her legs cut off with a chainsaw as a part of a sexual fetish snuff video.
  • In The Great American Snuff Film (2003), two young women are kidnapped and forced to star in a snuff film. The film is shown in a mix of third-person view and found footage-style.
  • In the manga JoJo's Bizarre Adventure V: Golden Wind, the villainous surgeon Cioccolata makes snuff films of his victims so he can continuously watch them die in agony.
  • The film 8mm stars Nicolas Cage as a private investigator who tries to uncover the making of a snuff film.
  • The premise of the 2007 film Vacancy involves a married couple played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale who find themselves stranded at a rural dive motel which serves as a front for a sinister business. The motel proprietor, played by Frank Whaley, along with two accomplices, make a profit off of snuff films made from the murders of guests recorded via CCTV in their rooms.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Snuff films false". October 31, 2006. Retrieved October 2, 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Barbara Mikkelson, "A Pinch of Snuff",, 31 Oct 2006, accessed 8 April 2007".
  3. ^ extract from book
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed, 1913
  5. ^ John Camden Hotten, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, 5th edition
  6. ^ Boaz Hagin. Killed Because of Lousy Ratings: The Hollywood History of the Snuff Film. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 2010 DOI: 10.1080/01956050903578414
  7. ^ O’Brien, Geoffrey (1993). "Horror for Pleasure". The New York Review of Books. (April 22 issue), n.1.
  8. ^ a b Stine, Scott Aaron (1999). "The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend". Skeptical Inquirer. 23.3. Retrieved December 13, 2010.
  9. ^ "Do snuff movies exist?". Documentary, part 1. YouTube.
  10. ^ Cook, David A. (2000). Lost Illusions: American Cinema in The Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam. University of California Press. p. 233. ISBN 0-520-23265-8.
  11. ^ "The Curse of Her Filmography: Roberta Findlay's grindhouse legacy". New York Press. July 27, 2005.
  12. ^ a b Lees, Martina (October 18, 2003). "Death robe of secrecy hangs around snuff films". Beeld. Archived from the original on March 3, 2012. Retrieved December 13, 2010. (originally in Afrikaans)
  13. ^ Hawkins, Joan (2000). Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and The Horrific Avant-Garde. University of Minnesota Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-8166-3413-0.
  14. ^ "Snuff". Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
  15. ^ "Serial killer inspired by Guinea Pig films". Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  16. ^ McDowell, R. (August 7, 1994). "Movies to Die For". The San Francisco Chronicle. p. A5.
  17. ^ Ruggero Deodato (interviewee) (2003). In the Jungle: The Making of Cannibal Holocaust (Documentary). Italy: Alan Young Pictures.
  18. ^ Cannibal Holocaust 25th Anniversary Edition (Media notes). Ruggero Deodato. UK: VIPCO (Video Instant Picture Company). 2004 [1980]. p. back cover. VIP666SE.CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  19. ^ "The 25 Most Controversial Films of All-Time". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved September 14, 2006.
  20. ^ a b "Nine Inch Nails". Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved April 12, 2008.
  21. ^ Welcome to the Machine (transcript). Industrial Introspection (June 1991). Retrieved 2011-06-18.
  22. ^ "When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor". June 22, 2018. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  23. ^ Huxley (1997), p. 40

Further reading[edit]

  • David Kerekes and David Slater. Killing for Culture: From Edison to ISIS: A New History of Death on Film. London: Headpress, 2016.

External links[edit]