How rumour, cynicism, lies and opportunism helped create an urban myth that refuses to go away.
“The ultimate form of sado-masochistic pornography is the ‘snuff film’, in which, according to the FBI, the central actor is actually murdered in the course of a sexual encounter. The sexual encounter usually involves rape and the severe mutilation of the victim’s body. Such films are reputedly shot in Third World countries where officials are bribed into ignorance and loved ones frightened into silence.”
BIZARRE SEX, Roy Eskapa 1987
“Snuff videos showing scenes of murder, mutilation and cannibalism were on sale alongside Disney films at a children’s comic fair… Trading Standards officers believe the video shows genuine footage of chanting, half-naked Amazon Indians butchering a white man depicted as a jungle explorer.”
THE DAILY MAIL, April 1992
“Many serial killers found an outlet for their vivid sexual fantasies in pornography. Ed Kemper scoured detective magazines for pictures of corpses and frequented ‘snuff movies’ in which intercourse is a prelude to murder.”¹
Newsweek, quoted in THE AGE OF SEX CRIME, Jane Caputi 1987
“There’s a lot of gay people there, gay men, so they have young boys. You get a lot of rent boys there, because they’re offered a load of money, and then they become snuff movies.”
‘Janet’, quoted in BLASPHEMOUS RUMOURS, Andrew Boyd 1991
In the late 1990s, Joel Schumaker’s film 8mm once again stirred up debate about the darker side of the film business – the idea that someone, somewhere, is commercially producing films which feature genuine murder and torture, often of children who have been kidnapped or bought from poverty-stricken families in South America. Films which are then sold or screened for vast sums of money to wealthy decadents, who are so bored with life that they can only get their kicks from watching the final taboos being shattered… or videos that are circulated amongst underground networks of child molesters and rapists, ensuring that the violation of the victim continues long after their death. The term for these movies is at once shocking in its cynicism, and unforgettable in the horror of its implications: Snuff.
Nobody is entirely sure when, exactly, the stories began. Some claim that rumours were circulating as far back as the Forties, but the modern fixation with the idea of the Snuff Movie can be traced to that turbulent period as the Sixties crossed over into the Seventies, and long-held ideas of morality began to crumble. In 1961, a filmmaker still risked prosecution for showing naked girls on film; a decade on, and cinemas across America were openly showing hard-core pornography. Nothing seemed taboo anymore, not even extreme acts such as bestiality and sado-masochism. In 1972, the infamous documentary film Animal Lover, featuring graphic couplings between farm girl Bodil Joensen and her various pets, was playing to slack-jawed audiences in San Francisco’s porn theatres; a year later, animal porn had made it as far as the Cannes Film Festival. Nothing, it seemed, was forbidden anymore.
To moral campaigners, the idea of the Snuff Movie seemed both inevitable and useful. Inevitable, because after all, where else was there left for the satiated pornographer and his depraved yet jaded audience to go? And useful, because it provided a potent weapon to use against the libertarians and the sexual freedom supporters. Even the most liberal-minded individual would, after all, consider freedom to murder a liberty too far, and might even be forced to rethink their deeply held beliefs about sexual freedom in the face of such material. And so began a mythology that has, if anything, grown in potency over the years, to the extent that today, most British people unquestioningly accept the existence of Snuff Movies as proven fact.
Which is odd. Because despite the hysteria, not a single scrap of evidence confirming the Snuff Movies has yet been found.
What we do have are outright lies, assorted apocryphal tales, staggering cases of mistaken identity and several cases of genuine cinematic death which may seem to fit the bill at first, but don’t actually match the precise Snuff Movie definition.
Let’s deal with that, first of all. There are, of course, many films and videos that show actual death. Some of these are, unquestionably, murders carried out on film, with the footage then released by the killers – material like the ISIS beheading videos and Mexican drug cartel torture and execution clips would seem to be the epitome of the snuff movie. But these are not films that really fit into the snuff mythology. These murders are filmed and distributed as a way of striking fear into the enemy, be it Western countries or rival gangs. They are not made for financial gain or underground commercial release – indeed, these clips are uploaded onto sites like Liveleak for free access by anyone, aimed at causing maximum distress. The Snuff Movie of mythology is something rather different. The classic idea of the Snuff movie is a clandestine production for the pleasure of an underground audience, for whom the mere act of viewing such forbidden material is as exciting and arousing as any of the warped content. It’s this idea of the Snuff Movie that grips the public imagination to such a large degree.
The first recognised tales of snuff movie production emerged in Ed Sanders’ exhaustive book on Charles Manson, The Family. Manson was known to be fond of filming Family activity, including sex orgies which he supposedly sold. He is also known to have stolen a van full of NBC TV equipment. In The Family, Sanders interviews an anonymous Family associate who claims to have witnessed the filming of what he describes as “a snuff movie” in which a naked girl is decapitated during a pseudo-occult ritual. Although the video equipment was recovered when police raided the Spahn Ranch, no Snuff footage has emerged (other Family films have been seen, but consist of nothing more sensational than skinny-dipping). It was claimed that remaining Family members squirrelled the footage away; if true, they hid it well. More than half a century on, it still remains a secret waiting to be revealed.
Sanders also hints at rumours that various members of Hollywood’s smart set were dabbling in animal porn, torture and snuff movies. Again, such footage, if it exists, has never emerged. Years later, the Manson connection re-emerged when writer Maury Terry tied the Family and Snuff production into his exhaustive and increasingly hysterical investigation of satanic connections to the Son of Sam murders in New York, published as The Ultimate Evil. Yet again, no videotapes were ever found to back up these claims.
After years of similar unfounded rumours, the Snuff Movie was dragged screaming into the public consciousness in the mid-Seventies with the release of Snuff. Hyped as being shot “in South America…where life is CHEAP!”. The film implied – no, almost boasted – that it featured a genuine murder, carried out for the camera. Wherever it played, the film was attacked by feminists, anti-porn campaigners and journalists, who had not long before reported on the case of a so-called Snuff Movie being intercepted by U.S. Customs en route from – where else? – South America.
The protests were not, however, as spontaneous as they might have seemed. In fact, they were as phoney as the film itself. Grindhouse distributor Allan Shackleton was the warped genius behind the whole sorry scam. It was Shackleton who arranged the pickets and wrote the letters of outrage, Shackleton who planted the story of the Customs seizure (no such interception had in fact taken place), gambling that the negative publicity would ensure major box office returns before the film was run out of town. And it was Shackleton who created Snuff out of an unreleased movie called Slaughter.
Slaughter had been shot in 1971 by husband and wife exploitation movie veterans Michael and Roberta Findlay. Attempting to cash in on the Manson Family headlines, it told of the exploits of a hippy cult leader who leads his followers to murder. It was indeed shot in South America (Argentina, to be exact), where film crews, if not life, were certainly cheap. Filmed without sync sound, the resulting movie was a sorry mess and sat unreleased until 1975, when Shackleton – a hardened showman distributor with an eye for a good scam – picked it up and decided to revamp it into something that could make money. Noting its incoherence, he figured that the only way audiences would sit through the film would be if they were given a reason to accept – even expect – the amateur style. As a Snuff Movie, Slaughter’s lack of technical skill became a positive boon.
The first thing Shackleton did was to remove the end of the film, presumably thinking that no one would have bothered following the plot anyway. He also chopped off the opening and closing credits, giving the film a suitably anonymous appearance. He then hired director Simon Nuchtern to film a new ending, in which the cameras pull back from the action to show the studio set. The ‘actress’ starts to get it on with the ‘director’, but is then assaulted by him. He reaches for a knife, chops off one of her fingers, followed by the whole hand, then disembowels her. For years, the director of this footage was believed to be porn director Carter Stevens, though he only provided the studio space for the footage, which was shot in an afternoon and spliced in haphazardly. The fact that this footage is considerably better shot than the rest of the film, that the actress bears no resemblance to the woman seen in the earlier footage, and that the special effects are somewhat rubbery didn’t matter. Shackleton knew that, for varying reasons, people would want to believe it was real. And they did. Many still do, despite the truth about Snuff being widely reported. Some believe out of ignorance; others out of cynicism. Anti-Pornography groups are certainly aware by now of the reality behind Snuff but still hold it up as proof that women are being routinely murdered for the camera.
Feminist writer Julie Bindel did just that as recently as April 2018, when she wrote in The Independent “in the 1980s I watched a snuff movie with other anti-porn activists, journalists and experts in special film effects. One of the activists had gone into a porn shop in England and asked if the owner had something “really extreme”. The storeowner gave her a film of a woman in South America being raped, tortured and murdered. We saw her hand sawn off while she was still alive. Even the hardened crime reporters had to leave the room to be sick. The feminists stayed. We knew what to expect, because we had heard about snuff from activists in the US who were campaigning against the torture and murder of women for men’s sexual pleasure.”
One wonders who these ‘experts in special effects’ were if they were taken in by this amateur hour rubbish, but I suspect much of Bindel’s story is a deliberate lie – either that, or she’s the most naive ‘journalist’ on the planet.² As it’s in her interests for people to believe that the porn industry routinely murders people for profit, I rather suspect that she knows the truth – if only because she will have been told it time and time again over the years. Anti-porn campaigners have long lived in a Post-Truth world where the Feels outweigh the evidence, and so I suspect Bindel thinks that whatever she wants to believe must be the truth. In her world, the porn industry hates women so much, of course it must want to kill them.
In fact, Snuff was roundly condemned as a tasteless stunt by America’s pornographers. Producer David F. Friedman, who headed the Adult Film Association of America, begged Shackleton not to release the film. Sex film veteran Friedman, in David Hebditch and Nick Anning’s book Porn Gold, traces the Snuff hysteria to early Seventies anti-porn group the Campaign for Decency in Literature, who claimed on TV to have evidence that X-rated film-makers were murdering their stars on film. Friedman claimed that he contacted the CDL and asked them to hand their evidence to the authorities, and, when nothing happened, contacted the FBI himself, who dismissed the claims.
Friedman also offered a $25,000 reward to anyone supplying evidence of Snuff Movies. It remained uncollected throughout his life.
Snuff made Shackleton his expected bundle and might have faded into gimmick film history. But it provided new ammunition for pro-censorship groups and moral campaigners. Now, everyone knew that Snuff wasn’t just something old men snorted instead of cocaine.
Years later in Britain, where the film had – naturally – never been seen, it emerged on video with spectacularly bad timing. At the beginning of 1982, the first rumblings of what would become the Video Nasty tidal wave of hysteria were appearing in the press. As the storm over the availability of uncensored video grew, Astra Video – already prime targets for prosecution after releasing the grossly misunderstood I Spit on Your Grave and David Friedman’s early Sixties splatter movie Blood Feast – added Snuff to their roster of titles, featuring the rather ill-conceived (if somewhat accurate) cover blurb “the original legendary atrocity shot and banned in New York…the actors and actresses who dedicated their lives to making this film were never seen or heard from again.” After an outraged Sunday Times article, Astra rapidly withdrew the film from sale, but not before a reasonable quantity had made it to the shops. Tabloid reporters invariably took the film at face value, and the circulation of a ‘real Snuff Movie’ helped fuel calls for controls over violent videos.
Ironically, slipping out unnoticed on video in Britain a couple of years earlier was a West German rip-off, entitled Confessions of a Blue Movie Star… although the original English language title, The Evolution of Snuff, was far less equivocal. This film was an uneasy mixture of soft porn, documentary and curious moral campaigning – it’s notable as one of the few anti-porn sex films ever made. Supposedly following the career of a German sex starlet who later took her own life, the film suggests that Snuff Movies are an inevitable symptom of liberal attitudes towards sex. Opening with interviews with various people (including Roman Polanski, who we can charitably say had reason to believe in the myth thanks to the Manson claims) who are convinced of the existence of Snuff Movies, the film reveals its true cynicism and lack of credibility at the end, when it features an interview with a masked ‘Snuff Movie maker’ and then presents an extract from his film. This footage is shocking – grainy, shaky images of a woman seemingly being disembowelled. It looks far more authentic than the footage in Snuff. But it’s also far more recognisable. In fact, it has been lifted from Wes Craven’s brutal 1972 production Last House on the Left. And although Craven’s movie was condemned by many critics for excessive violence, nobody would suggest that the killings were real…
Although Snuff Movies would become a standard plot device for film-makers in the Seventies (providing the central or incidental themes in Hardcore, Final Cut, Emanuelle in America, Last House on Dead End Street, Effects and a slew of others), it wasn’t until the Eighties that the phrase and the hysteria would fully explode. As the Seventies wave of liberalism gave way to the Eighties Thatcherite New Morality and hard-line Feminism, it somehow became easier to accept that pornographers – evil, corrupt exploiters of women, every one of them – would cheerfully kill for the cameras.
Feminist writers and moral campaigners both routinely told tales of Snuff Movies which were dressed up as proven fact, but which were always vague enough to avoid scrutiny. No names, no evidence. And invariably, the public followed suit. Everyone these days, it seems, knows someone whose mate has seen a Snuff Movie.
In many cases, these Snuff Movies turn out to be more indicative of the gullibility of the viewer – or, perhaps, their desire to believe. The Amazon Snuff Movie reported (in a cynically racist manner) by The Daily Mail, and quoted at the top of this article, turned out to be Ruggero Deodato’s 1979 production Cannibal Holocaust, a film which has been mistaken for the Real Thing in Britain more than once. At least that film, with its powerfully authentic pseudo-documentary style, looks the part; more ludicrous was the insistence by Liverpool Trading Standards and various media (including Channel Four News) that Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagous (a tedious horror movie about a cannibal killer lurking on a Greek island), seized during video nasty raids in 1993 was a Snuff Movie.
Flower of Flesh and Blood, an episode from the Japanese short film series Guinea Pig, has also convinced many people – including actor Charlie Sheen, who reported it to the authorities after watching aghast. In Britain, an NFT employee was taken to court after customs seized a tape of the film, and only narrowly escaped a jail sentence when experts declared the film to be a clever simulation. And indeed it is. Catering to the Japanese audience’s blood lust, the film is a carefully constructed fake Snuff Movie – devoid of any narrative structure, it simply shows a woman being killed and hacked apart by a man dressed as a Samurai. However, the film still features standard cinematic devices and full credits, which one would hardly expect to find on evidence of crime. Oh, and the DVD comes complete with a behind-the-scenes documentary.
A long-standing tradition of the Snuff Movie mythology was that such films were made in South America, where Life Is Cheap. Unsubstantiated stories of prostitutes and children being smuggled over the border into the US, where they would be raped and murdered by organised rings of snuff film-makers, had circulated throughout the Seventies. By the Eighties, however, the mythology had developed to the extent where these films were happening anywhere and everywhere. One of the most insistent claims made regarding Snuff Movies relates to paedophile rings and satanic cults.
In both instances, the evidence remains non-existent, but has been so widely distorted and exaggerated that most people genuinely believe it. The most recurrent individual tale concerns footage of the murder of Jason Swift and several other children at the hands of a group of paedophiles in the early Eighties. At the start of the Nineties, newspapers reported that the deaths of several children had been videotaped, although there was no evidence to support this. The reports would subsequently resurface with remarkable frequency; the raids which netted Anthropophagous were reported as possibly having found such footage. Not true. And the Powers That Be conveniently float the rumour whenever calls for stricter censorship are made. So it’s worth re-stating for the record: there is no evidence whatsoever that the killings were filmed for any reason, let alone for commercial purposes. No tapes found. No cameras found. No statements from the convicted killers. Nothing.
It’s also worth noting that, alongside religious and anti-porn motivations, homophobia plays a large part in many Snuff claims. For both Fundamentalists and tabloid journalists, it’s a logical path from homosexuality to paedophile ring to Snuff Movie production. Playing on public fears and bigotry, these claims can be made without evidence (other than Chinese Whispers) and be presented as fact.
Similarly, stories of Satanic Child Abuse invariably include Snuff Movie production, the ultimate weapon to beat Satanists with. In his anecdote-littered book Blasphemous Rumours, Andrew Boyd relates stories from former Satanists – now all Christians, it’s worth noting – who claim to have seen Snuff Movies being made, with child sacrifice being a favourite subject matter. Again, the stories are all vague in the extreme. He even states that such films are sold through a Northern Occult shop (if Boyd can find this out, surely a police investigation could do the same; yet to date, there have been no arrests). However, Boyd cannot be trusted. Not only does he have his own religious agenda (the book was published by Harper Collins’ religious imprint), but comes out with such wild claims that the entire ‘exposé’ starts to seem deeply suspect. A particularly ludicrous point appears early in the book where Boyd claims that one four-year-old Satanic Abuse Victim could write out a Satanic chant – in Latin. As there are few four-year-olds who can even write their own name and address, this is indeed proof of either the power of Satan or the cynicism of Boyd. Take your pick. He was also the man behind the Channel Four Dispatches programme, Beyond Belief. If anyone doubts that certain groups will distort the truth to further their own moral agenda, they should watch this programme. In it, a woman identified as ‘Jennifer’ discusses how she took part in satanic rituals, including child murder, that were videotaped. She claims to have been forced to kill her own child. We are then shown blurry footage of some sort of occult ceremony. ‘Jennifer’ claims to have been present when the footage was shot and states that it shows a foetus being aborted.
In fact, the footage was taken from Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth’s performance video First Transmission, and featured a theatrical S&M initiation ritual in which no one – foetus or adult – died. ‘Jennifer’ was later exposed as being a mentally unstable woman who’d been ‘exorcised’ in a Christian healing centre.³
Perhaps we should pause for thought here. A national television network allowed a fundamentalist Christian to deliberately lie on one of its programmes. No matter that informed viewers realised that it was a sham. It’s probable that most of the people who saw that footage remain convinced that it was exactly what it was claimed to be. The belief in snuff movies, made by the rich and powerful, remains a popular one among delusional conspiracy theorists, all of whom seem to just know that these films exist – and who made them – and attribute the lack of any evidence to a grand cover-up by the police, politicians and the media (all of whom are involved in Satanic abuse cults, obviously). For these people, the lack of evidence is proof – not that this is all a myth, concocted by opportunists and the mentally deranged, but that there is an all-powerful elite burying the evidence. David Icke’s forums are awash with this stuff.
But what if someone actually confesses to distributing Snuff Movies? In 1993, Australian horror magazine Fatal Visions ran an interview with one Mad Dog MacKenna, an American convict who claims to be an occultist tied in with the Hand of Death (a satanic murder organisation that Henry Lee Lucas had first mentioned when arrested in the Eighties). MacKenna discusses his career as a pimp, child pornographer and Snuff dealer. He refers to films with titles like Snake Feast and Gator Bait Ten, the latter supposedly featuring “ten young girls ripped apart by huge starving alligators.” The next edition of the magazine runs an interview with dominatrix ‘Betsy Blood’ who also discusses Snuff Movies, claiming to have bought a batch in 1989, including Paris Terror and the now-ubiquitous Snake Feast and Gator Bait Ten.
However, we should note the author of said interviews. The late, unlamented G.J. Schaefer was a convicted serial killer, who wrote Killer Fiction, a collection of squalid, gloating short stories concentrating on torture and murder. It’s possible – let’s be honest, almost certain – that the interviews were the product of his own warped imagination. The answers certainly read as if written by the same person, and you can almost feel Schaefer masturbating as he writes. We can’t ask Schaefer the truth – he was killed in prison in 1996. One thing is certain, however – these films, which are widespread enough for seemingly the whole of America’s prison population – as well as some obscure hooker – to be aware of, remain undetected by the authorities. It doesn’t add up.
And despite what the conspiracists want to believe, the police are desperate to find one, to confirm what they believe. They have, after all, been at the forefront of spreading the snuff movie myth, at least in the UK. It was the British police and authorities that spread the fatuous claims about Anthropophagous, and the stories surrounding Jason Swift. It was the police who enthusiastically investigated claims of a VIP rape and murder ring based on the fantastical claims of one man. And when the British police discovered the video which eventually spawned the notorious Operation Spanner case against a group of gay sadomasochists, officers initially thought that the penis nailing and other ‘atrocities’ contained in the tape were evidence of a Snuff Ring. In fact, the ‘injuries’ rarely even left scars and were carried out with full consent. The notorious nail-through-the-penis was actually placed through an already-existent piercing hole. Other SM videos, sold in the sex shops of Europe, might also seem to feature atrocities that come close to murder – but again, these films are made with consenting practitioners, and feature acts that often look far worse than they actually are. Contrary to popular belief, people in the SM community have no desire to kill or maim their partners.
Similarly, various cases in which murderers have filmed their activities have been held up as proof of Snuff Movie production. In 1985, Californian police found videotapes of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng torturing and murdering several women. Many people took these as final confirmation of the existence of snuff movies, but they were wrong. These tapes, shot for the killer’s own personal gratification (much as the Moors Murderers audio-taped and photographed their victims) don’t fit the definition of films being produced for commercial reasons; of people dying on camera for the profit of shadowy underworld figures; of movies which sell to rich, jaded degenerates for thousands of dollars a time. And despite rumours, there is no evidence to suggest that the tapes had ever been seen by anyone other than the two killers. The same is true of other cases where murderers have filmed their crimes – these have been done as ghoulish souvenirs or for boasting rights among their gutter-dwelling peers, not as commercial productions, and the filming is more often than not a byproduct of the crime, not the reason for it.
And tasteless documentary films such as Executions, Faces of Death, True Gore, Death – The Ultimate Horror, Death Scenes and others don’t qualify either, featuring as they do news footage (or, in the case of the Faces of Death series, rather unconvincing reconstructions) of accidents and crime scenes. Salacious they may be; offensive, probably; but hardly snuff movies. The same is true of war atrocity videos (such as the Bosnian propaganda tape that was being sold on the streets of London at the height of the Balkan war) or various medical studies, ranging from surgical operations to post mortems, that have entered into general underground circulation. Similarly, the ISIS and drug cartel execution videos mentioned earlier are a far cry from the commercially made yet clandestine snuff movie of mythology – in fact, their reason for existing and wide circulation is surely the antithesis of the myth.
Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence to support it though, the Snuff myth will never die. There are too many people with a vested interest in keeping it alive. Feminists see Snuff as proof of the dehumanising effect of pornography – another level of the abuse of women. Moral campaigners cite Snuff as proof that we need stronger censorship. Fundamentalist Christians and lunatic campaigners use Snuff as a way of backing their claims of widespread satanic abuse, which could only be stopped by outlawing Satanism. Yet all these groups seem to miss the point. Because even if Snuff Movies do exist, they exist beyond the law of every nation in the world, and no legal changes will alter that fact. Murder is already a criminal offence.
In almost fifty years of hysteria, there has yet to be a single ‘commercially’ produced Snuff Movie found anywhere on the planet. And yet TV dramas and movies will routinely discuss them as if the evidence for their existence is overwhelming, while news sources constantly talk about the snuff phenomenon as though the police find such material routinely. Let’s remember that these Hollywood films and newspapers are simply exploiting a public fear for profit. Like alien autopsy videos, they give a salivating public what it wants. The truth wouldn’t sell tickets at the box office. Similarly, unbalanced conspiracy theorists and pressure groups have vested interests in keeping the idea of the snuff movie alive, even though their belief in the existence of such material is based entirely on blind faith and personal obsession. People will tell you that they have seen (or, more often, know someone else who has seen) a snuff movie, and I fully expect to have someone irately replying to this article with ‘evidence’ of their existence, but short of someone suddenly digging up irrefutable proof (and I’ll concede that after the decades of hype, there’s always the possibility that someone has been inspired to actually make one in the hope of cashing in), I’ll continue to maintain that it simply isn’t true. The films do not exist.
In the end, the truth doesn’t matter. Snuff Movies will continue to make headlines because they make great headlines, and people will continue to believe in their existence, because people need to believe. It’s an idea that simply seems too good not to be true.
1: There is absolutely nothing in any of Kemper’s interviews to justify this claim.
2: Snuff has now been passed uncut by the BBFC and shown on FilmFour.
3: Interviewed on Channel 4’s Right to Reply a few days after the Dispatches broadcast, Boyd admitted that he knew where this footage had come from and that it didn’t show what he claimed.
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