A snuff film or snuff movie is a motion picture genre that depicts the actual death or murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of distribution and entertainment or financial exploitation. Though deaths have been captured on film, snuff films as commonly defined are generally regarded as an urban legend.
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, in which it is alleged that The Manson Family was involved in making such a film.
The metaphorical use of the term snuff to denote killing appears to be derived from a verb for the extinguishing of a candle flame. The word has been used as such in English slang for hundreds of years. "Snuff and toddle" is listed in a book of boxing terminology from 1827 as meaning a fatal knock-out . J.C. 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 murderer who filmed the deaths of his victims. The concept of "snuff movies" being made for profit became widely known in 1976 in the context of the commercial film Snuff, although it did not originate with that picture. Snuff was originally a low budget exploitation horror film entitled Slaughter, directed by Michael and Roberta Findlay, about a murder spree committed by a cult reminiscent of the Manson family. After reading a newspaper article about the rumor of snuff films being imported from South America, the film's distributor Allan Shackleton decided to cash on that urban legend and, unbeknownst to the Findlays, added a new ending that depicted an actress being murdered on a movie set. Promotion of Snuff created the illusion that an actual murder had been captured on film. The picture was distributed with the tagline The film that could only be made in South America... where life is CHEAP. Shackleton distributed fake newspaper clippings that detailed a citizens' group's crusade against the film and hired people to act as protestors to picket screenings.
In the wake of Snuff, many films examined the idea of murders being staged for entertainment and profit. The films dealing with that subject include Last House on Dead End Street (1977), the Paul Schrader film Hardcore (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 Amenabar 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) and the John Ottman film, Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), Fred Vogel's film August Underground (2001) as well as its sequels.
Internet snuff movies 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. Most recently 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.
Some murderers have recorded their acts on video. Documentary film makers have also captured footage of executions or accidental deaths. The resultant footage is not usually considered to be a snuff film because the deaths were not staged to be the subject of an entertainment film.
As early as the 1940s, Weegee found fame for his photographs of victims of street crime in New York City. In later decades, the American public was fascinated by the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Professione: reporter, a film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, features an actual execution by firing squad. The stabbing death of Meredith Hunter by a Hell's Angel at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway is featured in Albert and David Maysles' documentary film Gimme Shelter. The 1995 documentary film Executions showed several actual executions of people condemned to death.
On September 11th, 2001, millions of people viewed heavy rotation television footage of people jumping to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center in New York City. It is possible to download from the internet videos depicting actual murders or deaths including those of Benito Mussolini, Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg, Saddam Hussein, Paul Johnson, Kim Sun-il, Eugene Armstrong, Jack Hensley, Kenneth Bigley and a Russian sergeant, the shooting of Yitzhak Rabin, and the gun suicides of Ricardo Cerna, Ricardo Lopez and Budd Dwyer.
In none of these cases was the death deliberately conducted for a film. The footage was either of a real event and shot for documentary purposes, or the murder was committed as a political assassination, and recorded incidentally or for political purposes. Therefore the resulting footage can not rightly be called a snuff film. Since it is trivially easy today to produce a film that simulates a murder in a believable way, there is little commercial incentive to risk the legal repercussions of producing a film in which a murder is actually committed (much less documented on film).
Several murderers have recorded some of their crimes.
In the early 1980s, murderers Charles Ng and Leonard Lake videotaped the torturing of women they would later kill. Serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka videotaped some of their sex crimes in the early 1990s. Though their crimes ended in murder, the actual murders were not videotaped. Only a select few people have ever seen this footage, as viewing was restricted to lawyers and other courtroom personnel. The footage has since reportedly been destroyed. In 2001 murderer Armin Meiwes videotaped the killing of Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes.
In 1997, German citizens Ernst Dieter Korzen and Stefan Michael Mahn kidnapped two prostitutes and recorded their torture. Their second victim managed to escape and the two men were sentenced to life imprisonment. Prosecutors involved in the case claimed there is an international market for such videos and that Korzen and Mahn had made the video with the intention of selling it. Korzen and Mahn thus became the first persons ever convicted for the making of a snuff movie, although their video was never commercialized.
In July 2007, a video made its way on to the internet in which Viktor Sayenko and Igor Suprunyuck, better known as the Dnepropetrovsk maniacs, filmed the torture and murder of 45 year old Sergei Yatzenko, a recently disabled Ukranian citizen.
In December 2009 the footage of Maguindanao massacre in the Phillippines leaked in Pirated DVD stalls.
The first two films in the Japanese Guinea Pig series are designed to look like authentic snuff films; the video is grainy and unsteady, as if recorded by amateurs. In the late 1980s, the Guinea Pig films were one of the inspirations for Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki's murders of preschool girls.
The most infamous Guinea Pig film is probably Flower of Flesh and Blood, in which a woman is drugged, then chained to a bed as a man in a samurai costume slowly kills her through torture and dismemberment. After viewing a portion of this film, actor Charlie Sheen was convinced the murder depicted was genuine and contacted the MPAA, who then contacted the FBI. FBI agent Dan Codling informed them that the FBI and the Japanese authorities were already investigating the film makers, who were forced to prove that the murders were indeed fake.
While the actual Guinea Pig movies are not snuff films themselves, two of them are purported to be based on real snuff films. The Devil's Experiment was supposedly based on a film sent to the Tokyo police in which a small group of people dismember a young woman in an attempt to see how much damage the body can take. Flower of Flesh and Blood was supposedly made after manga artist, Hideshi Hino, received a letter, 54 stills, and an 8 mm film through the mail. The letter described what was on the film. He watched it and shortly after turned it over to the Tokyo police, who could not identify either the girl or the murderer. However, the snuff-film stimulus has been shown to be false as the film is in fact based on a Hideshi Hino manga .
The Boston Herald newspaper published an article on the subject of such murder films being shown in the Boston area, while articles on the Channel 1 computer bulletin board news groups alluded to such films and claimed they were made in New York City.
In 2000 an Italian police operation broke up a gang of child pornographers based in Russia who, it was claimed, were also offering snuff films for sale to their clients in Italy, Germany, the U.S. and U.K. It is unclear whether anything other than child pornography films were ever seized.
In 2009 Wallace Souza was arrested for allegedly ordering murders in order to boost ratings of his TV show.
Snuff films have occasionally inspired fictional works (such as Michael Powell's 1960 film Peeping Tom and Videodrome in 1983). Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe novel A Pinch of Snuff (1978) which involves a purported British snuff film was later televised. As noted above, there was a wave of such films in the mid-to-late 1970s, and the mid-to-late 1990s saw another cycle of snuff film-inspired motion pictures. The Great American Snuff Film tries to take the viewer inside the mind of a killer who seeks revenge for his abusive foster home upbringing, by kidnapping two girls to make a snuff film. Mute Witness (1994) depicts the heroine's discovery of a snuff film in progress. Strange Days (1995) revolves around several snuff films involving murders of prostitutes and high-profile African American civil rights heroes. The Spanish horror movie Tesis (1996) revolves around a student discovering a library of snuff films hidden in a room beneath her college. 8mm (1999) is a similar movie about a private investigator hired by a widow to determine if the film her husband kept hidden in a safe is a real snuff film. Hardcore (1979) showed George C. Scott watching a snuff film to find his runaway daughter. My Little Eye, a 2002 Marc Evans horror film depicts the story of several teenagers in a Big Brother style house who end up being part of an elaborate live snuff movie. Similar to this is Halloween: Resurrection which features several deaths occurring on web cameras. FeardotCom and most recently Untraceable revolve around victims who are slowly tortured to death live on the internet. The Brave (1997) tells the story of a man who agrees to be in a snuff film in return for $50,000 to help his poverty-stricken family. Polish movie Billboard (1998) is a story of an ad agency worker who discovers a snuff tape apparently recorded on the set where he works. Most recently, the film Vacancy concerns a couple who discover their motel room is the site of a series of snuff movies. A more post-modern take on illusion, reality and sexploitation in this genre is taken in British film director Bernard Rose's 2005 film Snuff-Movie. The 2010 movie Snuff.mov presents itself as a Internet snuff-film depiction of a serial killer's cyclical work.
The premise of snuff films was also used as a theme in the Rockstar North video game Manhunt, which revolved around a convict named James Earl Cash, whose death is staged on live television at the order of a mysterious director in order for him to star in a series of cat and mouse-style snuff films.
Snuff films that reveal the existence of vampires appear as plot devices in the video game Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and the anime Hellsing. In the manga series Gunslinger Girl, it is later revealed that one of the characters was a victim of a snuff film, rescued shortly before her recruitment.
The following novels reference snuff films: