A snuff film is a film that records an actual murder committed solely for the purposes of that film. Often, the alleged death occurs in relation to scenes of sexualized torture, and the victims are likely to be women. The idea that women, especially women willing to star in pornographic films, are expendable, is an integral part of the snuff-film legend, although there are also legends about gay snuff films involving the sacrifice of young, naive males. Snuff films, though primarily the stuff of international urban legend, represent the extreme capacity of humans to watch and enjoy the suffering of others. Also, the idea of capturing death on film or video cuts through all ideas about film as essentially staged. Recognizing an actual onscreen death makes film's realism all too real. There are also many false snuff films in which scenes of people being murdered are faked. Snuff films about snuff films comprise a subgenre of horror film.
The term snuff, meaning to kill someone, existed in English before its inclusion in a film genre rubric. The term snuff film was used by Ed Sanders in his 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. The Manson family was rumored to have murdered someone, filmed the act, and then buried the film in the desert. No one has ever found the film. There are those who enjoy watching people die, most often psychopaths, who videotape their own crimes so they can relive their experiences. Serial killers Paul Bernardo (b. 1964) and Karla Homolka (b. 1970), for example, recorded their acts of sexual torture and murder. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, British police admitted to the existence of child snuff films made in Russia.
Snuff films that record deliberate murder are different from films that compile scenes of people dying, often violently. Such compilation films as Faces of Death (1978), for example, combine scenes of executions, accidental death, and suicide, but none of these scenes was made specifically for the film, and the victims all died in other circumstances. The same is true of a series of videos depicting torture and genocide in Chechnya, which circulated in Russia in the mid-1990s. It is most likely that real snuff films do not, for the most part, actually exist. Nevertheless, rumors about a number of snuff films have circulated, including the aforementioned film by the Manson family, the Japanese Guinea Pig films, and Italian and South American snuff films. Rumors of gay snuff films have circulated in Boston and New York, though they have never been verified. Those in Boston claimed the films were from New York, and those in New York claimed they were from Boston.
There are many videos available that include scenes of people actually dying. In the early 2000s Internet videos of Iraq hostage executions showed the beheadings of real individuals in horrific circumstances. The purpose of these videos was terror. The Zapruder film of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy has long been familiar; and television programs such as World's Wildest Police Videos (1998–2002) show violent death, excising only the worst parts. Executions are often filmed and sometimes find their way into compilations or even art films such as Michelangelo Antonioni's Professione: Reporter (1975), which contains the filmed sequence of a death by firing squad. Occasionally, people die during the process of making porn films. These death scenes, even if included in fiction films, do not make any of these films snuff films, because the deaths were not a scripted element of the film.
Most snuff films that circulate, however, are fake. Capitalizing on the Manson rumors, faked snuff films began to circulate in the 1970s. Low-end film producer Allan Shackleton, using the promotional line "Made in South America—Where Life Is Cheap," released Snuff, in which a faked death was added to the end of a tacky slasher film, previously titled The Slaughter. South American director Cláudio Cunha made Snuff, vítimas do prazer (Snuff, victims of pleasure) in 1977, and the Italian director Ruggero Deodato released Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 with a murder scene so realistically filmed that authorities questioned him about whether or not it was faked. It was. Other fake snuff films appeared every so many years, including the series of Guinea Pig films made in Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s. These films simulate the amateur quality imagined to belong to the authentic snuff film and show the slow torture and murder of female victims. The films were so realistic that they inspired the Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki and caused the actor Charlie Sheen to call the police convinced he had seen a real snuff film. The incidents then inspired an episode of the television program Law and Order.
The snuff films of urban legend are underground films, reputedly circulating secretly, always made in some exotic location such as South America, which is imagined to have less control over the fates of its citizens. The idea of a snuff film in which an often enthusiastic and completely unwitting actor is sacrificed reflects a fear about the valuelessness and inconsequentiality of individual lives. As such, the idea of the snuff film itself becomes the subject of horror films as well as a commentary on the film industry. There is a long tradition of horror films in which a protagonist discovers a secret snuff-film ring. The 1978 film The Evolution of Snuff, directed by horror king Wes Craven, pretends to be a documentary film about the making of snuff films. Final Cut (1993), Snuff Killer (2003), and 8MM (1999), the latter directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicolas Cage, are all films plotted around the discovery of snuff filmmaking. Most of these horror snuff films are about a protagonist either stumbling upon a snuff film ring or, as in 8MM, trying to determine if a snuff film is actually a real snuff film. With advanced digital imaging technologies, there will no doubt continue to be fake snuff films, ever more realistically filmed, but the jolt of real life and death imagined in the older snuff film will, with such realistic technology, always come into question.
Kerekes, David, and David Slater. 1995. Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff. Rev. edition. London: Creation Books.
Sanders, Ed. 1971. The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. New York: Dutton.
Sergeant, Jack. 1995. Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression. London: Creation Books.