Snuff Films Essay, Research Paper
Also known as “white heat” films and “the real thing,” the snuff film myth lives on like Bigfoot, despite the fact that no law enforcement agency in America has publicly admitted to ever locating one. Alan Sears, former executive director of the Attorney General’s commission on pornography during 1985-86, agrees with the more than two dozen law enforcement agencies I interviewed. “Our experience was that we could not find any such thing as a commercially produced snuff film,” says Sears. “Our commission was all-inclusive and exhaustive. If snuff films were available, we’d have found them.”
This sentiment is echoed by Ken Lanning, a cult expert at the FBI training academy at Quantico, Virginia. “I’ve not found one single documented case of a snuff film anywhere in the world. I’ve been searching for 20 years, talked to hundreds of people. There’s plenty of once-removed sightings, but I’ve never found a credible personality who personally saw one.”
Yet the rumour of snuff persists. The scenarios are invariably the same – a remote jungle village in South America, a deserted beach in Thailand, the landscaped garden of a German industrialist, a lonely Everglades swamp. The victims are usually women, often performing a sexual act, their deaths sensational and unexpected.
One of the most resilient snuff rumours concerns convicted “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, who allegedly filmed the murders of some of his victims. Maury Terry, author of “The Ultimate Evil,” a book about Berkowitz and cult killings across America, tells me, “Its believed Berkowitz filmed his murders to circulate within the Church of Satan. On the night of the Stacy Moskowitz killing, there was a VW van parked across the street from the murder site under a bright sodium street lamp.
“Witnesses have confirmed this, although the van never appeared in the police report. Berkowitz or an accomplice filmed Moskowitz’s murder, using the street lamp to light the subject as she sat in her car across the street.” The 20-year-old Moskowitz was killed in 1977 in Brooklyn.
Terry says the film was apparently made for Roy Radin, the Long Island impresario and “wannabe Cotton Club financier.” “Radin was known for his huge porno collection and wanted to add a snuff film to it. I’ve heard there are ten copies of this film floating around, although I’ve never seen it.”
Rumours of snuff have surfaced in many Asian and western European countries, including Great Britain. In 1990 The Times printed a story recounting a 1975 American investigation in which police had discovered evidence of Mexican immigrants being killed in snuff films, “in lurid detail to satisfy the insatiable demands of the pornography industry.” It goes on to tell the story of a Californian who in 1985 murdered 25 women on film; video tapes of the actual killing were said to be doing a thriving business at video rental stores.
In the same Times piece, Dr. Ray Wyre, clinical director of the Gracewell Clinic for convicted paedophiles in Birmingham, England, is quoted as having viewed snuff films firsthand in America. When contacted, however, Wyre indicated that the films he saw were “sophisticated simulations” but insisted that the FBI had a number of snuff films in their possession. He said snuff films were definitely available in England, but that he had never seen one.
Detective Mick Hames, head of the Obscene Publications Division at Scotland Yard, responded to Wyre’s assertions. “I’d be the first to know if there were any in Britain,” says Hames. “But there just aren’t. Though I understand snuff films exist in America.”
For all its lack of verifiable evidence, one wonders why the mythology of snuff survives. Ask any L.A. hipster, and although they themselves haven’t seen a snuff film, they know someone who has. It’s become an accepted truth, like global warming: Snuff films are out there because it seems plausible that they would be.
Director Paul Schrader, who alluded to the snuff phenomenon in his film “Hardcore,” recently said, “Movies are a flexible medium. It’s easy to simulate death on film, which is partly why people think snuff films exist. They’ve seen simulated versions and believe they’re genuine. I think it’s conceivable these films exist, but whether they do or not is less important than the public’s belief that they do; their willingness to believe in an evil fantasy. That’s what’s interesting here.”
According to Manny Neuhaus, former editor of Screw magazine, the rumour of snuff is kept alive by anti-pornography crusaders. Contends Neuhaus, “Snuff is made-up phenomenon, a formidable myth which has become pornography-related to discredit pornography.” He says that in the 1970s, when snuff was first in the news, Al Goldstein (publisher of Screw) offered $ 25,000 to anyone who would come forward with a copy of a snuff film. There were no takers. “Snuff has been talked about for 20 years,” Neuhaus says. “Don’t you think they’d have turned one up by now?’
“After ‘Snuff’ came out in the 70s, suddenly everyone in America believed they’d seen a snuff film, so it was our job to view these things and determine if they were real,” remembers LAPD Vice Squad Sergeant Smith, who was then a supervising detective for the department’s Pornography Section. “I recall one particularly realistic film, a 16mm sex loop called ‘Vampira,’ which I brought to the coroner’s office. They took one look at the torture scene and said the girl’s intestines were cow’s intestines. Which shows you to what lengths these producers went.”
“The closest we’ve got to snuff in this country is what I call the autopsy tapes,” says charles Balun, a distributor of Guinea Pig. “These video favourites, with titles like ‘Faces of Death’ and ‘Death Scenes,’ feature news and police file footage depicting all manner of human immolation in sickening clarity. But these aren’t snuff films, because they only chronicle death. Snuff, by its definition, choreographs it.”
Were a snuff film ever to surface, one questions the legality of showing or viewing such a film. According to Sergeant Smith, “I do know we could seize it as evidence to a murder. Then we’d have to establish who, what, where.” Simply owning a copy could merit prosecution in some states under obscenity statutes, providing sexual penetration occurs. Otherwise, prosecutors would have to establish who made the film in order to press murder or conspiracy to murder charges.
Logic tells us that in an America plagued by violent crime, where as any cop will tell you an assassination can be purchased on the streets of the nation’s capital for a few thousand dollars, the possibility exists for snuff films to be realised. Others knowledgeable about the snuff phenomenon refute the blanket denial of the authorities.
“You’d have to be completely naive to think they don’t exist,” says Andrew Vachss, an attorney who represents children and a best-selling author of thrillers. “Just because you haven’t seen any on network news doesn’t mean they’re not out there. When someone steals a Rembrandt, it doesn’t show up in a gallery. We know that the Shah of Iran kept videotapes of (the Iranian secret police) Savak torturing people to death. We also know that Idi Amin collected video equipment and routinely witnessed executions. You can draw your own conclusions.”
“This is a world where kiddie sex tours are legal in some countries,” adds Vachss. “Serial killers have been documenting their murders for years, keeping their own private momentos of their crimes to perpetuate the fantasy; it’s part of their M.O. Do you think it hasn’t occurred to one of these people to film a murder, and don’t you think that it’s possible one of these films is being circulated?”
Vachss’ sentiments are mirrored by noted women’s rights attorney, anti-pornography activist and University of Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon, who is researching the subject. “My opinion is completely to the contrary to the FBI’s. I know snuff films exist. These so-called official people don’t enjoy a lot of trust. In many cases they’ve got one public line, while they move in another direction.” Asked to substantiate her claims, she replies, “To divulge anything would jeopardise my own investigation. But believe me, they’re out there.”
The video age, in which movies can be produced instantly and cheaply at home, has opened up a vast home-movie market and the possibility that snuff could be produced relatively easily. FBI agent Lanning acknowledges the likelihood of such an occurrence. “It’s just a matter of time before one is made and it surfaces. Camcorders make this scenario plausible.” Statements in the press about San Francisco alleged serial killer Charles Ng, who was recently indicted, have indicated that Ng videotaped his victims’ murders and had intended to distribute the tapes. A gag order has been placed over the case. The official FBI position denies the existence of the films, but an investigator for a northern California district attorney’s office confirms it to me privately.
Sergeant Smith acknowledges the possible existence of video snuff but adds, “My feeling is that if snuff existed on film or video, it would be so far underground the average person would never see it. For years there’s been talk of a Las Vegas dealer selling snuff films for $ 100,000 a pop. For that you get the original film. I’ve never believed this, but with all the unsolved murder in this country (more than 8,000 in 1992 alone), it makes you wonder. Certainly, the possibility is there.”
An FBI source who wishes to remain anonymous, confidentially refutes the FBI’s official position and confirms the existence of snuff. “I don’t want to start a panic among law enforcers or Bible belters,” he says, “but on a very limited basis, circulated within a very small community of people, snuff films do exist. If I told you how I know, it would jeopardise our investigation and compromise our efforts. The last thing we want to do at this juncture is tip our hand, and my experience is that the media talks too much.”
The Original Snuff Film
Early in February of 1976, following rumours on the possible existence of ‘Snuff’ films, and reports circulating that one such film had been smuggled into the United States from South America, a one-sheet poster was displayed at the Time Square area of New York, outside the National Theatre. The picture was for a motion picture titled ‘Snuff’. The artwork was that of a bloodied, cut-up photograph of a naked woman and it bore the legend, “The film that could only be made in South America?where life is CHEAP!” It also promised “The Bloodiest thing that ever happened in front of a camera!”
The general public, still warm with the media insinuations that there existed a perverse new form of celluloid snuff entertainment, flocked to catch “The picture they said could NEVER be shown”
Snuff was a mystery. Its come-on was the implication that real people were dying on camera for no other reason than to thrill a viewing public. The public that ventured into the National Theatre would have seen that it carried no credits and it had been dubbed into English, which gave credence to its South American origin. This merely gave one point away, its was cheap and poorly made, poor in the extreme. Snuff was so cheap that for four years prior to its release it had sat gathering dust in a New York distributor’s office, Monarch Releasing Corporation to be exact, and it wasn’t known as Snuff back then, it was called Slaughter.
Slaughter was an attempt to cash-in on the Tate/LaBianca murders for which Charles Manson and his family had recently come to trial. In 1971 Michael and Roberta Findlay (a husband and wife filmmaking team) were among the first to explore and promote hippy cult hysteria and it was Allen Shackleton and his Monarch Releasing Corporation who recognised Slaughter’s market potential.
Motivated by the public interest in mondo atrocity, the likes of Savage Man?Savage Beast and Brutes and Savages which ‘marketed’ real death, Shackleton decided to turn Slaughter about on its head and instead of cashing-in on Manson hysteria, he decided to exploit ‘death on film’ hysteria. Shackleton scrubbed all references to the Findlays’ original movie. He dropped and title and cut all credits. Then he engineered some additional footage and spliced it into what was left. For the title he dipped into The Family: The story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, and lifted from it author Ed Sanders’ very own turn of phrase: ’snuff.’
In a ploy to convince the viewer into believing they are privy to something rare and exclusive, Shackleton had this new footage take the form of a behind-the-scenes cutaway, supposedly revealing the actual manufacture of the film in progress. This new footage culminates in the ‘murder’ of one of the stagehands.
As the last scream fades an off screen voice shouts “Cut!” The scene then cuts away to reveal a studio set complete with the actors involved on the last piece of carnage. The director confides to a pretty production assistant that the last scene was ‘dynamite’ and that it turned him on. She confesses to similar feelings. The couple move over to the bed and begin some heavy petting. The others in the room turn their attention to the two on the bed and continue to film. When the girl realises that they are being filmed she struggles to free herself but is held down by the director. The director calls for assistance and a crew member dutifully holds the girl’s flailing arms down to the bed. With his hands now free, the director reaches for a knife used in the last scene and slices through the girl’s blouse and across her shoulder. The director takes from his back pocket a pair of pliers and tears a finger from her hand. The cameraman, who has been able to take several point-of-view shots (POV) with one camera zooms in for a close-up of her bleeding hand. With the girl moaning pitifully, an electric saw is bought into play and removes one of her hands at the wrist. With the hand severed the director brings down his knife into the girls stomach. The production assistant is then disembowelled and has her innards thrown into the air, the picture then freezes.
The frame blurs and runs into leader tape, then blackness. A voice can then be heard saying, “Shit, shit? we ran out of film.”
Another voice whispers, “Did you get it all?”
“Yeah, we got it all.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
The sound of breathing ends.
The reason why the film was a scam?
1. Who would promote a film that showed the actual murder of one of its crew?
2. How can a single camera show several POV shots but not lose the continuity of the action?
3. How can police and the Manhattan district attorney interview a woman who has been murdered on screen?
Robert M. Morgenthau, the district attorney for Manhattan, announced in a news conference that he had determined the on-screen murder of a woman as being a hoax. “It is nothing more than trick photography,” he said, adding, “the actress is alive and well.” Prompted by continued complaints and petitions, Morganthau’s findings were the conclusion of a month long investigation, in which the ‘murder victim’ had herself been located and interviewed by police.
Shackelton, too, had been traced via the Monarch Releasing Corporation and admitted, after threats of ‘considerable forfeiture’, that it was not a real woman who was murdered. It appears that controversy sells tickets.