The ‘snuff’ film

Along with two of my colleagues from Birmingham City University I am an editor of an upcoming textbook called This is Media Studies which should finally released in 2009. Earlier in the week I produced a short piece on the snuff film for a colleagues chapter on reality media. Whilst it is very brief and not very detailed I thought that I would post it here. It would have been nice to have gone into more detail on the Mondo film or Charlie Sheen’s encounter with Guinea Pig film The Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985) but I only had a word count of around 500 words.


First used as term in relation to the Charles Manson murders of the late 1970s, ???snuff??? was coined by author Ed Sanders in his book on the Manson Cult: The Family. It was suggested in various reports that the Manson Family had in fact recorded murders on video even though said footage never surfaced. The term, however, received great attention when the film Snuff was released in America in 1976; a zero-budget feature based, albeit very loosely, on the Manson Family. Though made in Argentina and originally titled Slaughter, distributor Allan Shackleton decided to shoot a new ending to the film several years after it had been made. This ending featured what appeared to be behind-the-scenes footage of the film crew ceasing production then deciding to murder an actress ???for real???. Though it was clearly staged, this tacked on ending, combined with the unique marketing of the film, generated mass-attention in both audience figures and public opposition. Thus the legend of snuff was bought into the mainstream.


A basic definition of the term would be a person who is actually killed in front of a camera for entertainment or sexual titillation. The term also became to be known as ???white heat??? films or ???the real thing???. The snuff move was something of a media construction that subsequently became an urban myth. It has been the subject of numerous mainstream Hollywood films such as Paul Schrader???s Hardcore (1979) and Joel Schumacher???s 8mm (1999) as well as popular television shows such as Miami Vice. In 2005 a film called Snuff Movie was released to cinemas. Many independent horror features, such as the August Underground series of films use the theme of the snuff movie as their general narrative. A number of films labelled as ???video nasties??? by the British tabloid press were incorrectly identified as snuff films.

Certain films have been labelled by the media as actual snuff films due to their realistic portrayal of murder. Ruggero Deodato, the director of Cannibal Holocaust (1980), found himself in Italian court having to prove that the actors in his film were not really eaten by cannibals. The Japanese creators of the horror film series Guinea Pig also had to prove that their film The Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985) did not feature a Samurai dressed serial killer actually dismembering his victim. The producers even went to the length of shooting a ???making of??? film to prove their innocence when they were being investigated by the FBI. The infamous Faces of Death series has also fallen foul to such allegations despite many sequences being obviously constructed for the sole purpose of being as real as possible; a trend started by the Italian Mondo films of the late 1960s and 1970s.

In the millennium the term snuff has become synonymous with the videos of hostages being murdered by terrorist groups. Whilst these videos do not actually follow the definition of snuff as they are not produced for entertainment or titillation some might argue that the downloading/uploading of these videos on Internet suggests some form of thrill or sick gratification. Up until the publication of this book, despite numerous Federal investigations, there has been no evidence of a snuff film actually in existence.

Further reading:

Kerekes, David and Slater, David (1996) Killing for Culture: Death Film from Mondo to Snuff (Creation Cinema Collection). London: Creation Books.

Goodall, Mark (2006) Sweet & Savage: The World Through The Shockumentary Film Lens, Manchester: Headpress.

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