“We were confident that right and truth would prevail, and I would be acquitted and we would devote the rest of our lives working to create a justice system here in the United States. The guilty verdict has strengthened that resolve. But as we’ve discussed our plans to expose the warts of our legal system, people have said, ‘Why Bother,’ ‘No One Cares,’ ‘You’ll Look Foolish.’ 60 Minutes, 20/20, the American Civil Liberties Union, Jack Anderson and others have been publicizing cases like yours for years, and it doesn’t bother anyone...”
– Budd Dwyer’s final words
ROB ERT “Budd” Dwy er was a state treasurer of Pennsylvania who, on January 22, 1987, killed himself during a press conference on live television. It’s something you might’ve seen randomly on the internet, or in The Many Faces of Death, Part 6, or… somewhere else.
Story goes, Dwyer was scheduled for a court appearance on January 23, 1987. He was to appear before a federal judge to face charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit fraud. If convicted, he faced up to 55 years in prison, a fine of up to $300,000, and the loss of his position in state government.
On the day before his court appearance, at the press conference, he insisted on his innocence, on the hypocrisy of his government – “as we’ve discussed our plans to expose the warts of our legal system, people have said, ‘Why Bother,’ ‘No One Cares.’” – and then he handed papers to his staff. In a matter of seconds, he pulled a .357 Magnum revolver from a manila envelope, and shot himself in the mouth.
I’M thinking about this on a Sunday n i gh t in 2 0 0 6.
I’m standing in falling snow on an uncovered stoop just off Eighth Avenue in Homestead, PA. I’m wondering about Dwyer’s wife – where she went the night he killed himself. Did she cry? How forcefully? Had she been expecting it? I wonder about this. I wonder about the ensuing cleanup after Dwyer killed himself. After the media fled, who mopped up? I wonder about his kids and their lives, and how they were affected. And I’m lost in these thoughts, thinking about the commercialization of his death and how it’s been distributed over and over again for profit. And, as I’m thinking about this, I realize that, without full consent from my brain, my index finger is actually ringing the doorbell to a house that may or may not contain a living person who may or may not have a video tape documenting the actual murder of a human being. I am looking for a snuff film. And I’m wondering if I’ll find it.
Earlier that week, I had placed an ad on Craigslist1 looking for “rare and unique pornography.” In the ad, I sort of referenced snuff. I wrote: “I’m mostly interested in locating extremely rare films and, if you got ‘em, films where people are brutally murdered.”
This was not smooth, I know. But considering what a snuff film is,2 I couldn’t quite think of a better way to explain what I was looking for without getting too windy… or too weird. It’s debatable whether or not I succeeded.
More background: I had scheduled three interviews for that week, on consecutive days, after work, all with “collectors” who had implied that they owned vintage movies, and nothing more. Via e-mail, when I said I was writing an article for a magazine, they all asked to remain anonymous. This was the third of those interviews. The first was with a tattoo shop owner who collected fake snuff – movies like Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood, Cannibal Holocaust, and the more recent Meat for Satan’s Icebox, which I watched and came to the following conclusion: Fake snuff is often pretty dumb.3
The second interview was scheduled and cancelled, but I later found the potential interviewee’s website, and noticed that he mostly specialized in early 60s nudie mags.
So anyway, I’m staring into this house through a screen door and a broken window and I’m rubbing my hands together, shaking my head, wondering why I’m here. I hope no one answers the door…
But I know someone will. Because, inside, I see that there’s a black man rocking back and forth in a chair facing away from me, next to a kitchen with tile and cabinets.4 He’s watching television – a football game – but I can’t tell who’s playing.
In a second, he’ll stand up and keep his eyes on the television (walking backwards, trying to catch one final play before he answers the door). But when he does this, he’ll get tripped up, and he’ll accidentally step on what looks like a pink and yellow stuffed animal on the ground behind him. That’s when he’ll bump his head on one of the cabinets, clumsy, like he’s on a sitcom, trying to keep his balance. In pain, he’ll yell loud… but I… I am totally detached. I won’t care if he’s hurt or not. He’s in there; I’m out here. But as he approaches, it begins to hit me: I am not a fetishist. I am not sure why I’m here. This is all a very elaborate sociology project. I’ll be too scared to think. I’ll be too confused to move. And I’ll be too shocked to laugh as he stagers toward the door, swearing, holding his head in pain…
But, again, I don’t know this yet. I don’t know anything at this point. All I see is a television, a huge black man, a white door and brightly-colored stuffed animals.
“SNUFF” is def i n ed a s “a filmed account of an actual murder, specifically commissioned, recorded and supplied for the gratification of the paying spectator(s).” 5
The concept has been attributed to Ed Sanders, who wrote a book called The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. “Brutality films” was Sanders’ initial term for snuff, as a concept. The expression “snuff film” was later mentioned in the book – an extension of the word meaning “to die” (“snuff it”).
In The Family, Sanders claims that the Mansons actually filmed murders for personal entertainment purposes. But this is uncorroborated – none of these Manson films have ever been proven to exist.
For that matter, no snuff film (under the FBI’s most stringent definition of the term) has ever been proven to exist. In the past quarter century, there have been countless rumors that such films have been produced,6 but none have actually surfaced. Which arguably makes snuff an urban legend – an interesting rumor – and nothing more.
So the question then becomes: Why is snuff, as a concept, so widely discussed – so inherently interesting; so often the topic of (generally bad) films, articles and discussions? Why is snuff so inherently interesting? And, more importantly, since it seems so obvious that someone, somewhere, at some point would’ve arranged and filmed a murder, why have none been found? How can we possibly accept that none have been made? Are we missing something?
“Whether we like it or not people tend to jump to conclusions very quickly about your character and abilities. Impressions are made within fifteen seconds and there is no second chance. Jumping to conclusions is a natural thing that we do as humans. It is not right, but that’s life, get use [“used”?] to it, and be prepared.”
– Joan Kulmala,
IT’S after I’m invited into the col lec tor’s h o m e – after I find out his name’s George; after I’ve shaken his hand; after I’ve told him my name – that I become truly aware of how ridiculous this pursuit is. I am not in a movie. I am not a private investigator hired by a rich widow. I’m not even getting paid. And, beyond that, if snuff exists, will some random peon (me) be able to publicly extract the first ever real snuff film from an arbitrary private collector (George)? Answer: not likely.
I know this.
It’s at this point where I start to understand why a snuff film has never been found. First: if one surfaced, chances are, the director would be in some deep, deep shit – in prison for life or hanged. No one wants to set the standard for the breed of punishment that crime would cause. Second: if you have one of these films and you haven’t shared it yet, you’re probably not going to share it or flaunt it to anyone you don’t completely trust. And so on. I have thought these things out. I’m aware that, chances are, no one’s going to show me a snuff film for the asking…
But my larger, more abstract goal, is to find out why the so-called Snuff Urban Legend continues to surface in our society. My plan is to basically act dumb, visit with avid pornography collectors, ask to see a snuff film, see how they react, then talk about the concept of snuff and the dehumanization these kinds of films represent (regardless of whether they exist or not). It’s all supposed to lead into a discussion about the way we look at (and share our experiences of) life. And, I’ve come up with this whole grand scheme here about the state of violence in America, about our unending, underlying national pursuit toward hidden vices and veiled emotions and blah blah blah, and it all seems workable in my head, but George is heading toward me, so it’s time to perk up.
He answers the door politely, laughing, holding his bald head. “God damn man, I hope you didn’t see that.”
I smile and tell him: “I didn’t see you hit your head on the kitchen cabinet.”
He laughs and invites me in, offers to take my coat. We exchange brief pleasantries – “It’s damn cold out there,” et cetera – before he asks what he can do for me.
“Actually, I guess I’ll just cut to the chase here.” I hand him my coat. “Do you have a snuff film I can watch or buy?”
He stops. “What?” He’s not a big man – maybe 5’9”, 160 pounds. From what I can tell, he’s alone in the house, though that doesn’t explain the stuffed animals.
“I’m not a cop or anything.”
“You’re askin’ me if I got snuff movies?”
“Yeah. I mean… I realize it’s illegal. I’m just more or less interested to see one. I figure that—”
George shakes his head no, stops me. “That’s not what I collect.”
“Oh, I know. I was just curious if—”
“No, man. I’m into sex. Not murder.” He says this slowly, deliberately.
I say “Oh, alright,” but I guess my tone indicates something close to disbelief because his gaze quickly turns cold.
“What do I look like to you,” he says. “A killer? Someone who watches killers”
“No, I just—”
“You just what.” He’s angry now. “You think just ‘cause I collect movies I’m into some sick shit like that? Man, that’s fucked up. And that’s not what I’m into.” He pauses for a second to gather himself, reaches up and rubs his scalp again.
“Listen. If you was lookin’ for somethin’ like that you shoulda told me before you showed up and I’da let you know I didn’t have nothin’.”
“Yeah,” I say, realizing that I have misjudged the issue. My confusion is based in something very simple, fraudulent and invalid. All film, literature, and art, attempts to take us to a place we’ve never been before. And since I assume that anal sex, bondage, masochism and even (what I would consider) torture will be prominently featured in his collection, I assume that, as a collector, he will be interested in what I understand as an extension of those acts – murder. This is untrue. This is not a generalization one can make. What I don’t understand right now is that, for this collector – and for many collectors – there is a rigid barrier between what I consider dehumanization and killing. Regardless of the victim’s concession. And there’s also, along those lines, the implication that violent pornography doesn’t necessarily dehumanize; there is always the probable possibility that, not only do actors agree to their work, but they also find joy in acts considered taboo – that they derive pleasure from abuse, torture, bondage. Whether this is a legal or moral issue…? Well, that’s debatable. And I’m not going there. But what’s not debatable is that everyone has varying interests. And that you can almost never tell what’s appropriate and what’s not. And after going through all this in my head, all I could muster for George was a pitiful “Yeah, I know.”
“You do now,” he says. Then he adds: “And don’t you know that if I had one, I sure as hell wouldn’t show it to you?”
He laughs after he says this. I’ve got nothing to say in response.
“Now do you want to see what I got or what?”
“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.”
– Paul Schrader,
Director of Hardcore
AC COR DING to Killing for Culture, there are fairly strict definitions for movies that feature actual death on screen. They are:
1) The Death Film:
“Centers on the depiction of dead and dying people … for shock value. The difference between this and the Snuff film, is that in the death film the victims would have died anyway, (i.e. an execution, for instance.) the filming having no bearing on the act.”
Examples: The Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination; autopsy films such as The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes; driver education films; incidents where people commit suicide live in front a camera (like the case of Budd Dwyer).7 These films don’t “count” as snuff, per se, because, again, they are accidental – the death is not choreographed specifically for film.
2) The Mondo Movie:8
“Contains general documentary material from around the world, generally aimed at shocking the audience with scandal. As the years progressed, competing film makers had to out-scandal the competition. This one-upmanship led to the inevitable inclusion of already-dead bodies, and ultimately actual death onscreen.”
Examples: The Mondo Cane Collection, Faces of Death, Shocking Asia, Part 1, Real TV. These movies are not technically snuff because 1) they often feature campy, fake representations of death (or other “shocking” topics like Strip Clubs for Fatties and Granny Sex), and 2) the “real” death they present is recorded rather than arranged. The goal of these films is to elicit shock before you yawn and turn off your DVD player (because you are completely detached).
The difference between a Death Film and a Mondo Movie is, essentially, that Mondo is made to be feature length. Mondo is a collection – it is meant to be put together and sold in a neat little death package you can show at parties. Mondo movies are often comprised of many Death Films.
The sad part is that one can imagine the reaction to Mondo films or Death films wouldn’t be much different than the reaction to true snuff. In terms of genre and topic, the discrepancies are minimal – “Death Accidentally Caught On Film, Then Collected Into A Movie And Sold To Blockbuster Video” (Mondo) versus “Orchestrated Death Funded By Some Very Rich Person For Personal Gratification” (Snuff).
3) The Snuff Film:
We’ve been over this.
Examples: Supposedly none.
KEN L anning, c u lt e x pe rt at the FBI training academy at Quantico, Virginia, said: “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.”9
It should be mentioned here that we are absolutely not, as a matter of course, considering feature films like Snuff10 and 8mm11 as anything even close to “real snuff.” These films help establish the concept of snuff in popular consciousness,12 but they’re fiction – they help fuel the belief that real snuff exists when, from all indications, it doesn’t. Their existence is more fueled by, as Shrader says, “[the public’s] willingness to believe in an evil fantasy.”
But this brings us to an interesting point:
That word: fantasy. We want to believe snuff exists because Snuff exists in our fantasies. Why? Because, as previously discussed, you can look at snuff as the logical extension of what all film, literature, and art, attempts to do – take us to a place we’ve never been before. Death is the final chasm of the unknown. A century ago, people used to believe that the eyes captured the last moments of the dead person’s life; detectives would photograph the eyes of murder victims in hopes of catching a glimpse of the killer. It seems like snuff films are similar, in an attempt to catch death at his appointed errands. In controlling the moment of death, snuff attempts to bridge that gap between life and death. We cling to this – this glimpse of final terror; this concept of evil (and life) captured in an instant.
And movies like 8mm are produced because we can not look away from that ultimate human snapshot. And, to go further, we’re infatuated with the idea of truly evil humanity – with a person willing to kill without guilt. And yet, 8mm is a perfect representation of how Hollywood deals with America’s penchant for horror and death:
Specifically, Hollywood is forced to turn 8mm into a battle of “good” versus “evil.” Nicholas Cage is the “good guy.” He has an attractive wife and a small child. He is hired to find the “evil man” who created a Snuff film for an old widow’s dead husband. The story unfolds, and you can probably guess the ending (I’ll give you a hint: Everything works out just fine). Main point: The good guy is a necessary evil – he allows us to explore the more interesting character (who happens to be “bad”).
But real Snuff theoretically eliminates the “good guy” from the equation. And it eliminates sympathy, too. It eliminates pathos and consideration and condemnation and politics and money and CGI and… everything emotive a director or production company can potentially offer. In theory, it brings the viewer to a point where she or he is forced to supply their own emotions. And that might be the scariest (and most alluring) aspect of Snuff – that there is not an emotional template in place for the viewer. Religion and social mores tell us that, when we see someone killed, we should react with horror and revulsion, disgust and dread.13 But how would you honestly react if you saw someone really killed on screen? What if you weren’t prepared to see it? What if you didn’t know it was coming? What if you were alone? What if you knew their death was commissioned?
Would you find it hideous? Would you turn away? Or would you be curious? I don’t mean to imply that you’re a sick individual, I’m just saying: Would you want to see what happens at the moment of someone’s death? Would you want to watch the victim’s eyes turn back into his head, knowing that you had nothing to do with it – that you were completely innocent; that you had randomly stumbled across a video of his untimely demise? Would you want to know the victim’s last words? Would you want to know his name? His last thoughts? His last inclinations? Would you be curious about these things? Would you wonder if he had done something wrong? If he had done something stupid? If he had deserved it? If he hadn’t deserved it?
Would you rewind it and watch it again?14
NI C K B e r g.
Full name: Nicholas Evan Berg
He was a 26-year-old American businessman. He sought work in Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation. He was captured and beheaded in May 2004 by Islamic militants.
His decapitation was the first in a series of similar killings of foreign hostages in Iraq. Berg’s beheading received worldwide attention, not only because it was filmed, but also because the footage was widely distributed on the Internet. The rationale for the murder? His killers claimed that his death was carried out to avenge abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.15
His death gives us much to consider – a lot to throw into this stew of information. Searching for a Snuff film seems a lot like waiting for some sort of depraved Messiah: After so long, after so much debate, it’s almost as if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. And when something remotely genuine comes along, you’re conditioned to believe you’re looking at a fake, simply because you’ve built up the moral and semantic stipulations so high that they’re almost impossible to reach.
Could Nick Berg represent the first real snuff film?
Here’s the definition we set earlier:
“‘Snuff’ is defined as ‘a filmed account of an actual murder, specifically commissioned, recorded and supplied for the gratification of the paying spectator(s).’”
• “a filmed account of an actual murder,”
-- Nick Berg was killed on camera.
• “specifically commissioned,”
-- We are lead to believe his death was choreographed for filmed production.
• “recorded and supplied for the gratification of the paying spectator(s).”
-- This is tricky. Who is the paying spectator? On a base level, it would probably be The Guy Who Filmed It. But because of its political implications,16 because it was so widely distributed, because it was so widely discussed, the paying spectator becomes… you. And me. And everyone else who saw it. I know this because it was posted online.17 And because, when released, it received substantial coverage across mediums. So it was used to sell advertisements. It acted as a top story, a main headline, a way to capture your eyes and ears. And I want you to consider this. Consider that the internet brings the search for Snuff to a new level. There are more avenues available today for personal thought distribution than ever before. Anyone with a few dollars can get online and share. And while this is generally constructive, giving us more information to consider, affording us the opportunity to learn more, it also expands the already sizeable avenues we have for viewing mayhem and terror and evil. If the internet didn’t exist, would Nick Berg have been killed? Probably, but maybe not. The beauty of the internet is that it’s virtually boundless – it transcends continental barriers. Would his killers have bothered to kill Nick Berg on tape if they had merely planned on sending it to a television network? Again, speculation – maybe. But it’s interesting to contemplate – maybe the web’s enormity encouraged Berg’s killers to produce something vile, just because they could. Just because the internet allows us to see it, rewind it, tell our friends about it. And so, yes, I suppose it could be argued that, if no one were looking at the internet, this video would’ve gone hidden, unseen. But because so many people wanted the gratification of seeing Nick Berg decapitated by masked men – because we want to be taken to a place we’ve never been before … well, that makes it significant. That makes it real. That makes it Snuff.
“…because we so desperately want [snuff] to exist and there is no way to prove that it doesn’t exist, snuff – for all emotional and intellectual means and purposes – exists. And it only stands to reason that the existence of a demand – particularly a demand over two decades old – has already or will eventually lead to a creation of a product to fill that demand.”
– “The Morbid Urge,” Daniel Kraus,
Gadfly, July/August 2000
“Snuff is the Frankenstein monster of the media age, the boogeyman that lurks at the crossroads of unchecked media freedom and commercial demand. Each time a new technology makes questionable entertainment more accessible and moral standards are questioned, the monster is awakened and the angry villagers ignite their torches. With the new world of the web, the myth seems ready for an upgrade.”
– “Final Cuts: The History of Snuff Films,” Geoff Smith,
SO, is Ni c k B e r g the eas y an swer? Yeah, I guess he is. It definitely would’ve been more fun to battle George, the Big Black Guy with the Stuffed Animals and the Porn. It would’ve been fascinating to step into his basement and hand him ten thousand dollars to purchase a film starring someone killed on tape…
But that’s the idea, isn’t it? That’s precisely to the heart of why snuff is so captivating: because it’s senseless; because it’s vile – because, in terms of Western morality, it’s absolutely the worst thing one person can do to another person. It trumps whatever evil we’ve ascribed to terrorism or other arguably unnecessary forms of extreme violence. Because not only is there no sentiment behind it – not only is the act, in theory, based on a complete disregard for life; not only is it the ultimate example of dehumanization – but it’s also inherently capitalistic. It’s done, in concept, pretty much solely for money or fame or, in the case of Nick Berg, just to prove a point to millions of people.
Which brings us to this:
Unfortunately, living in a society where war and sex and celebrity dominate our headlines, murder captures our deepest, most sheltered interests. Why else would serial killers captivate audiences so thoroughly – in fictional portraits, as well as real life? It’s because transgression, especially towards a degree of control not afforded ordinary members of society, always captivates. Killers act as god.
And heartbreak sells magazines. And death is the basis of horror films. Depravity and sadness are the bases of heart wrenching books, soap operas, even reality television….
Unfortunately, what we’re dealing with here – with snuff – is potentially the idea that anything can be bested, and that we, as a society, constantly desire to leap into the next level of evil – to not only kill someone, but to film it as it happens; to distribute that visual document for all to see; to not only watch someone get hit by a train, but to see it from their perspective, in complete, true reality.
So does Snuff exist? Yeah, I think so. But what matters is that we’ve come to the point in our development where you can readily access the real, hired killing of a human being online – in Torrent files, or if you search hard enough on Google – whenever you want. It also matters that there’s a market for everything…
THE s c r e e n shows f ive men wearing mo stly bla ck, covered head to toe with cloth, accept for their eyes (which we would see if the film quality wasn’t so poor and grainy; the scene looks like it was filmed on a cheap home camera).
In front of these five men, another man – a prisoner, dressed in what look like orange scrubs – sits on the ground with his feet tied together in front of him. His hands are tied behind his back.
The man on the ground introduces himself eight seconds into the film. He says his name is Nick Berg. Shortly thereafter, one of the masked men reads a pronouncement in Arabic.
After more than four minutes, one of the masked men attacks Berg with a knife. Berg is then surrounded; we hear screams; he is held down and beheaded.
Five and a half minutes into the film, the head is presented to the camera, dripping blood. It is then laid on a headless dead body, wearing orange scrubs. The tape ends in coarse blackness.