know this: perpetuated throughout the last 100 years—strung
between grainy, black-and-white filmstrips, tabloid
journalism, Satanic cult investigations, urban myths,
and mainstream Hollywood film—snuff does
exist. And it is not available underground,
behind a hidden door and beneath the counter of
a secret, seedy S&M sex shop. It is right here.
It is all around us. It is inside of
Photographs freeze moments of our culture.
Blurred, black smudges hurdling across the beach
at Normandy; the tangled, bloody limbs of dead children
in Mylai; a naked corpse so emaciated that it is
carried away with one hand from a Nazi death camp.
But these are mere instants, smashed flat, no beginnings
or endings, forever representing something far more
or far less than they did in actuality.
moving pictures... they just are.
moving pictures which haunt our culture are without
exception exceedingly violent: Rodney King's 19
seconds; Challenger's explosion; "Gimme Shelter"'s
homicide; Waco, Texas' fiery stand-off; the on-air
suicides of Pennsylvanian State Treasurer R. Budd
Dwyer (1987) and Los Angeles motorist Daniel Jones
(1998); Jack Kevorkian, before an audience of 15
million, injecting liquid death into a dying man
on 60 Minutes.
some of us, images from television and film "shockumentaries"
like Faces of Death
and Real TV imprint our minds in much
the same way. So do old Driver's Education films
like Red Asphalt and Wheels of
Tragedy; unsettling industrial safety films
like How Much Are Your Eyes Worth?; even
Army medical training films still torment those
who were forced to watched them—who could
ever forget a film entitled Sucking Chest Wound?
death is recorded. It is a human urge, a morbid
urge. When the medium of motion picture film was
invented in the late 1800's, it was immediately
utilized to capture real-life death (Thomas Edison's
"Execution By Hanging"). The compulsion
to record and re-experience mortal passing is innate
is no surprise, then, our mad passion to substantiate
"white heat" AKA "the real thing"—is,
by the official FBI definition, a film created for
commercial profit that records the murder of a real
person. Creating snuff is murder. In the law books,
selling snuff is murder, too, as selling it creates
a reason to produce it.
the FBI claims that no such films exist and there
are no such cases on file. You have never seen a
snuff film. No one you know has ever seen a snuff
Ray Wyre, clinical director of the Gracewell Clinic
for convicted paedophiles, claims that snuff films
are definitely available in England. Detective Mick
Hames of the Scotland Yard, however, thinks this
is untrue, adding, "Though I understand snuff
films exist in America."
reliance on "friend-of-a-friend" validation
nonetheless manages to conjure up very similar scenarios
time and time again: Little girls fed to giant anacondas.
Young women strapped to tables and tortured to death,
their privates sewn together, their limbs hack-sawed
off. Weird tribal rituals involving blood sacrifice
and wild animals. The continent is usually Africa
or South America, the setting is usually a jungle.
The characters are always undefined, and the quality
of the video is invariably poor.
these are just rumors, who is starting them? And
In 1969, Charles Manson and his "family"
went on a murdering spree, killing and mutilating,
among others, actress Sharon Tate and her eight-and-a-half-month
old fetus. Manson was known as, quite simply, The
Devil. One of the many books about him, The Family:
The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack
Battalion by musician Ed Sanders of the
rock band The Fugs, notes that the "family"
might have been filming their grisly attacks.
to 1971. Exploitation filmmaker Michael Findlay
cashes in on the Manson trial by making a cheap
piece of trash called Slaughter. The
film is so poor that the distribution company won't
release it. Then Findlay has an idea. Adopting Ed
Sanders' own turn of phrase "snuff," Findlay
removes all credits from his film, and tacks on
a final scene, one in which the filmmakers themselves
appear to brutally murder a young film set assistant.
Findlay's movie now ends with a sudden fade to black.
You hear a voice say, "Shit, shit. We ran out
"Snuff" and fit with the infamous tag
line, "A film that could only be made in South
America... Where Life is CHEAP!," "Snuff"
was promoted as if it contained an actual on-screen
stretched around the block.
National Organization for Women and Women Against
Violence Against Women picketed the picture en masse.
Their protests centered solely around the fact that
tickets were being sold to a murder. However, the
actual girl who had been gutted, disemboweled, and
"murdered" was, apparently, not as big
of a concern.
own demise is worth mentioning. In May of 1977,
as Findlay waited to board a helicopter atop the
Pan Am building in New York, the landing gear collapsed
and the blades swung downward, killing five people.
As Findlay was decapitated, he was clutching a test
model of an innovative, portable 3-D camera that
he was preparing to demonstrate in Europe. Had that
3-D camera only been rolling, Findlay
himself would have been the star of possibly the
greatest snuff film of all time.)
Meanwhile, the 1962 film Mondo Cane
had begun what would prove to be nearly two decades
of what is now called "mondo" cinema.
Mondo Cane was a documentary, at least
by loose definition. It featured scene after scene
of Earth's most bizarre rituals, each connected
through narration by the thinnest of threads. Mondo
Cane featured a Valentino look-alike
contest, bull decapitations, tribal women suckling
piglets, dogs butchered for food, native women held
captive in cages and fed tapioca until they fatten
enough for marriage, and so on.
self-important and terribly obvious philosophical
questions— "Who really are the
cannibals here, ladies and gentlemen?"—were
all firmly in place, and the accompanying account
was full of flat-out lies, willing to conjure up
anything to make a scene "juicier." If
the filmmakers wished a tribe to be "flesh
eaters" it was as simple as adding it to the
dubious though it was, Mondo Cane
was a huge hit. It's theme song, "More,"
was nominated for an Academy Award and the film
itself would spawn at least 35 reality-based "mondo"
films, everything from Mondo Hollywood
to Mondo Topless to Mondo Freud
to Mondo Cunt. Today, these mondo
films are mostly ignored. As with all of pseudo-snuff
cinema, confessing to their popularity, importance,
and influence tends to make us all look bad.
Cane 2 (1963) would feature mondo film's
first mass-marketed human death, a Buddhist monk
committing ritual suicide. Only years later was
this scene suspected of being staged.
death—staged or otherwise—was the main
focus of Faces of Death (1979). "Banned
in 40 Countries!!!" was its proud proclamation,
as if the simple act of viewing Faces
was a celebration of democracy. Faces
features actor Michael Carr as Dr. Frances B. Gröss
(the umlaut, presumably, indicates "esteem"),
an "I Am Joe's Stomach"-type narrator
and surgeon supposedly fascinated with the different
modes of death.
are eaten, squashed, broken, and burned. Bodies
are dissected in autopsies, boxers are beaten to
death in the ring, baby seals are clubbed in the
head, and men leap to their doom from high rises.
Painfully inappropriate music (like yodeling during
the "white blanket of death" avalanche
segment) provides a tasteless backdrop for Dr. Gröss
to quote Melville and sagely condemn or condone
each matter. Spouting silly anti-drug messages and
dumb anti-meat and anti-fur manifestos, Gröss
pontificates deep thoughts like, "After this
slaughter, will dolphins still consider man their
Faces is not a snuff film, for it
chronicles death rather than choreographs it (although,
in today's slavering news-hound climate, the commercial
potential for such "chronicles" is obvious).
Furthermore, Faces of Death's small
print reads: "Exiguous scenes were re-enacted."
In its six volumes, Faces of Death
is equal parts authentic doom and re-created ruin.
which is which is sometimes difficult. Other times,
it's not. The famous bear attack is filmed from
two camper point-of-views that, inexplicably, jockey
in closer and closer for better shots... while one
of their own party is being eaten alive! ("Aww,
sheeet! Look what they done to him!" cries
one camper, lest we not notice the pile of ground
meat.) Likewise, the parachutist that falls into
the local "Gatorama" is no more than a
wad of meat and cloth; and no volume of Faces
would be complete without a plunging, suicidal mannequin.
professional wrestling, where debunking the spectacle
is part of the fulfillment, deconstructing Faces
isn't a whole lot of fun. Some element of "death
film" is always direly authentic—even
if the subject is fake, the people involved in the
sham are very real, and that is disturbing enough.
are these actors willing to feign genital castration
and then self-cannibalization of said genitals?
Who are these actresses willing to pour blood over
their naked bodies, drink urine, and fellate horse
hooves? Who are the filmmakers masterminding these
degradations, and who are the distributors eager
to market it all? Even the fake snuff film The
Blair Witch Project (unique in the fact
that it is shot by the victims) carries the unsettling
insinuation that someone—someone not unlike
death-monger Dr. Gröss—compiled the footage
and edited it, not for optimal factual content,
but for optimal cruelty and terror.
or not, when you watch Faces you expect
the filmmakers to do their job well. It is shocking
how quickly Faces becomes tedious.
We're used to bloody prosthetics and extreme-close-up
gore. A Clockwork Orange and Silence
of the Lambs are hard to watch, not this.
When viewing Faces, you inevitably
begin to root for impressive misfortune, categorizing
each expiration as a "good death" or "bad
truth, you're rooting for death from the moment
you pop the tape in. Yes, the real/false, serious/satirical
convolution is difficult to unpack and decipher,
but that's part of the headlong thrill, that's why
we watch. The lack of a narrative thrust leads to
a disorientation and dread anticipation of "what's
next?" As primal and tawdry as this is, it
is ever more stimulating than watching bored actors
slog their weary way across a well-lit Hollywood
set. "[Faces of Death] absolutely repulsed
me," says cult film director Frank Henenlotter.
"But, whether I like it or not is beside the
point—I was excited by it. If
you watch a cat being mutilated and react to it,
you're going to think about why you are reacting
to it. Anything that makes you think
can't be bad!"
Faces of Death 3, Dr. Gröss is
replaced by Dr. Louis Flellis. Flellis expresses
his intention to further Dr. Gröss' discourse
on death. It seems that Dr. Gröss died under
Flellis' own knife and, according to Flellis, Gröss'
demise was a result of absorbing too much death.
However, thanks to the Faces series,
we've absorbed just as much death as Gröss—yet
we're just fine. What is Faces trying
to say about us? That we're exceptionally strong?
Or exceptionally sick?
In today's media-saturated, live video-linked,
fiber optic-wired world of mirrors, everything is
caught on tape, then aired on tape in a nonstop
feedback loop of life and death. Each person born
in America today will not only have their birth
videotaped, but much of their childhood, college,
career (via security cameras) and death (by wannabe
news-hounds armed with consumer video cameras).
anonymity of the Internet allows us access to a
continual stream of brutally honest snapshots of
both life and death. We are racing toward the possibility
of a real-life "Truman Show"; one where births
(like The Learning Channel's popular A Baby Story)
are shown side-by-side with deaths (Faces
or any number of "reality TV" shows).
as A Baby Story is a celebration of
life, Faces of Death is an equally
valid celebration of death. Both can be violent
and bloody, but both can also possess a strange
poetry. The way a rabbit carcass is enveloped by
a living tidal wave of maggots is both beautiful
and awe-inspiring (from Traces of Death 2,
one of the many Faces imitators).
to popular demand, Image of an Assassination,
a video offering a digitally-enhanced version of
JFK's death, became available to the public in 1998.
To many, JFK's assassination is both gut-wrenching
and romantic. Blown-up from grainy, sun-saturated
8-mm film, and re-played in super slow-motion, the
Zapruder film is so oft-watched that it achieves
a ghostly beauty; the magnified, almost indistinguishable
pixels of the president's head rocketing in slow-motion,
"back and to the left", again and again,
an eerie dance of color, motion, and light. Is it
so shocking that someone might discover an equal
beauty in a segment of Faces of Death?
difference between celebrating life and celebrating
death is our own limited—but comforting—insight.
Gory births are excused because we know where they
lead: childhood. Deaths, on the other hand, are
just an event—flat, expressionless, and heading
no where in particular. We are forced to contend
with the gristle on an entirely physical level.
why do we watch?
of Death is made up, as far as anyone
can tell, of true scenes of demise and disaster.
It is a surprise, then, when a body-in-a-dumpster
scene that appeared staged in Faces of Death
(perhaps due to Faces' abit of dubbing
in cheesy voices and sound effects) also surfaces
in Traces of Death, suddenly appearing very
authentic. Is it or isn't it?
if it's on video, it doesn't matter. Videotape instantly
helps negate the "real-ness" of any situation.
A plane crash is scary. But a plane crash contained
within the four walls of a television screen appears
to be under some sort of control, and is much less
the 1960 film Peeping Tom. Banned
for years before being re-evaluated as a masterpiece,
it begins with a famous jump cut: an arrow hits
a ringed target. Cut to an extreme close-up of an
eye. The implication is dual. Eye as Weapon: our
only defense when viewing horror; seeing something
does render it less frightening. Secondly,
though, the Eye as Punished: the alarming edits,
movements, and camerawork of horror films physically
traumatizes our eyes; in particular the vertiginous
amateur videography of snuff or pseudo-snuff film
(whether it be Faces of Death or The
Blair Witch Project).
Tom is about Mark, a man who makes his
own snuff films by attaching a spear to the front
of his movie camera and watching women perish before
it through the gun-like cross-hairs of his viewfinder.
The allusion is, of course, that his camera is not
just recording death, it is death.
profusion of today's recording technology acts in
much the same way. By taping everything, we become
inured to everything; our "death" is the
lack of experiencing a bona fide, non-video "life."
Everything has already been lived, died, catalogued,
and is at your fingertips by way of your favorite
are very few non-taped "real" (which also
means, naturally, unreliable) memories
anymore. Everything important is recorded, and is
rigorously reliable up to a single
point-of-view. After the taping, though,
we share that single point-of-view collectively
and without individual emotion.
explains why Faces of Death bombed
at the box office but was huge on video. At home,
we have no one to answer to, and the lack of one's
own emotional response is easy to dismiss and avoid
analysis of. In theaters, however, we are forced
to contend with each other as an audience. And that's
The thrill of watching a snuff film is threefold:
Someone has died.
Someone has purposefully watched that
3. We are watching the Watcher's take
on the death.
the Watcher behind the lens is as much an "orchestrator
of death" as the murderer (if there is one).
In a country that loves films-about-films, snuff
is the ultimate self-conscious cinema. The very
act of pressing "record" implicates the
presser and makes him or her as famous or infamous
as the killer (see Oswald/Zapruder).
some low-budget films have successfully externalized
the morbid urge of snuff films (Henry: Portrait
of a Serial Killer, Menace II Society,
Videodrome), Hollywood is more concerned
with assuring us that we are in no way part of the
nasty populace of perverts.
Schumacher's 8 MM is easily more offensive
than any episode of Faces of Death.
The characters, right down to the Goth-cool snuff
peddlers, are insulting. We go wherever Schumacher's
lame plot wants to take us; we alternately cheer,
condemn, look down upon, or are fascinated with
snuff. 8 MM degrades us for getting
off on the sexual power play of snuff, then absolves
us (through the Nicholas Cage character) by punishing
him/us for his/our violence.
most offensive about 8 MM is the comforting
insinuation that only depraved sickos get off on
watching this stuff, but this is simply not true.
Faces 2 sold more than 50,000 copies
and ranks as one of the top 30 rentals of all time,
despite having zero television, radio, or print
advertising. And as Max Renn (James Woods) says
breathlessly while watching a snuff film in David
Cronenberg's Videodrome, "You
can't take your eyes off it."
Faces of Death has been replaced by
"reality TV" programs, like Cops,
Real TV, I Witness Video,
and any number of "World's Worst..." disaster
specials. Take, for example, World's Scariest
Car Chases. Car Chases practices the
same bogus sentimentalizing that Dr. Gröss
used to. It, too, rolls out the "experts"
(a "pursuit expert", if you can believe
it), and employs grandly sober—but utterly
meaningless—proclamations, like, "A bizarre
and terrible reminder of just how powerless we all
are." Car Chases also uses the
same fancy euphemisms (like "steel coffin"
and "one-way ticket to eternity") that
1950's Driver's Education films did. This is fitting,
since both productions are hell-bent on scaring
people, not educating them.
commencing, the Car Chases special
announces, "Some of the footage you will see
will be alarming. It is meant as a warning."
But it is not meant as a warning.
In Car Chases, the good guys chase
the bad guys. In Faces of Death, the
bad guys chase the good guys. They are interchangeable
and the end results are exactly the same: carnage.
And the thrill that carnage provides.
the long-running Cops looks much like
1960's mondo cinema. With minimal adjustment, the
tag line for Findlay's Snuff could
double as the Cops motto: "A
film that could only be made in [insert location]
...Where Life is CHEAP!"
as mondo crews placed themselves in "hot spots"
and—consciously or unconsciously—goaded
their subjects on, so does Cops. And just as predominantly black cultures
were the site of so many xenophobic mondo films,
with titles like Savage Africa, Africa
Blood and Guts, and Savage Man...Savage
Beast, Cops still parades
"black savages" and their "violent
rituals." Guns are held high while a black man rises
from a trash bin, eyes wide, hands in the air. Cameras shove forward for a close-up while bleeding criminals
refuse help, using words we don't know and bound
by a street code we don't understand. And Cops
never attempts to understand. There's no investigation, no interviews. Just the juicy stuff, the carnal thrill.
doesn't mean that watching Cops is
bad, or dirty, or even unusual. Certainly, though, many of the same people
who enjoy Cops decry Faces of Death,
when both products arise from the same morbid urge.
VI. The more any piece of film or video is viewed—whether
it be the JFK assassination or Faces of Death
6—the less power it retains to
sedate us from needing to see/experience the real
although self-help gurus promote "living without
fear," a life without insecurity or fear of
death would be empty indeed. We need fear. Fear forces us to live.
is really paralyzing is our fear of
fear. This is why we watch World's Scariest
Car Chases, this is why we surf through
crime scene photos pasted up on the internet. We seek to abate our fear of fear by wetting
our beaks in it. To be sure, the existence of Faces of
Death is a lot scarier than its actual
snuff, for all practical means and purposes, does
not exist. But the undying outrage/interest in the IDEA of snuff—further
proven by the popularity of mondo, Faces of Death,
and Cops—points toward a need
for snuff to exist, if only as a concept.
as we had to create, say, the vampire as an embodiment
of man's darker, unacceptable sexual urges, so too
the mythic 'snuff peddler'," say Killing
For Culture authors David Kerekes and
David Slater, "[He] must carry the can for
would it mean to establish proof positive of an
actual underground snuff industry? It would solidify and quantify our dark urges
and make them communal. However, the large-scale perpetuation of the snuff film myth
already does this.
interest in snuff has become what is interesting,
not snuff itself. Therefore, because we so desperately
want it to exist and there is no way to prove that
it doesn't exist, snuff—for all emotional
and intellectual means and purposes—exists.
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.