The Morbid Urge 
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly July/August 2000


Now 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 us.

Snuff exists.

I. 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.

But moving pictures... they just are.

The 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.

For 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?

Real 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 and timeless.

It is no surprise, then, our mad passion to substantiate snuff.

"Snuff"—AKA "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.

Yet, 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 film.

Dr. 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."

Snuff's 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.

If these are just rumors, who is starting them? And why?

II. 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.

Jump 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 of film."

The end.

Re-named "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 murder.

Lines stretched around the block.

The 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.

(Findlay's 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.)

III. 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.

The 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 narration.

Morally 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.

Mondo 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.

Human 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.

People 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 friends?"

Technically, 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.

Deciding 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.

Unlike 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.

Who 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.

Genuine 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 death."

In 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!"

In 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?

IV. 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).

The 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).

Just 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).

Due 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?

The 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.

So, why do we watch?

Traces 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?

Ultimately, 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 threatening.

Take 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).

Peeping 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.

The 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 search engine.

There 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.

This 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 uncomfortable.

V. The thrill of watching a snuff film is threefold:
1. Someone has died.
2. Someone has purposefully watched that death.
3. We are watching the Watcher's take on the death.

Indeed, 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).

Although 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.

Joel 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.

What's 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."

Today, 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.

Before 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.

Meanwhile, 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!"

Just 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.

This 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 thing. For, 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.

What 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 contents.

True 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.

"Just 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 our death-lust."

What 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.

Our 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.

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.