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What is a Snuff Film?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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A snuff film is a slang term for a movie that includes violent murder in the midst of a sexual act. The term started out in relation to cheaply made, but horrific teenage slasher films. It eventually became associated with sadistic pornography wherein an actress or victim is purportedly killed on screen. However, actual evidence of a snuff film is lacking. “Real life” snuff films seem to be more urban legend than fact.

The snuff film got its start with a poorly made cinematic film with the same name, released in 1976. Snuff was a resurrected project from the early 70s, originally called, Slaughter. While Slaughter was a project of Michael and Roberta Findlay, a sexploitation filmmaker, Allan Shackelton later bought the distribution rights. He retooled the movie with some new, provocative ending shots and released the film under the new name.

At the time, there was much ado about Snuff, and whether or not the action was real or faked. Shackelton did little to allay fears; capitalizing on the fervor surrounding the then-current Charles Manson murders in order to hype interest. Protesters denounced the film while others, piqued by curiosity, rushed to see it. The impact of Snuff gave birth to a genre of slasher movies that continue to play off people’s deepest fears, while the snuff film urban legend was born.

As public concern over depiction of sexual violence grew, many concerned activists and feminists used snuff films to denounce pornography in general. Even allowing that cinematic films were faked, did underground snuff videos really exist? Was “art imitating life” and death?

While many remain convinced that snuff films do exist in the underbelly of the pornographic trade, others regard this notion as a straw man’s argument for a broader agenda. Disbelievers maintain that people who claim these videos exist have never actually seen a snuff film for themselves. They also point to various law enforcement investigations that have found countless so-called “snuff films” that inevitably turn out to be hoaxes.

On a somewhat different front, there have been instances of serial killers photographing or videotaping torture sessions with their victims in order to relive their crimes. However, the actual deaths are reportedly rarely, if ever, recorded. Terrorist organizations, on the other hand, have engaged in online public dissemination of actual murders in the form of beheadings. Though the sexual component is absent, the unspeakable violence and very real death in these horrific clips is closer to a snuff film than the underlying urban legend that continues to usher teenagers into movie houses.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1003501 — On Jul 07, 2020

Why do you people struggle with such a simple concept? Sexual murder on film would be snuff it were ever produced. It hasn't so far, therefore it remains a myth.

By rjh — On May 09, 2011

@Sequoia - Technically no. While I'm not sure I agree with the article suggesting that snuff films require a sexual component in order to be considered snuff - though it's certainly a prevailing factor - I think murder captured on camera isn't really a snuff film unless it's made for profit and sold on an underground market. I suppose you could argue that such videos do "profit" terrorist organizations in terms of fear and intimidation, so it could be considered snuff even if the profit isn't monetary.

By Sequoia — On May 07, 2011

To be clear, do terrorist videos of beheadings actually count as snuff film? I mean if they show actual deaths, doesn't it fit the criteria?

By Illych — On May 05, 2011

A funny story related to this has to do with Charlie Sheen. In Japan, there were a series of films made in the 80s and 90s known as the Guinea Pig series. "Film" is perhaps used in the most basic sense of the word because these films have no real plot other than trying to replicate the most gruesome tortures you can imagine as realistically as possible. The producer was so successful (for lack of a better word) in this regard that he had to prove that no one was actually hurt or murdered.

Anyway, in 1991, Charlie Sheen saw the second film of the series and thought it was an actual snuff film and immediately contacted the FBI!

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