Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys
Over the Easter weekend of 2017 the world was shocked when a video was uploaded to Facebook, showing the 74-year-old Robert Godwin being gunned down by a stranger on 16 April 2017 in the US city of Cleveland. In the video, the suspect, Steve Stephens, boasted that he had killed more than a dozen other victims, but police have not yet been able to link him to any other victims or incidents. The police searched for Stephens, but on 18 April 2017 he committed suicide by shooting himself after a worker at a drive through fast food outlet recognised him and alerted police. The question that has been asked ever since is whether the Stephens incident is an example of a "snuff film" or whether Stephens was simply recording a murder.
There are many views about the existence of snuff films. Some people argue that they do exist, while others are of the opinion that they are a myth - no more than a rumour or an urban legend. A snuff film can be defined as a real-life film or video recording of an actual murder, often made (or at least circulated) for pornographic reasons. The online dictionary, Your Dictionary (www.yourdictionary.com/ snuff-film) defines a snuff film as "a movie in a purported genre of movies in which an actor is actually murdered or commits suicide" and also as "a film that shows, or purports to show, the actual deliberate killing of one of the performers". Snuff has been defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a "visual depiction" of murder, intended to sexually arouse, and which is "commercially distributed" (Jones, 2011). The website www.soc.ucsb.edu/ sexinfo/article/snuff-films-0 defines a snuff film as "a feature film that depicts an actual murder, without the use of special effects, for entertainment or financially exploitative purposes. Snuff films rely on shock value to scare, disgust, and horrify the audience. Some snuff films exclusively feature a murder, but many also include acts of sexuality and sexual violence".
Phillipson (2016) argues that while there has been evidence of certain real-life death recordings circulating the Internet, there is no legitimate source or conclusive evidence that a so-called "'snuff' production company even exists". However, since the early 1970s, rumours have persisted that, in the darkest corners of the world, particularly in sophisticated paedophile rings, murders are routinely filmed and distributed for the most extreme and sadistic form of entertainment.
Mikkelson (2008) explains that this urban legend supposedly all started with hippie-era cult leader Charles Manson and allegations that the "Manson's Family" was responsible for various murders in 1969 that were not reported in the mainstream media, but that were filmed. On 9 August 1969, Sharon Tate and four others were butchered by members of Charles Manson's "family" and, the following night, a married couple in a neighbourhood far from that of the Tate residence was slaughtered in similar fashion by the same group. In June 1970, Manson and four of his followers were brought to trial and found guilty of the murders - they were sentenced to death. Their sentences were later converted to life incarceration when the death penalty was abolished in 1972. With the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977, their revised sentences were not affected, as re-sentencing them to the original penalty was deemed "cruel and unusual". Manson (who is now in his 80s) and his group of followers are still serving their life sentence.
Numerous books were written about Charles Manson's "family", their practices, and the murders in which they took part. In his 1971 book The family: The story of Charles Manson's dune buggy attack battalion, Ed Sanders relates that the family may have been involved in the making of "brutality films" (or, as he later terms them, "snuff films"). According to Mikkelson (2008), this was the first recorded use of the term.
"Snuff" - a theme for movies and online entertainment
The first fiction film that was widely acknowledged to exploit the use of the snuff motif is entitled Snuff and was released in 1976. Snuff was nothing more than a grand marketing scheme that made a shameless film into one of the most profitable - and notorious - films ever. Millions of theatregoers were snagged by the question "but what if it is real?" and it seemed that their morbid curiosity got the best of them, as many people who have heard of the film, but have never seen it, still insist that it does contain actual footage of human death and mutilation (Stine, 1999).
Charlie Sheen's movie Flower of flesh and blood, which was part of a series of films collectively known as Guinea pig, boasts special effects which were very cleverly executed. Flower of flesh and blood, in which a samurai character tortures and then dismembers a captive girl until she eventually perishes in front of the camera, was very controversial, but it wasn't real. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, "the FBI confiscated Sheen's tape and proceeded to investigate all involved, including Charles Balun, an early distributor of the film. Balun fiercely asserted that the film was a hoax and was merely a series of startling special effects. However, the Japanese took time to release Guinea pig Two: The making of Guinea pig One, revealing the technical sleight of hand in all its bone-cracking glory. After viewing this film, the FBI backed off and dropped the investigation" (Mikkelson, 2008).