La mort en direct. Les snuff movies [Death "Live." Snuff Movies].
It is well-known that the proliferation of imitations, parodies, and hoaxes makes it problematic to decide on the reality of many phenomena in the realm of anomalies, as well as that of contemporary legend. The term "ostension," created by Umberto Eco and first used by Degh and Vazsonyi ("Does the Word 'Dog' Bite? Ostensive Action as a Means of Legend-Telling," Journal of Folklore Research 20, 1983:5-34), seems appropriate to summarize these copying and reproductive appropriations. The concept of "memes" also comes to mind, suggested by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). My approach to the theme will be oblique, my examples successively touching on the frivolous and then focusing on the unpalatable: first Lovecraft's Necronomicon and then "snuff movies."
The Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft's best-known fictional manuscript, started to exist in the 1960s as a fictitious library catalog reference (located at Miskatonic University), then developed when hoax editions began appearing in the 1970s. Soon video games and web pages complicated and expanded the picture. Thus in July 2001, a wide "Necronomicon" web search (using Google) gave around 40,000 web pages, reduced to 9,000 with the exclusion of games, limitation to English, and recent (one-year) updating (see http://www.hplovecraft.com/creation/necron/). National libraries such as Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the Library of Congress, and the British Library each keep about four or five of these hoax books. Most of them are still on sale. Can the Necronomicon still be considered not to exist in 2001?
In 2001, French journalist Sarah Finger published La mort en direct. Les snuff movies [Death "Live." Snuff Movies]. This investigative book discusses the belief in snuff movies' existence that has been with us since the mid-1970s, when the first accusations put forward by anti-pornography crusaders appeared and generated unsuccessful investigations by the FBI. The existence of snuff movies is debated--and debunked--on most urban legend sites (for example, urbanlegends.com, urbanmyths.com, urbanlegendsabout.com, and totse.com/ en/conspiracy/institutional_analysis/ folklore.html--corresponding to the disappeared pioneer alt.folklore.urban). This "dark legend," which presents some analogies to the organ theft narratives that were widespread in the early 1990s (see, e.g., my article "Organ Theft Narratives" in Western Folklore 56, 1997:1-37), enjoys widespread belief among the general public, but finds little credence among professionals aware of the realities of the field, pornographers as well as police (cf. http://www.apb news.com/media/gfiles/snuff). As was the case for organ theft narratives, a motley bunch, mostly moral crusaders and feminists, defend the reality of snuff films' existence. An old acquaintance and staunch defender of the reality of organ thefts, Renee Bridel (of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, a human rights organization in Geneva) is the author of a December 1981 report entitled "La traite des enfants" [The Trade in Children] that presented one of the early fictional films, Hardcore, as evidence of the existence of snuff movies.
The belief builds upon several factors. One is the fascination with serial killers, the new ogres which attract abundant rumors of trophy films of victims. In rare cases, such films existed, as in the Leonard Lake and Charles Ng case, in which the films were shown to the California jury during Ng's 1999 trial, 14 years after Lake's arrest, but they were not marketed by their makers. Another factor is the shocked reactions which stress that horrendous evil accompanies the industry of pornography. Figures in the porn industry such as Larry Flint (Hustler) and Al Goldstein (Screw) openly express their skepticism as to the existence of snuff movies. Goldstein even offered $100,000 to anyone who could "come up with an American film showing a death that was made in America that was commercially distributed" (cf. http://www.apbnews.com/media/ gfiles/snuff). A third factor is the existence of an array of "death films" (cf. David Kerekes and David Slater: Killing for Culture. An Illustrated History of Death Films from Mondo to Snuff. London: Creation Books, 1995). These films include shock documentaries, imitations of snuff movies and mainstream fictions.
Shock documentaries appear in series, and the 1980s Faces of Death has followed in the line of the Italian pioneers Mondo (1960s) and Cannibal (1970s). The latest isolated ones quoted by Sarah Finger are Death Scenes, released in the US in 1989, and Executions, released in the UK in 1995. Their appeal is based on their supposed authenticity, though it is well known that they include a rather large proportion of made-up documents. Their number and persistence indicates they are marketable items with their own specialized audience.
Imitations of snuff movies are fairly rare, but present on the pornography market. The first one, Snuff, released in 1976, actively sought to create scandal by its aggressive marketing (see Scott Aaron Stine: "The Snuff Film. The Making of an Urban Legend," Skeptical Inquirer 23(3), May-June 1999:29-33). Its producer was very pleased when feminists of the National Organization of Women and Women Against Violence Against Women picketed the theaters showing the film. Its story is lengthily told in all documents on the subject (ibid., Finger 38-43). More complicated is the story of Guinea Pig, a Japanese series, one episode of which, Flower of Flesh and Blood, provoked FBI investigations. It was concluded that the tortures and dismemberment shown (of a young female held captive by a man clad in a samurai attire) did not correspond to real murders. The same conclusions were reached for Seppuku.
Snuff movies have also inspired numerous mainstream fictional movies and "It is safe to say that there are more films about snuff films than there are actual snuff films in existence" (Stine 33). It would be a futile exercise to describe them here; Killing for Culture and Finger (57-68) both already list them from 1978 Hardcore (Paul Schrader) to 1999 8mm (Joel Schumacher). Finger mentions a little known film, the Spanish 1996 Tesis, which presents the classic scenario (first seen in Candyman and developed in the Urban Legends series) of the folklore student who discovers facts that match the legend she is studying and becomes a victim. In Tesis she is kidnapped by a sadistic fellow student who tortures and kills in front of a camera. The videos are processed in the university's underground by an accomplice who is a university professor. Some of these films are rumored to be "based on fact" just as the 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre was said to refer to the Ed Gein case. This supposed authenticity was also the case for the (non-gore) 1999 Blair Witch Project, whose slick online marketing, launching the movie as the report of a true event, is now being imitated by all major movies.
Fictional books are also abundant, both in the mainstream (Brett Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero) and the roman noir genres (Gregory McDonald's Rafael). Their links with films are close; the two titles quoted have become films (Rafael inspired 1997 The Brave, starring Johnny Depp). These fictions alternate between two types of killers: psychopaths and profit-minded businessmen of the porn industry.
The really original part of Finger's book reviews the accusations regarding snuff movies that have surged in Europe since the shock created by the discovery of the multiple murders of Marc Dutroux in Belgium (161-177). These rumors only concern child victims. In the unfinished investigation into the Dutroux case unbalanced witnesses asserting the existence of snuff movies have long been heard by the authorities, but they are now totally discredited. Police investigations of these accusations have so far not found solid evidence of murders, but videos from Russia showing ill-treatment of children have been seized in Italy.
Reading about snuff movies is an unbalancing experience. There are so many closely imitative products that one ends up wondering whether they can still be said not to exist. In the review of all expressive forms close to the snuff movies, the most disturbing one is not discussed in Finger's book, but on a page maintained by British Matthew Hunt under the title Censorship: Bad Taste and Extreme Culture (http:/members. tripod.co.uk/mathunt/censored.html). In this extensive list of avant-garde art, the successive sections, "Literature," "Theatre," "Music," "Photography," "Cinema," "Art," and "Performance Art," are each more nauseating than the last. The performance art section alone catalogues on-stage or filmed acts of copulation, masturbation, fellatio, bestiality, vomiting, excretion, coprophagy, disembowellment, dismemberment, genital mutilation, self-trepanation, and plastic surgery. After reading this summary, even the non-censorship-oriented student of contemporary culture (and I count myself one) gets the feeling that the numerous "imitations" abundantly attest to the fact that snuff movies are already with us.
Will the snuff-movies legend turn into fact? The unending quest has perhaps generated a profit motive which was not there at the outset.
Snuff is a means by which the media can prick public morality. Despite no such film ever being found, in any place, anywhere, the media continues to indiscriminately nurture and promote the myth as fact. Perhaps in so doing--reiterating its potential monetary value and projecting potential markets--it will one day succeed in making snuff a true commercial reality (Kerekes and Slater, ibid.).
But also, probably more importantly, a general voyeuristic tendency will perhaps bring into existence the sci-fi short stories of the 1950s. The connection was suggested by Josh Tyrangiel in Time magazine (Eur. ed., July 23, 2001:64):
Snuff fans had to be cheered last week as the inexorable march of network television toward live-murder broadcasts took another step forward. Justin Sebik, 26, a contestant on the CBS reality snoozefest Big Brother 2, was tossed from the show after he really wielded a butcher knife, really held it to the throat of a fellow contestant he was kissing and really asked, "Would you be mad at me if I killed you?"
Maison des Sciences de l'Homme
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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