A look at the urban legend of “snuff films” which allegedly captured real murders on tape and were sold for profit.
“Will you, won’t you want me to make you / I’m coming down fast but don’t let me break you / Tell me tell me tell me the answer / You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer / Look out helter skelter helter skelter / Helter skelter ooh” – from “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles.
In 1969, Charles Manson directed his Manson Family to commit a series of gruesome murders that would both send them to prison and earn them an infamous and enduring place in popular culture. The scale of the conspiracy and bizarre details surrounding those killings led to equally strange rumors and allegations, including the suggestion that the Manson Family was involved in a project to record the murders they committed on film to sell for profit. This concept of creating commercial films of real homicides was introduced by author Ed Sanders in his 1971 book entitled The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. The type of film described above was coined a “snuff film,” as in to snuff out a candle, “snuff” being a common slang verb used for centuries. The term “snuff film” has also been used in the broader sense as a violent movie sold only on the black market; however, the more common understanding involves capturing true homicides on film.
If Manson Family members were attempting to create a snuff film, there is no conclusive evidence to support that allegation. And while murders and executions have been recorded on film, there is no known film of a real homicide which was created to sell commercially for profit. Just because it has not happened in real life does not mean writers have not elaborated on this scenario in literature and film. The horror movie Snuff (1976) was a low budget movie (2.7 out of 10 stars on IMDB.com) modeled after the murders committed by the Manson Family. Snuff even included a staged, behind-the-scenes murder of a crew member that was ultimately investigated as a murder by the New York district attorney until the woman murdered on film was located alive and well.
In addition to Snuff, other movies have periodically attempted to fool audiences into believing the crimes being committed were real. The movies Vacancy (2007) and The Cohasset Snuff Film (2012) are two recent examples. Movies such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) achieved critical and box office success due to their ability to suspend an audience’s belief that what they were watching was just acting.
The suggestion that someone would record a murder for profit adds to the idea of a thoroughly evil, twisted antagonist which makes a horror movie so successful. So in this regard, the thought that snuff films could exist titillates the senses the same as other urban legends, inviting the fear and thrill which comes with imagining possibilities just barely too far-fetched to be true.
The idea of a “snuff film” originates from a 1971 book which alleges that the notorious Manson Family, a homicidal cult led by Charles Manson, attempted to capture one or more real murders on film which they then intended to sell for profit. These allegations have never been substantiated, and no real “snuff films” are known to have ever existed. This has not stopped creative writers from using the scenario in literature and film.