Some possible definitions include a number of acts (killing of animals, faked deaths, suicides and murders) which are filmed and only later distributed. In most cases the only motive to risk any exposure of the filmmakers' involvement is commercial. Some definitions state that snuff films must be pornographic in nature.
However, the most common definition of a snuff film is of a motion picture showing the actual murder of a human being that is produced, perpetrated, and distributed solely for the purpose of profit. This definition thereby excludes recordings of murders caught by accident, and videotapes of actual murders that were never intended for release, such as the "trophies" of killers such as Leonard Lake.
Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine, has offered for many years one million dollars to anyone who presents evidence of an actual snuff film that is commercially released. As of 2008, he has received no claims to this offer.
The first recorded use of the term is in a 1971 book by Ed Sanders, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, in which it is alleged that The Manson Family might have been involved in the making of such a film (although no film has ever been found).
The metaphorical use of the term snuff to denote killing is derived from a verb for the extinguishing of a candle flame, and can be traced to several decades before Sanders's book; for example, in Edgar Rice Burroughs's fifth Tarzan book Tarzan and The Jewels of Opar (1916). "Snuffed it", meaning dead, was used repeatedly in the novel A Clockwork Orange (1962).
The Michael Powell film Peeping Tom (1960) featured a killer who filmed his victims, but the concept of a "snuff movie" became more widely known in 1976 in the context of the film Snuff. Originally a horror film designed to cash in on the hysteria of the Manson family murders, the film's distributor tacked on a new ending that depicted an actress killed on a movie set. Promotion of Snuff created the illusion that an actual murder had been captured on film, with the producer writing angry letters of complaint to the New York Times and hiring phony protestors to picket screenings.
In the wake of Snuff, many movies explored similar themes, including the Paul Schrader film Hardcore (1979), the Ruggero Deodato film Cannibal Holocaust (1980), David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Running Man (1987), the Nine Inch Nails film "The Broken Movie" (1993) the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), the Alejandro Amenabar film Tesis (1996), the film Strange Days (1995), the Anthony Waller film Mute Witness (1994), the Joel Schumacher film 8mm (1999) and was featured in the John Ottman film, Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), Fred Vogel's film August Underground (2001) and its sequels.
Online internet snuff movies came into play in such movies like the Marc Evans film My Little Eye (2002), the Showtime series Dexter and the Rick Rosenthal film Halloween: Resurrection. Most recently the subject has been addressed in British film director Bernard Rose's film Snuff-Movie (2005), the Nimród Antal film Vacancy (2007) and also in the WWE film The Condemned (2007) and the Gregory Hoblit film Untraceable.
In 1997, the Germans Ernst Dieter Korzen and Stefan Michael Mahn kidnapped a prostitute and recorded her torture, with the purpose of selling a snuff movie. The woman died before the movie could be completed, and they kidnapped another prostitute, who was able to flee and alert authorities. The two men were sentenced to life imprisonment. Prosecutors involved in the case claimed there is an international market for such videos.
There is undoubtedly a widespread market for genuine footage of murderous violence, whatever the context: as early as the 1940s, Weegee found fame for his photographs of victims of street crime in New York City. In later decades, the American public was fascinated by the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the Zapruder film has since been featured in Oliver Stone film JFK, among other fictional works. Similarly, Professione: reporter, a film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, contains a sequence that depicts an actual execution by firing squad. Earlier still, in 1901 the Edison company released a film of a re-enactment of the execution of Leon Czolgosz, assassin of U.S. President William McKinley.
The Faces of Death film series found popularity in the 1980s on videocassette, and even on broadcast television, shows like World's Wildest Police Videos have been successful (though for broadcast television, more gruesome footage is usually censored).
In the Internet age, it is possible to download videos depicting actual murders or deaths (e.g. the filmed deaths of Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg, Saddam Hussein, Paul Johnson, Kim Sun-il, Eugene Armstrong, Jack Hensley, Kenneth Bigley and a Russian sergeant, the shooting of Yitzhak Rabin and the gun suicides of Ricardo Cerna, and Budd Dwyer).
Shortly after the declaration of Chechen independence in 1991 and culminating during the Chechen-Russian Wars, snuff video market emerged openly in the then-lawless Chechen Republic. Videos depicting murders, torture, rape and dismemberment of Russian POWs, and captives from Russia, foreign countries and neighboring republics were freely circulated in Chechnya and, in several instances, aired on Russian State Television in the edited version. A fair number of these are still available on peer-to-peer networks, including recent video of the brutal beating and murder of Russian police squad by Chechen militia and civilians, and the execution of a Russian dweller, seized in the streets of the old Chechen capital Gudermes by a group of armed men.
Recently videos depicting suicide bombings and attacks on U.S. military in Iraq have been posted on video sharing website YouTube by extremist groups, which has become an increasingly difficult problem for the U.S. as replacement videos can be uploaded just as quickly as they are taken down.
Perhaps the most famous instance of an alleged recorded death is the scene in The Crow in which lead Brandon Lee was accidentally shot. Urban legend claims that the footage of his fatal wounding was included in the final cut of the film. However, after police review, that portion of film was actually destroyed, and the scene was re-created with a body double.
However, it is not clear that the fascination engendered by these records would extend to filmed murders carried out expressly for the purpose of filming a murder (actual snuff films). Since it is trivially easy today to produce a film that simulates a murder in a completely believable way, there is little commercial incentive to risk the legal repercussions of producing a film in which a murder is actually committed (much less documented on film).
In August 2007 a video was originally posted on the Russian version of LiveJournal by a user named "anti-Gypsy", which subsequently appeared on many Russian-language neo-Nazi internet sites. The video is titled “The Execution of a Tajik and a Dagestani". Reportedly a video of Russian neo-Nazis executing two men, one from Dagestan and one from Tajikistan. A spokesman for the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office said the murder footage was genuine
The most infamous Guinea Pig film is probably Flower of Flesh and Blood, in which a woman is drugged, then chained to a bed as a man in a samurai costume slowly kills her through torture and dismemberment. After viewing a portion of this film, actor Charlie Sheen was convinced the murder depicted was genuine and contacted the MPAA, who then contacted the FBI. FBI agent Dan Codling informed them that the FBI and the Japanese authorities were already investigating the film makers, who were forced to prove that the murders were indeed fake.
While the actual Guinea Pig movies are not snuff films themselves, two of them purport to be based on real snuff films. The Devil's Experiment was supposedly based on a film sent to the Tokyo police in which a small group of people dismember a young woman in an attempt to see how much damage the body can take. Flower of Flesh and Blood was supposedly made after manga artist, Hideshi Hino, received a letter, 54 stills, and an 8 mm film through the mail. The letter described what was on the film. He watched it and shortly after turned it over to the Tokyo police, who could not identify either the girl or the murderer.
The Boston Herald newspaper published an article on the subject of such murder films being shown in the Boston area, while articles on the Channel 1 computer bulletin board news groups alluded to such films and claimed they were made in New York City.
In 2000 an Italian police operation broke up a gang of child pornographers based in Russia who, it was claimed, were also offering snuff films for sale to their clients in Italy, Germany, The U.S. and U.K. It is unclear whether anything other than child pornography films were ever seized.
Snuff films have occasionally inspired fictional works (such as Michael Powell's 1960 film Peeping Tom). As noted above, there was a wave of such films in the mid-to-late 1970s, and the mid-to-late 1990s saw another cycle of snuff film-inspired motion pictures. The Great American Snuff Film tries to take the viewer inside the mind of a killer who seeks revenge for his abusive foster home upbringing, by kidnapping two girls to make a snuff film. Mute Witness (1994) depicts the eponymous heroine's discovery of a snuff film in progress. Strange Days (1995) revolves around several snuff films involving murders of prostitutes and high-profile African American civil rights heroes. The Spanish horror movie Tesis (1996) revolves around a student discovering a library of snuff films hidden in a room beneath her college. 8mm (1999) is a similar movie about a private investigator hired by a widow to determine if the film her husband kept hidden in a safe is a real snuff film. Hardcore (1979) showed George C. Scott watching a snuff film to find his runaway daughter. My Little Eye, a 2002 Marc Evans horror film depicts the story of several teenagers in a Big Brother style house who end up being part of an elaborate live snuff movie. Similar to this is Halloween: Resurrection which features several deaths occurring on web cameras. FeardotCom and most recently Untraceable revolve around victims who are slowly tortured to death live on the internet. The Brave (1997) tells the story of a man who agrees to be in a snuff film in return for $50,000 to help his poverty-stricken family. Polish movie Billboard (1998) is a story of an ad agency worker who discovers a snuff tape apparently recorded on the set where he works. Most recently, the film Vacancy concerns a couple who discover a motel room is the site of a series of snuff movies. A more post-modern take on illusion, reality and sexploitation in this genre is taken in British film director Bernard Rose's 2005 film Snuff-Movie.
The premise of snuff films was also used as a theme in the Rockstar North video game Manhunt, which revolved around a convict named James Earl Cash, whose death is staged on live television at the order of a mysterious director in order for him to star in a series of cat and mouse-style snuff films.