Impact of Media Violence on Reality: from Aggression to Snuff Films

by Mitch Walrath


The effects of media violence on reality, from simple aggression response to elaborate reenactments, have been studied for years. One thread that is usually common among many studies is the fact that they are controlled in some way. When subjects are prescreened for psychosis, biases, etc., this doesnít exactly mirror real life where anyone can see just about anything. Whatís to say they wonít somehow be affected and if so, how much?

Statement of Problem

A former film major myself, it can be correctly assumed that I donít advocate censorship. In fact, I believe people should be free to watch just about anything they want, which is pretty much the state of things today. Most movies have ratings, but those are rarely enforced; if a child wants to see an R-rated film badly enough, they are countless ways with video and cable and such. Even more importantly, what about mentally unstable people? People who canít tell the difference between right and wrong, paranoid-schizophrenics, obsessive-compulsives, ultra-conservatives. How far does it have to go? Should everyone be pre-screened before they see a film? How? Whatís to say these people, or anyone else like so-called "normal" people, wonít carry away a very dangerous idea from a violent film?

Iíve grown up all my life watching action, horror, suspense, all manner of violent films and Iíve never carried out any kind of dangerous act because of something Iíve seen. Others do, however; is it their fault or the filmís? I believe you should not look to entertainment for any kind of learning, whether it be ethics or facts because thatís exactly what it is: entertainment. Many people do believe movies should be responsible for what they show. If they were, would it change anything? People are ultimately responsible for their own actions. I, a responsible film viewer, utter many a movie quote, but what makes people cross the line between that and imitating say, the bank robbery from Point Break, which has been done at least twice? Where does that "normal" mind end and the "abnormal" mind begin? Is it abnormal? Can love of cinema violence be taken to such extremes as to make a snuff film? The difference between a theatrical film and a snuff film, obviously, is that someone is really killed in a snuff film. Unlike mondo, such as COPS and Worldís Scariest Police Chases, snuff isnít death caught on tape, but made expressly for the tape. There, at least, is the problem with the legality of it: itís evidence to a murder, which is a felony and has no statute of limitations. The other problem with snuff films is that they are also refered to as "the real thing." This connotes some obsession with violence so extreme that someone would want to see a real human being murdered. But is there a problem with these snuff films? Are they even real?

Literature Review

Research gathered stretches from 1971 to 1997 and barely a thing is said about snuff films; maybe many people donít deem it necessarily important or even real. Most studies concerned the collection of mainly college students, showing them some kind of movie or clip, monitoring their responses, and then asking them questions. Whereas this probably might be the most accurate way to assess the effect of media violence on viewers, it is hindered by being controlled. Many studies pre-screened subjects, which doesnít happen in the outside world. Second, the researchers are assuming that the answers they are given are honest. Also, since just about everything is biased, the studies themselves might not even be accurate.

Black and Bevan (1992) studied film violence by venturing out into local theaters and submitting a questionnaire with the Buss-Durkee aggression inventory before or after participants had viewed the film. The audience that watched the violent movie had higher aggression scores than that which watched the non-violent film, before and after viewing. People who watched the violent film displayed a large increase in aggression scores.

Mullin and Linz (1995) conducted an experiment by repeatedly showing sexually violent films to the participants and measuring their sensitivity to violence and sympathy for the victims. Repeated exposure and elapsed time (three days) produced less sympathy and perceived less severity of injuries by the experimental group than by the control group. However, five days after the final film exposure, the independent groupís sensitivity level had matched that of the comparison groupís. Unfortunately, physiological arousal was self-reported, but it was interesting to see that sensitivity to victims could be reestablished in observers, perhaps producing a more empathic society, albeit long after an incident. Could they have re-thought their answers or the images they saw?

Sinclair, Lee, and Johnson (1995) showed either erotic, violent sexual, or violent nonsexual films to men and measured reports of degradation to women. Perceptions of violence, pornography, and portrayals of women, as well as sexual arousal, were measured through self-reports and sometimes prompted by a male controller. Social comparison information was provided to the subjects, influencing feedback, and "while (they), in both social cue conditions (prompted and not prompted), perceived the erotic film as less violent than the other films, participants rated the erotic film as significantly more violent when they were provided with the social-cue" (833). Obviously, answers are swayed by release of factual or opinionated information.

In a study by Hall and Hirschman (1994), male subjects were shown neutral, sexual-violent (rape), and violent-sexual (assault) film clips and instructed to show a vignette to a female confederate who did not like pornography. On a Coercive Sexuality Scale, 24% of highly sexually aggressive men showed the sexual-violent clip and 28% showed the violent-sexual clip. None classified as not sexually aggressive showed the sexual-violent clip and one showed the violent-sexual. Participants who chose to show the sexually aggressive clips reported discomfort and strain on the female confederate.

Zillmann and Weaver (1997) tested the preference of violence to resolve a conflict in their study. Before the experiment, male and female candidates were classified as either high or low in psychoticism using the Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, which asks questions pertaining to attitude and personality. They were then shown films with no violence, light violence, gratuitous violence, or horror. Afterward, they were asked questions pertaining to the acceptance of violence in resolving a conflict. Females, whether low or high in psychoticism, and males low in it, showed no effect, whereas "males (high in psychoticism) thought violent and recklessly violent solutions more appropriate" (622). What might have swayed respondentsí perceptions is the running time: they were shown over seven hours of films. Studies have shown that after a long time, men begin to lose interest in a pornographic film (perhaps shadowing the duration of interest in actual sex); violent films may produce the same disinterest after many hours and hence muddy the perceptions. Viewers may not necessarily want to view more, but stronger material to hold their attention.

Hoffner (1997) was interested in childrenís coping style with scary material, so she showed fourth and fifth graders a movie containing a disturbing scene of a tornado with a positive outcome. Prior to this, some children heard a tape that described the resolution and some did not. Children either avoided the perceived threat (blunters) or assessed them in relation to their environment (monitors). Blunters were expectantly afraid and worried without knowledge of ending, monitors were not. Does this coping style stay with a person into adult life and is one more prone to reenact violent material than another? The article did not discuss these questions, but it did say that effects of such films included anxiety, sleep loss, and nightmares.

A previous study on the implications of degrading images of women, by Linz, Donnerstein, and Penrod, was done in 1988. In it, male participants were shown two or five slasher, pornographic, or teen sex films. The men then viewed a reenactment of a sexual assault trial and asked to judge the defendant and victim. Men shown the slasher film had less sympathy for the rape victim, but "longer film exposure was necessary to affect the general empathic response" (766). Among the pornographic and teen sex pictures, "films once found degrading to women were judged to be less so after prolonged exposure," (765). Unlike the later study by Sinclair, et al., resensitization of subjects was not measured. Sympathy inducement through longer exposure might be a variation of the antiquated belief that media violence was cathartic.

The study by Sinclair, et al. is also similar to one done previously by Dunand, Berkowitz, and Leyens in 1984. Male subjects watched a violent or non-violent movie either alone, with an active controller, or a passive one. As with the later study, subjects prompted by the active confederate displayed more aggressive behavior than those accompanied by the passive. It stresses the importance of the condition in which violent films are watched, whether alone, with a loud or quiet audience, suggesting that aggressive behavior might be almost a "pack" trait or herd mentality. It also suggests that people are swayed by whatís acceptable; if staying quiet (perhaps bottling their aggression) is the norm, more often than not, people will do it and if excitement is supported, people go with that. This can be said for almost any genre, although; for instance people usually laugh more at comedies when with others than when alone.

Gustafson, Hemlin, and Soderberg (1987) conducted a test on forty college-age students in which they were prescored for aggression. Then the dependent group was shown a non-violent film and the independent group a violent one. As part of role theory, the researchers guessed that men would be more aggressive on a TAT picture test given after the film, in which they had to write stories to explain what had happened in the images. Conversely, they found that "no sex differences on a self-inventory type of test portraying the personís more conscious ego perception and more female aggression on a projective test tapping the more subconscious levels of the personality" (725). The researchersí hypothesis was proven wrong as men did not seem drawn to violence. It should be mentioned, however, that the study took place in Sweden, a country known for having far less violence than America.

Arnetz, Edgren, Levi, and Otto (1985) studied psychoendocrine and behavioral effects of violent movies on three groups of twelve-year-old boys. Having all been tested for neuroses on the Sennton scale (testing nervousness, anxiety, and aggression), group A scored under the median value, group B scored above it, and group C consisted of boys who had received psychiatric care. The boys rated themselves after viewing the film, were watched by psychologists, and tested for urinary output of certain chemicals. Groups A and C were largely inactive and unaffected, and B had the strongest viewing experience. Group B was more open and active because the boys knew each other, whereas the boys in C were alone in their expressions because they were all strangers. Blending characteristics of many of the above studies, this one says that not just like-minded individuals in an audience, but familiar ones, will be more likely to openly express themselves. They have the security on the outside from others at an impressionable age, as opposed to others who have to bottle it up. Accurate results were further helped by evaluations from both subjects and observers.

Comstock (1986) reports that children may respond in aggressive and sexually aggressive ways to media violence. He discounts the theory of catharsis and instead lists sixteen factors that induce aggressive responses to violent images, including justified aggression and reward of violence. Some of his arguments, also, can be discounted. For instance, "the extreme behavior is not relieved by humor" (101). If a violent act were relieved by humor, that would probably lighten the seriousness of it for the viewer -- "if itís funny, itís okay," a child might think. On the other hand, the lightness of tone might prove to be the instigator: the child sees laughter as the only reaction to an anvil being dropped on someoneís head.

Lande (1993) looks at media violence from the public, scientific, and legal debates and responses. He asserts that "a small group of vulnerable viewers are probably more impressionable and therefore more likely to suffer deleterious effects from violent programming" (347). He also brings into account the part that other media such as music, books, and computer games might play. Lande says that parents, as well as their children, are easily susceptible to reproducing violent acts; these "weak minds" might be passed on from generation to generation -- if parents canít distinguish between media and reality, chances are that their kids wonít either. He offers the long over-looked idea that real-life violence such as car crashes, natural disasters, or combat might be even more effective than a video of such. Also brought into play is the less popular justification theory that violent people like violent movies in order to justify their own actions.

In response to this is Finkís (1993) letter claiming that Lande failed to raise certain crucial issues. Whereas Lande claimed that TV didnít seem to influence people too heavily, Fink says that, "heavy television watchers have a different view of their own safety and different expectations of violence compared with those who view television less frequently" (892). Television has become a member of the family and replaced a parentís more concerned ethics with itís own mixed messages. Branching off this, he accuses the nightly news of being so sensationalistic that it blurs the line between reporting and entertaining. Are violent incidents in real life copied off real life as opposed to Hollywood? This would seem to be the case with incidents such as school massacres.

Glucksmann (1971) examines many perspectives, opinions, studies, etc. in his book and in conclusion, says that there is no definite answer because there is no definitive effect. He states that there could be either a positive, negative, or neutral reaction to media violence; the effects could range from cathartically reduced aggression to a reenactment of a violent image due to mimesis. He inquires about the nature of the effect, asking if it has a specific one and says that it "might be ĎNoí if one lays the most emphasis on the Ďdisplacementí effect, or ĎYesí if one believes in the existence of a Ďscreen effectíproduced by the Ďhypnoticí power of the image" (59). Each of these could have a positive, negative, or neutral response in the viewer. The hypnotic power that he mentions might also double as staying power in a childís mind, possibly disturbing him or her for years into adulthood and causing detrimental reactions.

Wilson and Hunter (1983) state cases of movie-inspired violence and try to sketch out a distinct connection between film and real violence. They begin with the story of a young man who killed his elderly female neighbor because he "could not distinguish illusion from reality... because he was Ďinvoluntarily intoxicated by televisioní" (435). They have a sort of twelve-step program, in three steps, that involves identification of said violent incidents; reenactments identified include the John Hinckley/Taxi Driver incident. Step 2 asks why people emulate violence on the screen.

The hypothesis holds that an individual embraces certain strategies which permit his beliefs to persist, even when these beliefs are in error and encounter strong opposition. If a person searches for confirmation of his rationale, invents flimsy explanations to maintain the plausibility of his beliefs, and behaves in a fashion to fulfill his expectancies -- these strategies and the individualís emotional commitment will make it difficult to dissuade the believer from his course (439).

This might be due to many reasons such as drugs, alcohol, etc. Step 3 concerns the formation of violent images into violent actions. The viewer usually sides with a violent action or person onscreen because he/she believes that person or incident represents a valid solution. Whether or not this three-step process holds true for all media-inspired violent incidents is uncertain -- there are always exceptions to every rule.


If ever-increasing addiction to film violence leads to snuff film making and watching, then this quasi-phenomenon could best be explained by anomie theory. If society has gotten stricter, in a sense, when it comes to violence in the media, individuals must find a way around that.

The amount of PG-13-rated movies is increasing. There isnít the kind of rampant and extreme violence in movies today that there was in the eighties. Watchdog groups are cracking down on what gets aired on TV. Even mondo programs (death caught on tape) such as Worldís Scariest Police Chases are being removed due to changes in police departments trying not to promote chasing because of the resultant accidents and lawsuits. If society is not breaking down, then the individual must. But is this a breakdown? And if enough people take part in it, wouldnít it be a societal breakdown? Not if snuff films are made and watched by individual deviants. Thereís a difference between viewing these and violent movies or pornography. On the whole, snuff is seen as sick. Also, itís illegal. If people get together and make them, credits usually do not appear on them - so no names are known. If people get together and view them, itís usually part of some underground film club or members of an adult video store -- not exactly the American Society of Film Critics.

If people want to increase their intake of violent media, and distributors are toning down the violence, they must resort to other measures. Snuff is a sort of porno-violence -- getting off on violence; this, coupled with the female nudity and degradation of women, often times rape, is almost pornography, as well. Quite often, they are genuine pornography. If people want to make movies, for that matter, and canít in any way make a feature film, they might resort to something like this. Itís their own little piece of the world, since they canít quite reach societyís standards. This puts a strain on them and they adapt to it with innovation. Sometimes a snuff film may get out and circulate, making a name for itself in small circles, gaining fans in underground video stores, or even cause a stir in the public by being seized and winding up in the newspaper.

Their production or viewing may be due to the application of negative stimuli. The strain of too many broken hearts may lead to a misogynistic view of women, causing one to not regard their deaths as important, heinous acts, but as entertainment. Plus, the rarity of seeing one might excite just an avid film buff, not only pornographers.


Media violence influences aggression and crime as opposed to art imitating life. Obviously both are true. A great many films have been made in response to real-life events to support the latter half of the question. A review of the above studies supports the theory that media violence does have a negative, influential effect on people. But these were all experiments with some kind of control factor. Life usually doesnít have a control factor. The closest any of these experiments came to replicating life was Blackís and Bevanís questionnaires for people whoíd just exited a violent movie. Even with that, did they ask appropriate questions to determine if someone was really aggressive and if so, was it necessarily because of the movie theyíd just seen?

Media violence leads to greater demand of it in terms of extremities and volume, hence snuff films. In terms of these studies, perhaps only the studies by Hall and Hirschman, and Zillmann and Weaver could best answer that. Hallís and Hirschmanís study showed that a larger percentage preferred to show the violent-sexual vignette over the sexual-violent one. Zillmannís and Weaverís experiment, although it tested the preferrence of violent over non-violent means to an end in reality, could only be assumed that it would support the theory that these same individuals who responded with outrageous solutions to bank robberies and the like on a questionnaire would want to see more of the same in films.

Violent movies and snuff lead to decreased appreciation of women and life in general. All the experiments studying the perceived degradation answered yes, increased viewing of pornographic or equally sexually violent material lead to a decreased sympathy for the victim in both the films and real-life instances. Arnetzís, et al. study of young boys deduced that a viewing of violent material with neuroses and no feedback produced pent up feelings of frustration. This might build and lead to a decrease in quality of life. Wilsonís and Hunterís evaluation of movie-inspired violent events surmises that there is most likely already something seriously wrong with the viewer if he/she upholds violent or dangerous solutions as ideals. Whether or not these feelings were instigated by the films themselves was not as popular as the theory that they are at least nourished by violent imagery.

There are differences between different groups (men, women, children, adults) watching violent material and effects carry over. Men usually scored higher on aggression scales than women and were less offended by pornographic material than women. Children, usually only with social support, scored high on aggression; otherwise, they usually kept to themselves due to insecurity and worry. Obviously, in studies with children, effects could not be measured into adulthood since the experiments did not encompass that much time. In studies with adults and repeated viewings of violent or pornographic material, however, sympathy for victims was reduced and only after excess viewings was it regained.


A short, skinny girl with duct tape covering her eyes is lead into a bare room by a large man with a ski mask. I can only assume that the girl is too thin due to drugs, for that is the nature of this material. She walks stiffly, not really reaching for anything in front of her, but just letting herself be dragged along by this anonymous controller.

He holds her by the left arm with his right hand; in the left, he carries a toolbox. He leads her over to a wood-panelled wall and leans her against it. She can barely stand, so he rips off a large piece of duct tape and places it over her neck, securing her head to a position on the wall. Handcuffs dangle from iron posts jutting out from the wall and each wrist is bound to a cuff. Evidently, this is enough to hold the sickly girlís body up; I am sure by now that she is underage. He bends down, opens the toolbox, and removes a nailgun. He caresses her pale cheek with the glistening metal, sliding it down her throat and over her flat chest, which is covered only by a bra.

The man grabs her wrist and places the nailgun directly over her right palm. I wonder if she knows what is going to happen. It cuts to a close-up of the nail being driven into the soft, white flesh of her hand. It cuts back to the long shot and I can see her mouth open for a brief moment, then close. She is probably too doped up to feel much and by the end, will have endured too much suffering with the drugs keeping her alive. I canít hear anything; I donít know if it was shot without sound or if it has just faded due to duplication, but oddly enough, it is more disturbing without sound, hearing her cries go unanswered. Since this is an nth generation tape, the picture is equally bad.

The man does the same to her other hand, in close-up, and she slumps. He spreads her legs and, retrieving what appears to be a scalpel from the box, starts at her upper inner right thigh. In medium shot, a thin line of blood appears on her leg as he runs it down to her knee, always keeping the knife and his hand facing away from the camera. Back to the nailgun. Long shot. He appears to ram a nail in the side of her kneecap as blood and viscous fluid spurts out. A close up insert shot shows the bloody mess that was her knee... It goes on like this for about ten more minutes (the average running time) to the point where he nails her eyes through the tape and slits her throat, with the scalpel, also through the tape.

The hands? Clever puppetry since they were shot in close up. The blood? A tiny pump on the opposite side of the scalpel squeezes fake blood onto her leg as the torturer runs a blunted blade down her flesh, barely touching it. I donít know if I believe it, but thatís one side Iíve been told. Itís highly possible since the Japanese have put out other snuff films, both real and fake -- real because there is a high market for such fetishes over there, fake because they love demonstrating their technological know-how through superior special effects. The Japanese origin might also be deduced from the fact that you never see their faces and there is no nudity, which is a sacred cow in that country (Kerekes & Slater, 231). Something the Japanese and even American underground film industries are involved in is production of fake snuff films: these are short films sometimes tailored specifically for one individualís desires in which an actress is seemingly killed during or after a sex act. The women, stars in their own right, are obviously not dead since they pop up in other fake snuff films. This might have some connection to a story that millionaire and pornographer Roy Radin paid David Berkowitz to make him a snuff film. The victim is supposed to have been Stacy Moskowitz, but no such film has ever been uncovered.

I got this copy of Felonious Mentalities through a friend of a friend, the only way it and other such oddities like Guinea Pig and Man Behind the Sun are ever acquired. I find it somewhat hard to even read descriptions about some of these films, let alone see one, but curiosity got the best of me, so I had to track down at least one purported snuff film. In Killing for Culture, authors David Kerekes and David Slater prove that some movies, like Guinea Pig, are fake -- some, but not all. With this information, itís hard to determine whether or not some snuff is real. Sometimes, there are dead giveaways like bad tape quality and oddly placed cutaways and edits or things within the frame like tree branches. But maybe this is used to cover up the real thing. Felonious Mentalities also has no credits, which would be the mark of a legitimate snuff film, but then again, neither does Guinea Pig, which was thought to be real even by the FBI until a Making of Guinea Pig was released. Many of these films exhibit similarities: a bare room, somewhat cold in nature, one or two men, a naked woman being raped and then murdered, sometimes tortured; no sound, no credits, short running time.

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been hot on the trail of snuff films for years with strange tips and stories in newspapers. "But no one (in law enforcement) has ever gone on record as officially having seen one. This may be because itís part of a top secret government sting operation that they donít want everyone to know about" (Armstrong 3). Or, just like everyone else, theyíve never really seen one thatís definitely real.

Theyíve been around for years, though, dating back to the sixties when the Manson family supposedly shot home movies of their killings. The term itself was probably born with producer Allen Shackletonís Snuff! in 1976 when he took Roberta and Michael Findlayís 1970 The Slaughter and tacked on ten minutes of realistic footage of an actress getting killed on the set (Kerekes & Slater 8). After that, there is voiceover of a supposed editor asking, "Did you get it all?" He is answered with, "Yeah, we got it. Letís get out of here." There are no credits. From there, the rumors of its reality only multiplied as the crafty Shackleton promoted it with the tagline of "filmed in South America where life is CHEAP!" He also created the feminist position against snuff films by paying women to picket the picture; this is echoed today by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, where in Only Words, MacKinnon professes the existence of snuff films and calls it the ultimate degradation to women. In a later interview, she admitted to never having seen one, but accuses the FBI of lying when they claim that snuff films donít exist (Armstrong 4).

Hollywood only perpetuates the myth with films like 52 Pick-Up and Hardcore where they depict women being forced into such unfortunate situations. Paul Schrader, director of Hardcore, discredits their existence even though he lensed the story of it for the big screen. "I think itís conceivable these films exist, but whether they do or not is less important than the publicís belief that they do" (Urban Legends Archive 4). The media has come full-swing in its reporting -- from irresponsibly gathered snipits in the paper or on tabloid TV shows to investigative journalism. Rider McDowell spent six months in 1994 trying to churn something up for The San Francisco Chronicle by interviewing police, FBI, underground film clubs, porn shops, and replying in sex trade magazines, but found nothing (Armstrong 3). There is a book out, however, entitled Gods of Death in which Israeli journalist and author Yaron Svoray trots the globe in search of evidence of a snuff film empire. It has been criticised by many, though, for lacking in honesty and resolution as Svoray finds a tape but gets it confiscated and disguises too many names in his reporting.

There have been endless reports, mostly fraudulent, of other killers having taken home movies of their escapades, but alas, no upturned stone has ever produced a snuff film. Often dismissed as urban legends, the hot tip dissipates into thin air just as quickly as it started. This is a valid excuse, as the media is prone to printing many a story that turns out to be legend. It then becomes a vicious cycle as they later denounce it as such; upon popping up in the media again, itís still news and someone else reports it as being real. Obviously, they wouldnít be as widely circulated as a major Hollywood picture, but itís highly possible that in the history of murder, movie cameras, and especially video cameras, somebody (whether mobster or serial killer) recorded their deed. And with criminals being criminals, itís also highly likely that one got circulated. I have seen slim catalogs printed in someoneís basement selling many lurid sex-and-death tapes, so it is highly likely one would end up in a forum such as this, away from the mainstream. The existence, though, of some huge underground snuff film empire is pretty much a red herring, say law enforcement officials. But if there is even one movie floating around out there where someone is killed and itís made to look fake or not, then someone has gotten away with murder.


From studies performed for years on subjects, researchers believe, on the whole, that violence at least causes aggression in viewers, if not plants the seed for a sprouting crime. Itís true that there have been many crimes committed by individuals copied from media events. Should media violence be responsible for what happens in reality? That, ultimately, is a silly idea.

Morally speaking, what might be wrong with it all? Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and other dictators filmed the deaths of many people. Probably viewed by Hitler as proof of work being done more than anything else then, Nazi war footage can be viewed as educational today, a documentary, if you will. In relation to its cousin, mondo, they both manipulate their subjects, which is another characteristic of documentaries. Some people argue that death on video is too low, dehumanizing, yet itís topical information when itís shown on the news. In The Truman Show, a studio executive demands that Truman not be killed on live TV. To this, the Creator answers, "Why not? He was born on live TV!"

If aggression can be increased in people because of film violence, can it lead to such extremes as wanting to see "the real thing," having not been satiated by fake, albeit realistic, violence? If depictions of women as mindless sex slaves in pornography reduce menís sympathy for them as victims and appreciation for them as humans, can it lead to their demise as cannon fodder on film, the ultimate degradation? If snuff films arenít real, we might never know the limits of the human mind. Even if they are real, we might never know.


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