Tag Archives: Snuff Film

What the Bowling Green Massacre Means

Interior shot of Graceland. Elvis used to shoot out TVs with a handgun in the basement.


The ubiquity of snuff films in the United States since 9-11 was symptomatic of a crisis of cultural capital. For 50+ years television had an unquestioned hegemony over the US media landscape. (It’s also interesting that these 50 years roughly overlap with the United States’ hegemony in world politics.) Television was a revolutionary and traumatic force that completely shifted how Americans became Americans. The sense of community that had before been engendered through shared architectural spaces-the church, the school, the cafe, the bar-was now engendered through the medium of the televised spectacle. Every time I’ve ever heard someone tell me the story of where they were when JFK was shot, the first part of the story always details their shock and the second part always details how soon they got to a television to be able to experience it with everyone else in America. Trauma creates an incredible sense of bonding and for an increasingly socially isolated population their sense of belonging to anything larger came to be mediated through the shared relationship to the television.

This sense of togetherness was an incredible high that America never was able to recapture, though it tried desperately over and over, with diminishing results. Everything on TV that could do so with any chance of not looking ludicrous for trying presented itself as “event television.” The moment in fictional cinema when the crisis occurs went from the Vorkapich style montage of spinning newspapers to the rapid cut montage of TV news anchors saying the same thing in different accents and languages. Every retrospective documentary about professional sports I’ve ever seen has a scene where someone, frequently an academic commentator, says something like “You had to be there-it was all that was on TV.” Our greatest nation-specific festival, the Super Bowl, is as much a celebration of what we can feel when we all decide to watch the same television program at the same time as it is anything to do with football. The TV inserted itself into the bars and schools and I remember getting to college and all the kids from different parts of the country realizing in certain aspects they had shared a childhood; the TV was something between a communal text and a pet that happened to be in all our living rooms at the same time.

If the JFK assassination was the first event cementing American identity in tuning in at the same time to the same thing and then remembering that rush over and over, it was also a plateau. Awful things from the Oklahoma City bombing to Columbine happened, and while everyone still flocked to their TVs and followed the details and commentary vigorously, no strangers are cornering you in a coffee shop (as several have done to me regarding JFK) to tell you where they were when either happened. That is, until 9-11.

My story of where I was when I found out about 9-11 is pretty much the JFK narrative. Our band teacher told us vaguely something bad had happened during the last period of the day, I took the bus home, and then everyone I knew from my parents to the couple that owned the deli down the street were glued to their TV sets for what seemed like and may have actually been several weeks, watching the towers fall again and again and again…

9-11 and JFK were bookends marking the opening and closing of the US as a TV society. In 2001, the thing that would swallow TV was making its way in the world. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

Experiencing traumatic events through the medium of the internet isn’t unifying or edifying the way that experiencing them through TV is. The US-as-TV-society looked to the news for regularly replenished mythology, not information. This isn’t an irrational response-there is an inverse correlation between the importance of an event usually reported on national television and the event’s direct relevance to the immediate experience of the viewer. It’s considered a strange and novel thing to have shown up on TV and anyone who shows up on the TV frequently begins to take on the aura of the mythic. The TV encourages this.


The internet is too fragmented and dispersed to sustain any narrative that there is a monoculure. Tragedies can’t be nurtured into seeming significant as individual events anymore; a single spree shooting can’t take on the cultural space a Columbine did when there’s another shooting that’s reported on every day or two. Terrorism can’t sustain its narrative coherence when it becomes plainly obvious that most terrorism that happens in the US is the result of domestic white supremacists. The “us vs. them” narrative that seemed on its last sputtering legs when the best argument its proponents could muster was “the war might be wrong but you have to support the troops” has morphed into a delusional need for social cohesion that can’t be sated. The political capital and the sentimental reassurance there was a single “them” to be worried about is now patently absurd.

Oddly enough, the internet initially seemed to be doing the opposite-incredible threads written in bits and pieces by complete strangers on forums like Reddit showed remarkably similar patterns of communication leading to the notion of the hivemind. However, the hivemind was quick to factionalize and each hive soon found its reach far more limited than it had hoped. If the TV was a tool of pacification, the internet is a tool of radicalization. It frees the “community” from all the external constraints of physicality and geography; as such its only means for the “community” to maintain itself as a coherent social entity for those who rely on it extensively is to test its adherents allegiance through the devaluation and dismissal of the outside world. If they fail to escalate the shared delusions, the user must admit to themselves that they are alone. The internet, since Web 2.0, has been specifically designed to encourage reliance on itself to the exclusion of other factors.

So when Kellyanne Conway keeps talking about an obviously fake “Bowling Green Massacre” or Trump invents a nebulous something awful that didn’t happen in Sweden, it’s a tactic similar to quantitative easing-the political currency of tragedy has been depreciated to where it can no longer do the thing it had done for the last 50 years and the Trump administration is attempting to print money to make up for the lack. This isn’t the propaganda technique of the Nazis but of Nigerian Prince scams . The propaganda is stupid and obvious so as to weed out those who might be too difficult to contain within the constructed hivemind.

The Political Economy of Snuff Films

The Baffler published an article on the relationship between various US news channels and Islamic State. Particularly interesting was their discussion of the decision by Fox to publish a beheading video in full to their website. An excerpt:

Fox plays ISIS propaganda with the same intention that ISIS brings to its production: to make Americans feel frightened of and threatened by an organization that actually poses no threat to American freedom or security. Exaggerating the power and reach of ISIS is in the immediate best interests of both the savage terrorist organization and the cynical, right-wing media outlet. The fiction that ISIS—a band of fanatics currently engaged in protracted battles and occupations half a world away from the United States—poses an existential threat to the best-armed nation in the history of the world both burnishes the group’s credentials with would-be jihadis and gives weight to Fox’s critique of a Democratic president as soft on terror. (In an earlier era, with a Republican in the White House, Fox’s on-air news personalities routinely blasted the Arab-language cable outlet Al Jazeera for playing Al Qaeda propaganda videos.)

The important thing here is the recognition of a political economy in snuff films, a term that is almost never used to describe these death videos. The concept of the snuff film has been traditionally tied to the never substantiated claims, largely pushed by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, that films of the rape and murder of women were being produced as pornography for commercial purposes. But if we defactionalize the concept of the snuff film, we find claims in books like The Hateful and the Obscene that snuff films don’t exist rather ludicrous; to find one from before MacKinnon/Dworkin or L.W. Sumner’s text responding to them, one simply has to go back to the day “America lost its innocence”-the Kennedy assassination and the corresponding snuff film, the first one produced and distributed in the climate of centralized mass media reproduction-the Zapruder Film. The sexualizing of the death video in the concept of “the snuff film” then merely constitutes another distorted manifestation of the US’s puritanical mores-the mortal sin, the real horror involved is that someone might be jerking off to them.

The Zapruder film does have a sexual component. As Bill Hicks joked about watching it: “I didn’t notice. I was too busy staring at Jackie’s ass.” The Zapruder film has been commercialized and replicated to a ubiquity that no porn film ever dreamed of.


I tried to compile a full canon of videos of people actually dying that were reproduced frequently for commercial purposes. Because television news in the US is a privatized industry, this is a very long list. I’m sure it’s nowhere near complete. I’m not providing links to any of these videos, but for the morbidly curious, well, I trust you all know how to use the google by now.

In rough chronological order:

  • 1937 Hindenburg Disaster Footage
  • 1963 Zapruder Film of the Kennedy Assassination
  • 1963 Thich Quang Duc Self-Immolation Protest Film
  • 1968 Vietnam “Bullet in the Head” Execution Film
  • 1985 News Footage of the MOVE Headquarters Bombing
  • 1986 R. Budd Dwyer Suicide Footage
  • 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake News Footage
  • 1999 Columbine Massacre Cafeteria Surveillance Camera Footage (interestingly largely distributed as a bootleg)
  • 2001 WTC Attack Video
  • 2002 Daniel Pearl Death Video
  • 2006 Saddam Hussein Execution Video
  • 2007 Wikileaks Collateral Murder Video
  • 2011-present Eric Garner and related Police murder videos
  • 2013-present, ISIS Beheading videos

As we get past 2006 the production of death videos becomes so voluminous as to make this list a long exercise in redundancy if we’re analyzing them from the lens they exist as contextually produced pieces of political propaganda launched from various directions. It should also be pointed out that with the mass production of consumer grade cameras in phones etc. and increasingly easy access to distribution points for videos the landscape of political propaganda has shifted dramatically.

This shift has been from the accidental production then appropriation of these videos toward the purposeful production of them with the intent of distribution. They no longer represent the shock of mortal discontinuity; they present themselves as distinct subcanons; their continued production and volume is meant to establish the normality of their content. They no longer mythologize their dead bodies but attempt to frame them as the hyperreal everyperson give or take some broad gerrymandering.


Don Delillo, in his novel White Noise, famously gives us the unremarkable barn that people visit to photograph because so many people have already visited it and photographed it. Neil Postman in Technopoly lays out the thought experiment of a series of technological advances in highway design, each of which lowers fatality rates but only after a temporary one year spike in them. Of course, the rate at which the advances come accelerates to where they occur more than once a year and they end up with just a permanent spike in traffic fatalities.

It’s important to recognize these are both descriptions of the same phenomena viewed from different vantage points.

To this conversation I add the recent national conversation over putting body cameras on police officers. This is, ostensibly, a solution to the problem of the lack of police accountability.

But is it? This “solution”, despite the fact that ubiquitous video of police brutality in every imaginable context does not seem to be especially effective in court or in reining in the behavior of offending officers. The obvious question stemming from this, a question I refuse to endorse or reject for the moment, is: Are these proposed body cameras on some level the hollow shared cultural clamor for more death videos? A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs. And so on.

What is the appeal of the death video of the present? We can problematically but functionally enough define two ways that death videos reach the consumer-by their own volition, or from a top-down externality.

The former would be presented in the seeking out of death videos both in the consciously political sense of bearing witness a la the many police murder videos, but also in the long tradition of underground bootleg films like Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, etc. The Columbine surveillance tape is especially interesting because it crosses over between the two impulses-I remember when I was younger and seeking out bootleg copies of unavailable films seeing it come up frequently in tape traders’ lists.

The latter is of course the Baffler article’s example at the top-Fox News purposely releasing ISIS videos to pursue their shared aims.


The spectral video image of the dead body is especially desirable as a memetic repetition because the dead body and its image are traumatic to behold. They create mental resistance and abstract themselves. The dead person’s image to the person who knew them is the reminder of their absence and an invitation to ponder what may have been. The memory of the dead person elevated to a folkloric archetype is a rorschach blot, a thing to be fought over as a chunk of real estate in the larger cultural battle over “narrative”. I can’t say with certainty what view is most prevalent as a reading of the Eric Garner and related videos. What I can say is that I’ve encountered equally vigorous reactions from both the people reading it as an archetypical document of the authoritarian racism of the state and as a sign of the “entitlement” of the disadvantaged and as affirmation of the unquestionable rightness of the police.

Insofar as the creation and sharing of these videos is a tactic towards an end, their eventual surface interpretations can’t be taken for granted as pointing people in either direction cleanly. This is as true for the one sought from the bottom or beamed down from the top. They exist in an inter-lapping set of discourses and can, as Stan pointed out in his most recent post on distributed fascism, lead to unexpected results.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Buy his first book on OWS here.