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The Snuff Film Generation

movie poster for videodrome

Growing up in the 1980s, I lived through the rapid expansion of basic cable, MTV, and the Hulk Hogan era of professional wrestling. However, amidst this cultural surge, there was also an increasing fascination with the macabre. One notion in entertainment particularly horrified me: the “snuff film.”

Thanks to the cable box in our den, the idea of snuff films—recordings of actual murders intended for entertainment—was far away yet disturbingly proximate. Although I never saw one, movies and TV shows of that era depicted them as a prevalent part of underground society, profoundly impacting my impressionable mind.

In 1986, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” showed a serial killer who, along with his accomplice, created snuff films by recording their murders. In 1983’s “Videodrome,” directed by David Cronenberg, a television executive uncovered a broadcast signal depicting extreme violence and murder, leading him down a surreal and disturbing path. For adults, these films might have represented gritty entertainment, but for me, they were sources of nightmares and anxiety.

The intense fear and anxiety generated by these films resulted in long-lasting psychological effects. For many people, graphic depictions of murder and torture can trigger nightmares, anxiety disorders, and even PTSD. These films exploited primal fears, embedding deep-seated anxieties that resurfaced throughout my adulthood, affecting my mental well-being and interpersonal relationships.

As the world faces multiple wars and conflicts, we live in the golden generation of the Snuff Film. 

The origins of war-based snuff films came earlier in my lifetime. My generation watched as live video footage captured the targeted bombing of Baghdad during the First Gulf War. The Second Gulf War brought drone footage of targeted bombings into our living rooms. 

Today, war is closer than ever. The battlefronts in Israel are mere hours from my home, and the reality of conflict is much closer – it sits in the palm of my hand. My phone delivers videos and social media depictions of precise military strikes daily. 

I understand the necessity of targeted attacks in warfare. More than once, I watched a terrorist leader killed via a short, grainy, black-and-white GIF and said “attaboy” because we’ve hit the bad guys. But I worry about the prevalence of these snuff film-like videos due to their effect on me and how they might impact all our kids.

The experts at advocacy organization Common Sense Media identified that children are watching traumatic events unfold on devices almost constantly. These scenes of real-life violence can affect a child’s mental and emotional well-being. 

They say, “Children may even experience vicarious trauma, which is when learning about troubling events affects us negatively. Graphic images and videos related to racial and ethnic violence can be particularly difficult for children of color and those from marginalized backgrounds.”

Growing up in an era where such dark themes were prevalent, I fear, may have skewed my moral compass, blurring the distinction between entertainment and genuine human suffering. I am reminded of this terrible balancing act every time a new video of a targeted killing hits my WhatsApp. I worry that watching it as entertainment can lead to moral disengagement and undervaluing the sanctity of life.

The seemingly “distant” snuff film-themed entertainment of my youth terrified me. It may have also desensitized me to violence and distorted my moral framework. The personal damage is profound.

Now, for this generation, the question remains: When footage of targeted killings is a click away, and algorithms relentlessly push them to younger viewers, what will be the long-term consequences? The potential impacts on young people today are deeply troubling, raising concerns about their mental health, empathy, and understanding of violence.

About the Author
Dan is a veteran public relations, political communications and media strategist. He founded Full Court Press Communications 20 years ago. He is also the host of Mindful Work www.MindfulWork.show - a podcast at the intersection of Mindfulness, Jewish Thought, and Business. He resides in Israel.
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