Snuff; or, How to Delude the Public and Make a Tidy Profit

Step 1: Find your theme

IIn 1969, the followers of the quasi-fascist survivalist hippie psychopath Charles Manson committed some of the most notorious murders of the twentieth century. So gruesome were their crimes it was inevitable that they would inspire film makers to produce a wave of Killer Hippie movies. Manson had already written the scripts, all the ingredients were there. How could any self-respecting cheap hack not exploit the story? Even films that had already been made were reworked to include the ‘killer cult’ angle.

Step 2: Find your product

Michael and Roberta Findlay were reasonably well established directors of exploitation movies, and it was natural that the Manson story would appeal to them. They wasted no time and before the trial was under way, they had already began a Killer Hippie movie of their own. Entitled Slaughter, theirs was a bog-standard slasher movie with a slightly incomprehensible plot. It was made in Argentina to reduce production costs and cost just over thirty thousand dollars to produce. Allen Shackleton, a small time promoter of soft-core porn films, bought the rights, but after a brief theatrical run lasting just over two weeks, Shackleton withdrew the film and it remained on a shelf in his office for the next few years.

Step 3: Don’t react, create

Apart from the fact that the film was awful, the reason Slaughter failed was because by the time it was released, the market had been saturated with killer hippie movies. Real success comes not from merely moving into an obvious market quickly, it comes from creating an entirely new market. It’s not enough to produce a film based around an event; it’s much more profitable to produce an event based around a film. Following the publication of a book about the Manson killings that suggested the ‘Family’ had produced ‘snuff’ movies, in which they filmed murders; Shackleton sensed an opportunity and set about creating a phoney snuff movie. He re-edited Slaughter, removing the opening credits and any references to the Findlays. He then changed the name of the film to Snuff. Finally, he added a new scene at the end of the film to give it the ‘authenticity’ it would need for the hoax to work. Filmed on a re-creation of the set of the last scene of the original movie, the five minute segment purports to show “behind the scenes” footage. After the director shouts “Cut”, the camera pans out to reveal the rest of the crew on the studio set. The director tells a female assistant that filming the last gory scene turned him on. “It turned me on too” she replies. He invites her over to the bed so they can “turn each other on”, in front of the rest of the crew, who continue to film this inexpert attempt at seduction. The director starts to get a little too rough, and when the assistant tries to get away, he pulls out a knife, and goaded on by the crew, he decides to get “a good scene”. There then follows a ludicrously over-the top sequence, which culminates with director ripping out the still beating heart of the young girl. At that point, the film runs out and a voice asks “Did you get it? Did you get it all? Let’s get out of here.”

Step 4: Start a rumour

Towards the end of 1975, rumours about the existence of underground snuff movies started circulating in New York. Stories were heard of people paying hundreds of dollars to view the perverted films. One of the most widespread rumours of the time referred to a film that had been smuggled out of South America, which showed the actual murder of a girl on screen. It would seem almost too convenient that these rumours were circulating just as Shackleton was preparing to release his movie, and it was too convenient. Through a series of anonymous tip-offs to newspapers and magazines, Shackleton had planted an idea in society’s collective consciousness, an idea that still persists to this day: snuff movies exist and are in circulation.

Step 5: Advertise

Once society had swallowed Shackleton’s bait, it was time to act. Posters appeared throughout New York, which appeared to link a forthcoming film with the widespread rumours, confirming the whole story as fact. With deliberately provocative slogans such as “Filmed in South America… where life is CHEAP” and “The picture they said could NEVER be shown”, the implication was clear: this was the movie everyone was talking about it. The fact that it would seem unlikely that an illegal film smuggled out of South America and showing an actual murder would suddenly receive a mainstream theatrical release, backed up with an intensive advertising campaign, was not enough to make the horrified public doubt the film’s authenticity.

Step 6: Protest

Shackleton then decided to ensure his film received maximum publicity by trying to get it banned. Under the assumed name of “Vincent Sheehan”, Shackleton formed a bogus campaign group entitled Citizens for Decency. “Sheehan” sent out fake newspaper clippings to the press, and engaged in a furious letter writing programme. Ironically, it turned out there really was an organisation called Citizens for Decency, but fortunately for Shackleton, far from exposing the hoax, they quickly joined the protest. Hardcore feminists joined the anti-Snuff– campaign, including one group with the almost unbelievable name “Women Against Violence Against Women” (that would be as opposed to all those women in favour of violence against women then).

Step 7: Launch

Having received all this free publicity, Shackleton finally decided to release the film and let people see what they were actually campaigning against. Protesters picketed the theatres, waving placards with such inane slogans as “Murder is not amusing”. Feminists organised demonstrations outside the District Attorney’s office for “women and other people of conscience” to try to get the film banned. In spite of all this, or rather because of all this, the film was a huge success.

Step 8: Count your cash

In it’s opening week, Snuff took over sixty thousand dollars – more than double its original production budget. For three weeks after its release, it outsold mainstream movies such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Given its tiny original budget, and the extraordinary amount of free publicity it received, the film earned one of the highest percentage returns in cinematic history. “Pickets sell tickets” explained Shackleton.

Step 9: Remain ambiguous

Inevitably, a film purporting to show the actual onscreen murder of one of its stars is going to attract the attention of the law. Bowing to police pressure, Shackleton was forced to insert a disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that the final scene was not genuine. Whilst, for a moment it appeared as if this measure might dampen the controversy, Shackleton continued to remain ambiguous when questioned, hoping to convince people that any confessions on his part had been simply to evade prison. When Variety magazine asked him to confirm or deny if the scene was authentic, Shackleton coyly replied, “It’s an interesting bind. If it was real, I’d be in jail in two minutes… I’d be a damn fool to admit it. But if it isn’t real, I’d be a damn fool to admit it.”

Step 10: Congratulations! You have deluded the public!

The Snuff furore was more than a mere hoax, Shackleton didn’t just make the public think the film was real; he made them believe it. He deluded the public on a grand scale. Even once his hoax was exposed, people continued to believe it. Even after the “murdered” actress was tracked down and questioned by police, the film remained controversial – indeed, it remained banned in the UK until last year. Watching the film today, with its cheap special effects and bright orange blood, one wonders how anyone could ever have believed it was real. The secret of Snuff’s success, however, lies in the fact that people were so ready to condemn the film without ever having seen it. The anti-Snuff campaign, secretly led by Shackleton, confirmed the rumours, secretly started by Shackleton, about the existence of a snuff film, secretly produced by Shackleton. Snuff created its own myth, and then proved its own myth.

The simple way in which Shackleton orchestrated this mass delusion should act as a warning about how vulnerable society is to this kind of manipulation. Either that or it highlights an exciting opportunity…

James Ward | Spring 2004