The rise of the "snuff clip" genre
It seems worth noting in this context that most of us have never seen death except on a screen. Our ancestors knew the reality of death well. People died at home. Half the children died before they reached the age of five. People killed and butchered their own chickens, pigs, and cattle, and hunted for wild meat. They had real blood on their hands, saw the light go out of real eyes, felt real corpses grow cold. They knew the reek and rot of death intimately. However much of a fascination the snuff clip may have become, it has become so to a people unfamiliar with the real thing. If they are fascinated with it because they do not know it, or if they are inured to because it has only ever been a story, a point of entertainment, to them, is more than I can say. But I cannot help feeling that this has all become to people a kind of drama, a play, a thing of simple goodies and baddies, in which death is fascinating not because it is death, which they do not know, but because it is a trope of drama in an otherwise tedious existence.
1) I haven't seen any of this snuff stuff - neither recently nor ever - so it is not difficult to avoid it (and I do spend a very lot of time on the internet).
2) Second: We are now in an age in which the downsides of liberal individualism are becoming increasingly apparent (and yes there have also been huge upsides). The tragic problem with Western liberalism is that it does not know where to stop. When you valorise each and every kind of liberty, you 'liberate' human appetites that would be better repressed (like they were when I was a kid in the 1950's.
3) your essay doesn't mention another kind of 'snuff'.....murder (now often serial murder) tv who-dunnits that have come to completely dominate tv drama ( at least they do in Europe). It hasn't always been this way; when I was young it was mostly about robbery and murder plot-lines were a rarity.
I just wanted to say that I do not see anything in my feed either and I am extremely thankful for that. I hear that other people are seeing much more. When I get alerts from TwiX (that's what I call it anyway) it is just about poetry and Catholic literature. I think there is something to be said about algorithms. But I am actually surprised I have not been ambushed (I am sure it is just a matter of time) because "Liss" is actually a Jewish name since I married into a Jewish family. I will turn away from all dead children's bodies. I don't need to see that. I still remember the boy in the red shirt on the beach in Greece. I worked in a hospital; I know death. It doesn't scare me. However, this is not observing death or honoring the dignity of the people who lost their lives. This is fetishizing it. It strips the dignity of human being.
just reading this after i'd clicked on an article about the horrible situation in Israel and there was an advert in the corner, playing clips of women being kidnapped, women being murdered. it said "no women should have to experience this" and yet being shown it, as a woman, I don't want to see that? I don't want to see the dead bodies of women in an advert. i'm still sitting at my desk feeling unsettled.
I guess people think there's some value in showing the atrocities which are being committed, to try and generate support, to raise awareness, to raise money, etc.
but do i have to look at a dead body in order to care about something?
Yes. As a jew, I felt the only thing I had the stomach to do right now was to deactivate every social media account I had.
I remember a friend in high school had some of those Faces of Death videos (on VHS of course), so this kind of thing was kicking around pre-internet but in significantly reduced form. I also remember rotten.com as an early purveyor or the macabre and horrifying, doing with still images what Twitter/X is now going with video.
I think part of it is that we've gotten really divorced from the presence of death - it's supposed to be something that happens in a hospital room or ambulance, not right in front of you. So the hidden nature of the subject creates interest in people inclined to seek out the "forbidden"...
I think there are two cultures when it comes to this stuff - our elite class is so worried about bodily harm that they won't let their kids play contact sports while the rest of the country gobbles up real crime/murder videos. It's all very disordered and disturbing.
When I was a kid, decades before the internet, I was shown a film (video was not invented yet) in school of piles of bodies in German concentration camps.
I was probably 14 years old. Among the images I remember were ditches of naked corpses and a pile of human heads. That seared the truth of the horror of the holocaust into my brain.
I agree that there is something nefarious about cultural rubber-necking and the prurient interests it serves. But documenting these atrocities is important. Soon we will hear apologists denying that this took place at all. It’s too awful to contemplate, but it must also be faced.
Another complicating factor is that the visceral, nauseating response that such "snuff clips" evoke are easily used to augment and prey on our rage. When you only see the atrocities committed against one group it's easier to justify a brutal response. So for war-drumming, it's incredibly effective (which is why some videos are essentially fakes as they're recycled from past conflicts). On the other hand, when you see the graphic horror on both sides you get some perspective on the grisliness and grotesqueness of war and the hollowness of self-righteous propaganda. If you're only funneled down one viewing chamber, you'll never escape a black and white Stars Wars view of the world to recognize the depravity and latent possibility for brutality in all humans. The latter may be a bleak and depressing take on humanity but it's probably the best starting place for taking mental and moral stock of how to reduce such violence in the future
This trend has certainly been the straw that broke this camel's back when it comes to twitter. At first, when I noticed it happening in the early days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine I was fascinated by all the real-time footage coming out of the conflict. At least then it was between clearly defined attackers and defenders and often abstracted by featuring distant supply caravans or thanks, explosions in the night, etc. My interest wasn't so much driven by the snuff-like aspect of such material (which was initially not too far beyond what might be shown briefly on a news broadcast) but because it seemed like a new development in history: the first traditional war on social media. I was also fascinated by how this affected the war. The abundance of material seemed to create a paradoxical jumble of information, confusion, speculation, fabrication, and hard facts. I think it made it impossible for the Russians to control the narrative of the war as they had done in other incursions, and made it clear that their strategic thinking was still trapped in moribund Soviet concepts like maskirovka that could no longer be effective in the all-live-all-the-time media environment of the 2020s. But as the war's dragged on into the slow slog of trench-clearing counteroffensives, and the majority of the video has become body cam footage of that tense and torturous work, I've had to stop tracking it because although there is an initial fascination to being able to see things that haven't been recorded before, it did make me feel soul-sick. The fact that Musk has allowed that site to descend into a carnival of murder- and atrocity-porn really depresses me, but it also makes me think that twitter and it's hold over the media culture is finally over. Last night, when the Best American Poetry anthology series deleted its account after a tweet expressing support for Israel attracted the obligatory charges of fascism and Islamophobia, the people that drove BAP off the site celebrated as if they'd achieved some major moral or political victory over the forces of colonialism and oppression. It just seemed silly and childish to me. Who cares if you made someone leave twitter? Everybody leaves twitter nowadays.
It's been a sea change since we were kids in the 1990s. Most of us in the late 20th century grew up watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street, internalizing these basically decent Christian ideas about being kind to others, not taking pleasure in seeing people hurt, etc. But now — maybe thanks to New Atheism and the American forever wars discrediting the basis for that entire, trusting, Christian-derived worldview — we're really back in the pagan era, living in a decaying globe-spanning empire that worships nature (that is, power and victory). We think about Rome so much because we're it.
I have been disgusted about the increasing amount of “in your face violence and gore” in movies/tv shows for years! To me (obviously in the minority) it is so clear that the increase in watching people suffer is enjoyed! That’s why people are “desensitized “ to the real stuff! They are used to it! I cant watch it...any of it.
I've never felt more grateful to be mostly removed from social media. I didn't even hear about the war breaking out until Sunday afternoon, when people talked about it in church. This timed-release news exposure is very much by design for me. I want to know about things, but I want to know about them on saner terms than the ones offered by the algorithm.
Thanks for another beautiful, wrenching, important piece of writing.
To be honest, I couldn’t even read this. Read a few of your descriptions of the footage and I had to stop. It’s too much for me.
I think you posted this: "Online, we become ghostly copies of true humanity, which, according to L.M. Sacasas, “do not elicit the moral recognition that attends the embodied self” and can be reviled and abused at will."
I think that this has some relevance here. On the Internet, we are abstracted from corporeal reality.
I think what you are describing is a kind of death pornography, which like sex pornography reduces human beings to ghosts.
In my opinion, after you have watched a handfuI of these clips you have essentially seen them all. So watch or read or get out and do things that are productive or educational. Figure out something you can do to help decrease the atrocity rates. Don't become addicted. I also agree that it is quite easy to avoid snuff clips. I recommend we all do so, partly because watching them is exactly what the perps want you to do. And by the way, they are, often with expertise, trying to put you in a degraded and fearful state, which is inherently unhealthy. The producers of these are not trying to bring you to a more human state. // Moreover, watching snuff's just motivates the perps to make more elaborate and extreme ones, thus increasing the suffering of the victims. Don't be complicit in that! So if you need to, when you hear about new snuff events, just extrapolate from what you have seen in your mind's eye. Don't click on the new one. Don't train the algorithms to send you more. I'm not advocating for burying one's head in the sand. Being aware of what is happening and standing / acting against it can be combined with taking charge of your own mind and working to free it, and engaging in self-care.
Sometimes I force myself to watch that stuff so if it happens in my presence irl I'll be less likely to freeze. But damn, I agree that it eats a little piece of your soul each time.