Cybersnuff Arrives On The Web
It was a matter only of time before some profit-minded, computer-conversant entrepreneur figured out that suffering, gore and death could be as lucrative on the Internet as on video. Recently, "Death News" debuted on the World Wide Web. Call it cybersnuff. Those familiar with the Faces of Death videos, which gained a cult following in the United States 11 years ago, know the drill: animal and human injury, torture, slaughter. Corpses disemboweled, prisoners shot at point-blank range, a live, trussed pig slowly burned with a blow torch. Murder. Mayhem. Faces of Death grossed more than $40 million. It spawned five sequels, numerous imitators and an increasingly visible industry that caters to what aficionados oxymoronically refer to as "death culture."New Yorkers Edward Bronson and Dean Graziosi are Johnny-come-latelies to the shockumentary genre; their Death: The Ultimate Horror -- 90 minutes of amputations, executions, body piercings, plane crashes, animal cruelty and other gore -- hit video stores just last month. The second installment in their "Shockudrama" series is due by Christmas. But it's the shrewdly constructed Web site -- unlimited cybergore for $9.99 a month -- that sets Bronson and Graziosi apart. For weeks, the page, built on a black background with a ghostly gray skull, has teased death-junkies with color-and-sound video clips of a body piercing, a firing squad, a man being shot in the face with an AK-47 and a group of beaten, bloody Haitians."Death News goes live with horrific footage of real events," the page promo reads. "Watch a thief having his hand and foot amputated by police in the Middle East. They blindfold him and hack away, no anesthetics or painkillers."Along with still photographs and the video clips -- dubbed "death loops" -- the Web site promises stories about legendary killers, reviews of snuff movies and contests for those conversant in death culture, with vacation prizes best described as ClubDead: trips to Vlad the Impaler's Castle in Transylvania, or a jaunt to Aztec sacrificial temples in Mexico. "We try to touch the whole underbelly of society that nobody ever sees," says Bronson, 29. "We're trying to be really a news service for the bizarre and weird." Anticipating the obvious, Bronson is quick to distinguish his business, SAE Interactive, from other purveyors of gore. Faces of Death, he says, is "violence for sheer exploitation and excitement, as opposed to presenting the material to have some positive benefit. They would show a guy getting eaten by an alligator just to show him being eaten by an alligator."I said, if we're going to make money off this kind of stuff, and people's pain and suffering, then we should try to have some redeeming value."Bronson offers an impassioned, albeit dubious, explanation of "redeeming value." A law-school graduate with a professed penchant for Constitutional issues, he selects footage, he says, that "mirrors issues occurring right here in the United States." In Bronson's view, a man whose appendages are summarily chopped off for stealing in the Middle East is a grim reminder that we best safeguard our Constitutional rights to due process. If it's difficult to see how other clips -- like Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer's pistol-in-mouth, press-conference suicide -- fit into this paradigm, there's always the First Amendment. "The basis for all censorship should be with the person seeing the footage, not the person providing it," Bronson says firmly.Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a nationally known journalistic think tank, has a more discriminating view of free speech."I'm not sure what legitimate motivation these individuals have to put something like this on the Web," Steele says. "I'm certainly a believer in the spirit of the First Amendment, but even the First Amendment carries great responsibility to realize the consequences of our actions.""The scope of the Web is such that virtually anybody with access -- and that's growing phenomenally -- can find something on there, sometimes by accident, that can have profound negative impacts on them." SIDEBAR: Networks Deny Selling Gory Outtakes SAE Interactive President Edward Bronson says he pays his sources, including the "major big four networks," an average of $2,500 per minute for film he uses in his death-oriented videos and Web site. "The networks really play both sides of the fence," he says. "They say, 'We're against this stuff, it's too violent.' But generally, as long as you don't use their names, they're happy to sell you anything." "Absolutely not," says a CNN spokesman. "No one is buying anything from our archives of that sort." An NBC spokesman says SAE requested footage in 1995 and was turned down. A CBS executive called the whole idea "kind of repulsive." An assistant to the network's director of archive sales says CBS has a policy against selling material for Internet use. "Executives don't want to lose control of the footage," she says. "Once it gets on the 'net, that's it."