Staring Death in the Face: '1 Lunatic 1 Icepick' and 'Dark Souls'
This week Flash Points looks at the role the internet played in the creation and distribution of 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick, arguably the world's first snuff movie. We also anticipate the release of Dark Souls for the PC, a game that is literally designed to kill you.
The snuff movie is no longer an urban legend and may be a sign of things to come. While many people have been killed on camera before, 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick appears to be the first genuine instance of a murder specifically staged for the camera and circulated for entertainment purposes. The cultural significance of this development largely went unnoticed — 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick was initially lost in the shuffle of the zombie apocalypse.
The film's self professed lunatic committed more than murder with an icepick: the director's cut includes dismemberment, cannibalism and necrophilia.1 Prior to it premiering online at Bestgore, 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick even had a marketing strategy to raise consumer awareness: a scare campaign involving the postage and handling of body parts. Whatever the film's moral failings, it can't be faulted for its marketing savvy. 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick was produced to make international headlines and be a viral sensation. The film even goes so far as to locate itself within the fine tradition of other extreme videos that have famously tested the limits of internet audiences. The 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick branding exercise clearly pays homage to 2 Girls 1 Cup and 3 Guys 1 Hammer, and actively dared viewers to live stream its shocking death.
We might need to revise the concept of a snuff movie in the digital age though — standard definitions urge that these 'legendary' movies were made for profit and circulated on the black market. As the book Killing for Culture defines it, however, financial gain need not be the main incentive: snuff movies can also be defined by their notoriety and entertainment value. Specifically, "Snuff films depict the killing of a human being — a human sacrifice (without the aid of special effects or other trickery) perpetuated for the medium of film and circulated amongst a jaded few for the purpose of entertainment". That's not to say that the accused murderer hasn't profited in some way. His asking price just happened to be attention and fame. Bestgore appears to have potentially made a killing off the murder though.
The 'reality news website' (sic/k) has since found itself having to contend with a sudden influx of registered members and millions of more casual visitors. Since they've also attracted the attention of the police, Bestgore have been forced to take "the real, uncensored truth" down and might even be fighting for their own survival in the aftermath. Nonetheless, they sincerely "apologize" for any "inconvenience" caused to dedicated gore hounds. Many people (like myself) don't even need to expose themselves to the video's gory details. Bestgore has been kind enough to provide a blow by blow account and other detailed descriptions have appeared online in reaction videos. It's worth stressing that readers are strongly advised against watching what the 'best of gore' has to offer — otherwise they might live to regret it.
As site owner Mark Marek insists, however, such real life horror videos have educational value. (Source: quote within the video.)
"1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick is without a doubt the sickest thing you will have ever seen in your entire life. It is a sad reminder that things far worse than any of us would ever imagine really take place in our neighbourhoods. It is a sickening reflection of who we, as a human race have become. Turning our heads and pretending the video doesn’t exist would only make the perpetrator feel more secure and open to further exploitation.
I believe it is important, for the sake of us all that, as was the case with 3 Guys 1 Hammer and similar videos, the 1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick video is seen and understood for what it is, so appropriate steps can be taken to bring those responsible to justice and prevent any further such atrocity from happening. You never know who could be the next person on that bed. If the message about the 1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick video is not spread far and wide, there could be many more still to come and that’s a very frightening thought. Best Gore is dedicated to ensuring the general public is aware of the reality of the world out there so everyone can make educated decisions that affect their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their families."
Bestgore appears to have missed the point of 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick . Luka Magnotta didn't expect people to avert their gaze and felt safe in the knowledge that they would want to watch him commit murder. He even sent out a digital press release claiming responsibility and is (presumably) the person who emailed it to Bestgore in the first place. If 'bringing the perpetrator to justice' is the concern, why not just forward it onto the police (as opposed to debuting it online)? The less said about why people visit Bestgore the better — they're civic duty is revealed by the breathless comments reproduced elsewhere. 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick's 'educational value' has already been called into question: a high school teacher was recently terminated for showing it in class.
People seeking education weren't inconvenienced by the video's disappearance for too long: 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick briefly reappeared on LiveLeak and Youtube, and continues to be freely distributed on file sharing networks. Internet users can now watch the "sickest thing they'll ever see" whenever they want offline. Streaming media quickly turned into peer-to-peer sharing and saved downloads. The digital age therefore requires us to update the nature of a 'black market' and what it means to 'gain' from murder.
Perhaps the most revealing part of 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick is the role the internet has played in it : murder invariably became must see TV through relentless self promotion and word of mouse. Luka Magnotta used social networking to raise his profile and construct a celebrity image. He had already been linked to a series of videos that were essentially trailers for the coming attraction. 1 boy 2 Kittens , Python Christmas , and Bathtime LOL certainly fit the profile of an aspiring serial killer. Magnotta's digital trail offered a preview for 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick and encouraged a game of cat and mouse online.
It was a win-win situation: Magnotta was able to achieve a Wikipedia entry by appealing to increasingly jaded audience seeking the latest sensation online. Indeed, internet users no longer appear to be satisfied with murder simulators or simulated deaths on their screens. They want to live vicariously through someone else and experience the real thing. The question, of course, is who are these viewers really identifying with — the murderer or the murder victim? Or are they just watching the horrific events through one another's eyes and reducing it to a mere spectacle? Perhaps everyone is just viewing the video as a guilty pleasure — the excitement arises from the titillation of breaking cultural taboos, the thrill that we’re doing something we shouldn’t.
We've always liked to watch of course — 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick merely takes the voyeurism to its logical extreme. Flash Points doesn't mean to diminish the horror exhibited online. Exhibitionism is clearly a definitive part of its appeal. 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick might depict a number of 'perversions', but its attention seeking is something 'normal' people can also relate to. Not everyone can get their promised 15 minutes and some people obviously have to resort to extremes. This snuff movie offers living proof that fame can be monstrous. The fame monster can swallow people whole and produce its own demon spawn. And apparently many of us want front row seats when this 'monster' runs amok online.
1 Lunatic 1 Icepick therefore draws our attention to something else: the nature of the symbiotic relationship between exhibitionism and voyeurism. Such a symbiosis is generally understood to be a mutually beneficial relationship — watching someone broadcast themselves online can establish a sense of community between otherwise disconnected people. As Annette Wong observed in a different context:
"Voyeurism is an important part of the broadcast experience. As with other broadcast mediums such as TV or radio, even the most private viewing or listening is imbued with the sense of a larger audience which we cannot see or hear or touch. People we will never meet have shared the same imaginary space as us – the imaginary community. The internet magnifies this sense of community because it offers the possibility of interactivity where the broadcast show is transformed into a forum, loosening the distinction between audience and performer." (Cyberlines 2.0: Languages and Cultures of the Internet, eds. Donna Gibbs, Kerri-Lee Krause, 'Cultures and Communities in Cyberspace', Melbourne: James Nicholas Publishers p.280-81)
Now, this obviously raises the question: to what extent does this video make the viewer complicit in murder? If the documented reactions are any indication, moral complicity barely rates a mention. The soundtrack poses a particular difficulty for many though: couldn't the murderer have chosen a better song or not let the the music from American Psycho drown out the sounds of stabbing and dismemberment? Some potential psychopaths indicate their concern about the lack of torture, screaming and bleeding and wonder why the murderer didn't kill more people before releasing this 'amateurish' video online. The irony is that many other viewers couldn't relate to the murder because it doesn't appear to be as 'real' as the violence they've seen depicted in movies. What they're really reacting to is the lack of special effects, make up and camera angles.
The reaction videos on Youtube also speak volumes: part of the video's appeal is that members of the community can prove that they've witnessed a real life murder and can be seen to live to tell the tale. There is no point in pretending, however, that 1 Lunatic 1 Icepic is a sign of our moral decline or that humanity has become increasingly desensitized to violence. As many studies of violence testify, it has always been human nature to view violence as a form of entertainment and/or status seeking. All humans need is a pretext and opportunity in a socially acceptable forum. The killing of cats, for example, wasn't always an indication of a serial killer in the making but an opportunity for members of a community to bond together through laughter. And blood sports (fights to the death, feeding people to animals, etc) used to be so popular that the Colossseum was built specifically for that purpose: blood sport was socially sanctioned serial killing. Perhaps the only thing new about 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick is that the internet may embolden other people competing for attention and give birth to a new genre : snuff movie as communal experience.
1 It's arguable that 2008's 3 Guys, 1 Hammer precedes 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick's claim to fame (sic/k). The camera (and resulting audience) appears to have played an ancillary role in mass murder though. The three 'maniac's' from Ukraine used a mobile phone to record twenty one thrill kills as Kodak moments (as opposed to being the main reason for killing) and their mementos were kept hidden from view on personal computers (instead of being released for others to enjoy). One of the murders might have leaked online while they were in custody , but their attempts to paint the city red appears to have been done for personal amusement. The claim that they were commissioned to produce 40 snuff movies for the internet, then, remains hearsay and is (hopefully) mere urban legend.
The Dagestan Massacre (1999) has no doubt entertained many people over the years, but this widely circulated video was made and released for propaganda purposes. The horrific beheadings is war footgage -- it was shot during a conflict between Chechen Mujahideen and Russian soldiers, and was released online as a recruitment/inspirational video (for Chechens) and a deterrent/warning to others Russians. Unfortunately, many people watch this video not knowing (or caring) about the context: its just a snuff movie to most of them.
Prepare to Die
There is a fine line between the Grim Reaper and the joystick. Video games typically blur this line by merging observer and performer. Players invariably personify death when wielding their controllers as if it were a scythe. The personification cuts both ways of course – players will find themselves cut down in the prime of their lives. Either way, they normally proceed through a video game by becoming virtual killing machines and will keep rising from the dead to kill again. Players can therefore watch themselves commit casual genocide or constantly defy death in the name of home entertainment.
I'm not claiming that video games are about death or that every videogame involves killing and dying. Rather, I'm emphasizing that they're two sides of the same coin and merely a means to end. It's no accident that the main currency of videogames originates in the coin up era and has little to do with intimations of mortality – death was more the price you paid if you wanted to keep playing. Such a dialectic is why franchises as distinct as Super Mario and Call of Duty are similarly a source of frustration and joy: players repeat the life cycle until they can improve their kill/death ratios to a satisfying level. The imminent release of Dark Souls for the PC – previously available on the PS3 and Xbox 360 – takes this concept to a whole new level. Dark Soulsis not so much a murder simulator but a dying simulator, and players will repeatedly find themselves losing control.
The PC version of Dark Souls is called the "Prepare to Die" edition (the game's official motto anyway, but this version includes bonus death simulations), and the forthcoming port is living testament to words (out of dying) mouths. The PC release is the result of a petition, indicating that many gamers have a death wish. Indeed, few videogames have been so prepared to get players talking about their own mortality. Dark Souls invariably reveals how banal videogames ultimately are – it constantly reminds players that videogames typically devalue their own stock in trade.
It's not that videog ames desensitize players to violence, but that they render their own principles (the interface between observer and performer, the relationship between life and death) meaningless. Death might loom large in videogames, but it usually means very little – players rarely catch sight of themselves playing (killing, dying) because they've already pushed continue or will respawn indefinitely. The issue of our humanity – what it means to live and die, and what's to be gained from playing a videogame predicated on this very relationship – is never really at stake. Whatever the genre, videogames tend to lack moral weight or bearing.
There have been attempts, of course, to make players responsible through their choices and relationships, but the fallout continues to be inconsequential and illusory. The recent controversy over Mass Effect 3's ending broke the illusion of having power over life and death in videogames: attempting to be master of our own domain remains a masturbatory fantasy.
All said and done, this moral universe amounted to little more than hand to eye coordination. The medium's emphasis upon power fantasies – giving players a feeling of power over their surroundings, simulating the thrill of the kill and providing them with an inflated sense of worth – is what generally prevents videogame's from being 'art' (which is distinct from whether they should be viewed as an art form , or viable entity unto themselves). Then again, this is what prevents most conventional art forms (music, book, films, etc) from being 'art' – as something that calls attention to the limits of representation by disrupting expectations, conventions, and established orders of reception.
Perhaps the most challenging thing about Dark Souls is the way it directly confronts players. It disrupts conventional notions of 'fun' and actively discourages a solipsistic world view. It has its pleasures, of course, but these have their basis in sadomasochism. The game forces player to submit to its own rules – and these are often elusive or obtuse. The game delights in inflicting pain and suffering on unsuspecting players, and they have to learn to enjoy being beaten, humiliated and tormented at every turn. The source of the pleasure comes from a steep learning curve and discovering an overpowering world.
As IGN observed, death is everything in Dark Souls. It's education, it's progress, it's the recurring stylistic and thematic motif that runs through all of its spectacularly varied, decaying and depraved environments . There appears to be only one overriding goal: trying to survive a world overrun by the living dead. It's not all about give and take though: the role playing game can also be quite withholding. Trying to make sense of your own experiences (discovered items, accrued knowledge, etc) often makes the game insufferable too. Information remains scarce, piecemeal and unreliable, and the player is constantly forced to ask themselves: why I am playing this again?
The sadomasochism, then, extends beyond the difficulty in navigating an increasingly inhospitable terrain. The player becomes their own worst enemy if they decide to persevere in such mysterious surroundings. Dark Souls refuses to pander to their desire that its world is a mere playground – that it was designed specifically to entertain them. The minimalist aesthetic (hidden lore, few cutscenes, sparse music, little dialogue and no story to speak of) add to the sense of alienation. As soon as players customize their characters, they'll therefore discover something quite overwhelming: this world has its own history and they're just passing through.
During the course of many hours, players will struggle to find (and hold onto) their 'humanity'. Feelings of disorientation and isolation may be alleviated through online communal experiences – players can leave messages (clues, warnings) and summon each other for assistance in human form. Being (completely) human, however, is also asking for trouble: players might risk being invaded, robbed and murdered too. The game is a major undertaking, and players will find themselves questioning whether all that living and dying is worth so much grief. By the time players reach the bitter end, Dark Souls achieves transcendence by going in for the final kill. The anti– climatic and ambiguous ending/s culminate in the realization they've all just been played. Instead of feeling hollow, it ideally kindles a fire in their souls. Players will find themselves dealing with an issue that corresponds to their own characters – the game forces them to question the role they play in this world.