They were giggling on the GO Train heading into Toronto the other day, three paralegal students in their early 20s, about a video of a murder and dismemberment. One had watched it; the others were aghast at the idea.
In the past week, Canadians have suffered through a fast and savage tour into some of the darker corners of the Internet, as some news accounts of the Luka Magnotta case focused on BestGore.com. That's the Edmonton-based site dedicated to brutal material, which had briefly hosted a video, titled 1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick, which police suggest shows the murder of Lin Jun. When word spread about the site, people who had never considered themselves aficionados of violence began wading through the digital swamp to see what all the fuss was about.
But anyone who thinks we've reached a cultural tipping point has a very short memory: Last October, the murder of Moammar Gadhafi was captured on a cellphone and posted online. Five years earlier, millions of viewers around the world watched a video of Saddam Hussein's execution. And the videos are still there for your consumption on YouTube.
So, for that matter, is footage of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger killed after flying off his sled during a training run before the Vancouver Olympics.
"[This] sort of thing has been going on for centuries, if not millennia," says Sherry Hamby, editor of the journal Psychology of Violence. "We rubberneck at accident scenes; they never had any trouble filling the Roman Colosseum."
If the Internet has made us a global village, it has also given us a virtual version of the ancient village square, where all manner of inhumanities unfold on an hourly basis, including state-sponsored executions. The issue is not whether technology-enabled access to horrific material is having a desensitizing and normalizing effect; it's that our limited access to such material over the past few decades was an exception to the historical norm.
That began to change with the founding of websites such as Rotten.com, Ogrish.com and others, which gleefully hosted still images and videos of horrific events, including victims of the Sept. 11 attacks leaping from the World Trade Center. During the Iraq war, a number of sites also published fresh daily images sent in from the battlefields by U.S. military personnel.
While those sites were often rotting bazaars of the bizarre, full of amateur pornography and documentation of the margins of human behaviour, some of them also offered a form of firsthand journalism that was especially valuable when access to the war's reality was being so severely restricted.
Nowadays, sites such as DocumentingReality.com and LiveLeak.com carry that mission forward, albeit in a lurching, sideways fashion. Members of those online communities submit hundreds of photographs, video, and audio snippets every day from around the world, a cavalcade of awfulness: Here is a dead young Mexican woman lying in a field, part of her face shot off; here is another young corpse, her gut split open in mid-autopsy; here is a man lying on the pavement outside his home in some unidentified country, blood pooling beneath him. And many images that are much, much worse.
"I think people get this vision in their head of some guy with his pants down in front of a computer looking at a bunch of dead people. That's really not the atmosphere," insists one longtime member of DocumentingReality.com.
For there are also images drawn from armed conflicts around the world, from Syria to Sudan, almost as raw as hacked flesh, and much stronger medicine than any mainstream media outlet would dare publish. The site claims about 150,000 unique viewers a day.
"I think, generally, people have a curiosity of the macabre," says the member of Documenting Reality, a man in his early 30s who served for three years as a police officer. "I think that adults who are curious and want to see it should have the right to see it."
Who wants to see that stuff? In the past, the material might have taken centre stage in a truth-or-dare-style rite of passage for young men: The 1978 cult classic Faces of Death is still mentioned by those who grew up in the eighties. But the audience is much broader now. Documenting Reality, its member says, has a surprising number of site moderators who are women in their 30s. (He referred to them as "housewives.")
It's impossible to say how casual viewers are affected; everyone brings their own bias to the debate. "It takes a little bit of the soul away," argues David Kerekes, the London-based co-author of Killing for Culture: Death on Film and the Enigma of Snuff, a 1993 study of the genre that will be reissued later this year with a comprehensive update looking at the effect of the Internet on culture. "You lose a little bit of humanity."
Still, people use the material in different ways. Producing it may even be therapeutic. In his 2008 feature, Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera, Minnesota filmmaker Paul von Stoetzel included a section about material that had been captured by soldiers on the ground in Iraq. A former U.S. infantryman, von Stoetzel says that soldiers documenting their experiences through still pictures and video is now commonplace.
"You record it because that's your work, that's your everyday life. And I think a lot of times everyone's trying to wrap their heads around it. To be frank, it's easier to grasp and understand [that way]. It's like standing in front of a giant monument, and if you take little bits of images and pieces of it, you can absorb it and take it in."