The video clip begins with what looks like grainy security camera footage of a workshop, strewn with various machines and equipment. A man, with his back to the camera, works over a lathe. “So it starts out with, like, regular CCTV footage,” drones a narrator in the identifiable vocal timbre of a YouTuber. “I worked in places that looked like this shit too.”
The man in the footage walks around the machine, attending to his job, while the narrator fills the air with patter about air conditioning and his experiences in similar industrial workplaces. Suddenly, the worker lurches forward. His arm is caught in the lathe. “There he goes,” says the narrator, amused, like he’s watching a football play. “And he knows.” A blur descends over the picture, obscuring the gruesome detail. But you can still make out the general contours of what’s happening, as the man’s body is flung wildly around in circles, torn to pieces by the rapid movement of the machine.
This is a video from the YouTube channel of Plagued Moth, a leading content creator in a loosely organised online community who describe themselves as explorers of the darker side of human experience. They share and dissect real-life stories and videos of violence, murder and death like they’re horror movies. Plagued Moth is particularly interested in and knowledgeable about gore content: videos that depict people being killed, maimed and tortured that are passed around and shared in the seedier alleyways of the internet. Everything from cartel executions to violent traffic accidents falls under his purview, and is dissected for an audience that ranges in disposition from eager to squeamish.
Whereas much mainstream true crime these days hides its more lurid motivations under (often dubious) journalistic pretensions, these content creators are far more honest about their mission: they want to scare the shit out of you.
He, and others like him, act as guides for those who might be too squeamish to actually watch the videos in question. One of his more popular video series uses the popular “iceberg” tier meme to explore more and more depraved content: as you travel further below the surface, the content gets both rarer and worse. Plagued Moth’s videos alone have racked up over 30 million views, and he maintains a Patreon where he shares uncensored content with his most committed fans.
These content creators and their fans effectively represent the more extreme end of the true crime community, somewhat removed from the bubbly podcast hosts and omnipresent Squarespace ads. The past decade has seen a boom in true crime content, with just about every lurid historical transgression you could name being explored in documentaries and podcasts, and dramatised in film. Endless thought and cultural navelgazing has been dedicated to understanding what it is about the format that viewers find so endlessly compelling, and whether our fixation on violent crime might create ethical problems.
Those questions are largely thrown out the window when it comes to the darker side of the scene.
Crime, death and violence are turned into scary stories and shock content for a viewership who crave the extreme. They generally lack the sheen of a Netflix production or chart-ranking true crime podcast, and often borrow aesthetics from horror movies and heavy metal. Whereas much mainstream true crime these days hides its more lurid motivations under (often dubious) journalistic pretensions, these content creators are far more honest about their mission: they want to scare the shit out of you.
YouTuber Disturban, who boasts nearly half a million followers, represents a slighter tamer side of this world. He isn’t particularly interested in gore videos - though he respects what PlaguedMoth and similar creators do, and what they’re able to stomach – but his content nonetheless focuses on “gruesome and lesser known” true crime cases, which he narrates with the chilling airs of a campfire ghost story.
“I think what people ultimately want when they click on a true crime video is that thrill – to be scared, disgusted, repulsed or whatever,” he told VICE.
Gore has a long and rich history at the weirder fringe of the horror fandom. The year 1978 saw the release of so-called “mondo horror” movie Faces of Death, which combined obviously fake footage of Satanic ritual murders and people eating monkey brains with genuine scenes of chaos and death culled from newsreel and police footage. Derided as cheap and tasteless at the time and banned in multiple countries (though possibly not the 40 it sensationally claimed in its marketing) it quickly achieved cult status among an echelon of extreme horror diehards who wanted something more fucked up than exploitation cinema could offer. They wanted something real.
In Australia, where Faces of Death was banned by the classification board despite the lobbying of distributor Village Roadshow – which wanted to show it in theatres – the movie was traded among enthusiasts on bootleg tapes which made it into the country in the late eighties. The film spawned a number of sequels, none of which achieved the same level of urban legend and tended to feature much goofier setups – and much less real death.
Users of the internet at the turn of the millennium will no doubt remember the popularity of ‘shock sites’ like Rotten.com and Ogrish, which hosted graphic photos and video of gory death for an audience that was really only just wrapping their heads around the fact they could consume content on the internet at all. These sites served a dual purpose: both as a choice destination for sickos who wanted to luxuriate in their grisly output and as a guaranteed means of ruining your mate’s day. For the edgy, wallet-chain-wearing teens cutting their teeth on the often much nastier internet of 2001, there was no more sophisticated comedy than tricking a friend into pulling up photos of a bloody car accident on their CRT monitor.
4chan, and particularly its /b/ board, also became a reliable repository of gore and death imagery, largely for its trollish shock value. Links to many of the internet’s most notorious videos were traded on its pages, mostly as a game of lulz brinksmanship between users attuned to the disturbing and objectionable.
The earlier shock sites were supplanted by LiveLeak, a one-stop shop for footage that wouldn’t be hosted on more well-to-do video platforms. That meant gore – and plenty of it – but also heterodox citizen journalism and confronting footage from active warzones. It shut down in 2021 after fifteen years of operation and nonstop controversy, with co-founder Hayden Hewitt announcing the internet had “changed a lot” since the site launched.
“Everything’s different now, everything moves on,” he said in a YouTube video announcing the closure. “I don’t fucking like it. I liked it much better when it was the Wild West.”
For the edgy, wallet-chain-wearing teens cutting their teeth on the often much nastier internet of 2001, there was no more sophisticated comedy than tricking a friend into pulling up photos of a bloody car accident on their CRT monitor.
The internet in the 2010s may have shed some of its earlier frontier weirdness, but that doesn’t mean the audience for violent content has gone away. Longstanding forums continue to provide a place for people to share some of the worst, most violent content the internet has to offer, and the ubiquity of smartphones has ensured a steady supply. Documenting Reality, which promises in its tagline that “there are some things you just can’t unsee”, still hosts numerous subforums where its users share and discuss photos and videos of autopsies, accidents and dead celebrities, and analyse bits of visceral true crime ephemera like 9-1-1 dispatch calls.
Creator economics have come to bear on this scene, too. For a mere $14 a month, you can join the Legacy Gold Member tier of the Documenting Reality Patreon, which offers special access and an elevated membership of the forums.
The social web has proved a perfectly suitable staging ground for a gore resurgence over the past decade. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who, in navigating the algorithmic sludge of social media, hasn’t stumbled on something they wish they hadn’t seen. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have frequently played host to violent footage, as their respective moderation teams race to expunge it. In 2020, TikTok was sent into overdrive trying to take down widely-shared footage of a man dying by suicide, which was repeatedly uploaded by different users in an effort to exploit the platform’s autoplay.
Reddit, in its meaner, less advertiser-friendly days, hosted a number of communities which promised the inimitable thrill of seeing someone die – or the immediate aftermath of a death. Most prominent among them was the aptly-named r/WatchPeopleDie, which delivered precisely what its name promised until it was banned in the wake of the Christchurch shootings in 2019. (Hosting clips and images from the livestream of that attack remains the fastest way to get a gore subreddit banned.)
Subreddits like r/CrazyFuckingVideos and r/GoryAccidents continue to host clips of fatalities, skating along the edge of Reddit’s relatively permissive content moderation guidelines. r/NSFL, which boasts nearly 140,000 subscribers despite being repeatedly banned and hidden from public view, also provides a forum for people to share photos and video of mutilated corpses and gruesome injuries, but insists that it’s a project of some journalistic importance and not for mere titillation. “We stand to educate, document, report, and understand why situations happen and how they could've been avoided,” the sidebar reads.
Its list of rules are extensive. No politically sensitive gore footage from events like the Christchurch or Buffalo shootings. No glorification of mass shooters and serial killers. No promotion of terrorism. No self-harm. No sexual content whatsoever. Perhaps most importantly: no shaming.
“Don't like what you are looking at?” a moderator writes. “Me either, but it's the sad world we live in.”
Daniel, a 26-year-old Reddit user who lurks and comments on communities like r/NSFL, told VICE that he has been fascinated by stories of death and murder for as long as he can remember. He insists that he doesn’t consume gore content for the “sick thrill” but more as a way of confronting his deep-seated fear of dying. “To me it’s all about how fragile life is, and how you can be here one day and then not the next,” he said.
“Looking at stuff like this and seeing how quickly it can happen helps me deal with something I’ve always been scared of. It definitely comes down to fear. I don’t, like, enjoy it in the same way I enjoy watching a TV show. Part of me kinda hates it.”
Throughout the community, you can see a similar sentiment expressed by thousands of users. It’s like a car crash you can’t look away from – except, in many of these cases, it quite literally is a car crash. It’s an impulse far older than the internet, but one the internet is uniquely positioned to supply.
Even through the site shutdowns and platform censorship, gore finds a way to get in front of its audience.
Read more from VICE Australia.