Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of child abuse.
If you're like me, your internet curiosity sometimes carries you to things that make you feel like you need to wash out your head. When I was in high school, like many kids with internet access and an attraction to the morbid, I browsed Rotten.com, the grossest place on the internet at the time. The site's smirking misanthropy didn't appeal to me—I wasn't there to laugh at photos of people who had died violently—but I did think it was important, for whatever reason, to actually see Chris Farley's corpse, and Rotten was happy to help me out with that. I've also watched the full video of journalist Daniel Pearl getting beheaded, and listened to the audio records made during the Jonestown massacre.
I'm far from the only one who's wandered into those dark—but easily accessible—corners of the internet. Earlier this year journalist Brianna Snyder wrote an account for Wired about her experience watching horrific videos of murder and her attempts to rationalize her viewing habits. "I know I am contributing to the humiliation and dehumanization of the victims whose deaths are caught on video," she concluded. "And I can't apologize enough to them for contributing to it. My guilt doesn't absolve me of my voyeurism. It only makes me more a part of these victims' abuse and pain."
Most people who watch these things are less apologetic, however. You can find plenty of them—where else?—on Reddit, more precisely on the r/deepweb subreddit, where users gather to trade gossip about the worst things on the deep web, the collective name for the unindexed (meaning Google-proof), and usually encrypted sites on the web. That's where I heard about "Dafu Love," an alleged snuff film that is one of the most horrible videos ever made—if it's not simply a 21st-century urban legend.
"What is Dafu Love?" a thread started by a redditor named ImAPotatoBoss asked. "I've heard people talk about people who have gone insane watching it," he went on. "But, what is it?"
According to secondhand accounts, the supposed video features a real Australian man living in the Philippines named Peter Scully, who, along with his accomplices, tortures several babies to death. Rumor has it they use a hammer and chisel to break a baby's skull. Rumor has it they disembowel a baby. Rumor has it, they beat two babies together as though they're having a pillow fight, until the impact finally kills them.
If anyone admitted to seeing "Dafu Love," they'd be essentially confessing to a crime.
I've looked for evidence that "Dafu Love" existed, and never found anything concrete. It's hard to substantiate the rumors (one early account of the video was written in Spanish, another comes in the form of a YouTube video), and given its disgusting supposed content, its not surprising that no one is bragging about seeing it.
If anyone admitted to seeing "Dafu Love," they'd be essentially confessing to a crime, according to Frank Kardasz, former commander of the Arizona Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. "We have in the past arrested 'researchers' who then unsuccessfully tried to invoke a First Amendment/free speech/publisher protection for their contraband image collection," Kardasz told me. "You don't want to be 'That Guy.'"
If "Dafu Love" does exist online, it would be on the deep web—computer security expert Gareth Owen found in a study last year that 80 percent of Deep Web use is connected in some way to pedophilia. That follows a long trend of pedophiles using technology to amass collections of child pornography. In the 70s and 80s, Kardasz said, these materials were mostly distributed by snail mail, and until the mid 90s, "there was no such thing as an investigative unit anywhere whose sole focus was contraband images depicting the sexual exploitation of minors... At that time, such investigations were infrequent enough that they were only subordinate duties for investigators who mostly worked other types of crimes."
Since the advent of the internet, the scale of enforcement has exploded. "Every state in the US now has an ICAC task force," Kardasz said, adding that in addition to those task forces, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have units dedicated to arresting and prosecuting those who commit crimes against children.
Today there are law enforcement teams focused solely on the deep web. "There are more difficult cases where the child abuse material is being hosted on the Deep Web, and much of it is gone very quickly," said Detective Roy Calarese of the Chester County Computer Forensics Lab.
Peter Scully, the man rumored to be behind "Dafu Love," is one of the most loathsome nodes on the network of deep-web pedophiles. The 52-year-old Australian is currently locked away in the Philippines, awaiting trial for rape and human trafficking and under investigation for the kidnapping and murder of children.
According to reports from the Australian media, Scully moved to the Philippines in 2011 after being charged with fraud. While living there, he allegedly began making pornographic films of underage girls for a depraved global market; he was reportedly paid $10,000 (over $7,000 USD) by those who wanted to view his most notorious film, "The Destruction of Daisy," which allegedly features the torture of a baby under the age of two.
The video surfaced in Europe, according to an Australian 60 Minutes report—Scully's face was blurred out, but his Australian accent gave investigators enough to find him after a worldwide search.
The only accounts of "Dafu Love" are whispers passed from alleged viewers of the video to those who want to pass the horror on to the rest of the world.
The Australian federal police did not return multiple requests for comment about Scully and "Dafu Love," and it doesn't appear that they've spoken to other media outlets about the video either.
The only accounts of "Dafu Love" are whispers passed from alleged viewers of the video to those who want to pass the horror on to the rest of the world. YouTuber vloggers who have supposedly been given insider knowledge of the video shake their heads, condemn the horrific crimes they're about to describe, and warn their viewers that they're about to hear something horrible. On the internet, a warning like that guarantees a captive audience—a video posted by a user named Takedownman has garnered hundreds of thousands of viewers in three months.
"I have had many fans ask about if it was real and if Scully was involved," Takedownman told me when I asked him what drew him to the topic, adding that Scully was "the scum of the Earth." But he couldn't help me validate the rumors about the video. "'Dafu Love' is something that many people have said is very real on the deep web. However, on the surface web, many have stated it is a fake."
Indeed, others dismiss "Dafu Love" as an urban legend—nothing but a sadder version of Slender Man designed to creep the curious out. The earliest account seems to be an undated post on the Wikia community Creepypasta that's old enough to have had comments posted on it in May 2014. Creepypasta is an entertaining repository of spooky shit to read during a sleepover, but not a news source. If that's the origin of "Dafu Love," it would point to "Dafu Love" being total bullshit.
When Peter Scully was interviewed by 60 Minutes, his answers as to why he did what he did were vague and nondescript to the point of being boring—it's not that he lacks remorse, it's that he seems completely divorced from the situation. But we can divorce ourselves from his sort of evil, as alien as it is to our lives. The harder question is why so many people—most of them presumably without a pedophiliac bone in their bodies—want to talk about "Dafu Love," and why so many others are willing and even eager to watch videos of people being dismembered and killed.
The difference between people who want to close their eyes when confronted with horror and those who peek may never be understood.
Last year, when Islamic State beheadings were big news, an academic paper titled "Captivated and Grossed Out: An Examination of Processing Core and Sociomoral Disgusts in Entertainment Media" was published. I asked one of the authors, Bridget Rubenking, why descriptions of "Dafu Love" are so compelling to some people.
Having studied the disgust reactions of 130 test subjects, she's pretty sure it's about avoidance of taboos. Her hypothesis is that our ape brains are programmed to learn from watching the things we don't want to happen to ourselves, and that it's part of "our oral rejection system." Essentially, we instinctively want to follow taboos, but we also want to see them broken. A desire to see violent things happen to other people, she said, "may have manifested itself over time to tell us what practices and what people to avoid, and we rubberneck because we don't want to do the bad thing."
According to Kardasz, "one of the continuing challenges of crimes against children is the fact that emotionally, logically, and psychologically we so abhor these crimes that we want to do everything to deny their existence," he said.
But as the 239,000 views on Takedownman's video can attest, these crimes fascinate some of us, and not everyone wants to "deny their existence" at all. And the difference between people who want to close their eyes when confronted with horror and those who peek may never be understood.
"There's content for all types because there's all types of people. I don't know some of the underlying issues of why some people are more drawn to this content than not," Rubenking said. "People's moral codes may or may not be involved in the type of content that they can stomach."
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.