Forensic Semiotics: Commodification of Death

Many posts on focus on the theoretical intersection of murder and conspiracy theory. In particular, the idea that there was a Surrealist conspiracy linked to the USSR which caused pop-culture hysterias around things like the Hells Angels, The Manson Family, Snuff Films, and especially the Black Dahlia case. Perhaps this makes more sense than some of my purely handwritten stuff. By comparison to the sample raw analysis in the prior two blogs; this article represents more of a polished work product. Quite a bit more to be done on this one, but you may get the value.

Forensic Semiotics: Surrealism, Communism, and the Dark Allure of the Commodified Death Narrative

By Michael Hotchkiss ( – Developed with Gemini Pro 1.5 (human edits)


In the labyrinth of human perception and interpretation, where shadows of reality intertwine with threads of imagination, lies the enigmatic domain of forensic semiotics. Like detectives deciphering cryptic clues, forensic semioticians delve into the hidden meanings and veiled motives behind signs and symbols, seeking to unravel the mysteries of human behavior and communication.

As we embark on an exploration of the “commodified death” narrative and its connection to Surrealism and communist propaganda, forensic semiotics provides a guiding light, illuminating the path through a tangled web of artistic expression, ideological agendas, and potential disinformation campaigns. By meticulously analyzing the sign systems at play, we can uncover the underlying messages, deconstruct the narratives, and expose the strategic intent behind this disturbing and enduring phenomenon.

Murder as a Fine art and the Commodification of Death in Relation to Communist Ideology

The concept of “murder as a fine art” and the commodification of death weave a disturbing narrative that intertwines with the history of Surrealist cinema and its potential ties to communist propaganda. From real-life tragedies like the Black Dahlia case to fictional explorations in films such as Twin Peaks and Meshes of the Afternoon to urban legends of snuff films; a consistent aesthetic emerges, blurring the lines between art, violence, and the macabre.

This aesthetic aligns with a broader disinformation strategy aimed at portraying Western societies as decadent, morally corrupt, and in a state of decline, potentially serving the goals of Soviet-era propaganda and Cold War competition. Figures like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, associated with both Surrealist cinema and communist sympathies, faced scrutiny for their ideological beliefs and ultimately left the United States during the height of the Red Scare.

Similarly, Kenneth Anger – who also lived as an expat with his older lover Jean Cocteau in this same timeframe, embodies the enigmatic and transgressive nature of this network. Anger is rumored to be the father of snuff films and has a central position in a social network which connects both the Black Dahlia and Tate-LaBianca murders. Further, Anger himself fits the popularly mythologized profile of the killer who is speculated to have actually been a surrealist inspired by the artwork of Man Ray.

The recurring themes of violence against women and the rise of satanic and occult practices in everyday society serve as potent symbols of social and moral decay and reinforces the narrative of Western decline. Through a forensic semiotic lens, we can deconstruct the sign systems at play and explore the potential strategic intent behind this disturbing and enduring narrative.

Examples of the Commodified Death Narrative in Culture and Media

While the specific actors and motives behind each event may differ, the consistent themes and strategic implications suggest a possible overarching narrative of Western decline and the potential for external manipulation. Here are just a few of the prominent examples which might plausibly be linked to strategic disinformation campaigns or national security threats:

Urban Legends:

Snuff Films: The concept of snuff films, whether real or fabricated, reinforces the image of Western societies as depraved and morally bankrupt, where even the most extreme forms of violence are commodified for entertainment. Film makers like Kenneth Anger who have perpetuated rumors about creating snuff films or being arrested for snuff films contribute to this mystique. To date, the only actual snuff films proven to have existed were created by Russian mafia members.

Secret Cures: The concept that pharmaceutical companies and the government keep cures for fatal diseases secret; because the presumably simple solutions to diseases like cancer would eat into their profit margins.

True Crime:

Black Dahlia Case: The brutal and unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, with its potential links to Surrealism, symbolizes the dark side of Hollywood glamour, the exploitation of women in potentially occult circumstances, and the hidden violence lurking beneath the surface of American society.

Manson Murders: The Manson Family killings, with their associations with the occult and counterculture movements, further contribute to the narrative of social breakdown and the dangers of alternative lifestyles.

Hells Angels: The rise of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, often depicted as violent and lawless, reinforces the image of a society in decline, where traditional values and authority are eroding. Their business model is based off of violence, exploitation, and the general threat of homicide; as well as the objective commodification of sex and drugs. One of the first deaths on camera was recorded at a Rolling Stones concert where a member of the Hells Angels stabbed Meridith Parker and threatened to ignite a racial conflict. (The proliferation of films about motorcycle gangs such as Scorpio Rising and Easy Rider also clearly intersect with this network and theme.)

Media and Film:

The Third Man: Harry Lime’s character is an American who sells black market penicillin that kills people. It represented one of the first depictions of an American as a villain in post-war cinema. The film paints a picture of an America to the world that is not idealistic, but rather cynical and prioritizes profit over life.

Twin Peaks: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series, with its blend of Surrealism, the occult, and small-town secrets, reflects the anxieties and complexities of American society, while also questioning the nature of reality and perception.

Kenneth Anger : Deeper Dive Into Criminal and Surrealist Network Centrality

Network demonstrating overlap with surrealism and satanism in context of Black Dahlia and Tate-LaBianca cases (NOT AI GENERATED)

Figure 1: Network Diagram of Kenneth Anger (Not AI Generated)

The provided network diagram visually represents the complex web of relationships and connections between individuals and movements associated with Surrealism, communism, and violence, particularly concerning the cases of the Black Dahlia and the Tate-LaBianca murders. Let’s analyze these connections and their potential implications for a disinformation strategy aimed at undermining Western society.

  • Kenneth Anger: As depicted in the diagram, Anger occupies a central position, connecting various individuals and groups associated with Surrealism, the occult, and the aforementioned murder cases. His role as a filmmaker exploring themes of violence, death, and transgression aligns with the broader narrative of “murder as a fine art” and the commodification of death.
  • Black Dahlia Case: Anger’s connection to John Gilmore, a writer on the Black Dahlia case, and the potential influence of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon on the crime scene aesthetics suggest a possible link between Surrealism and the murder. (Deren was an early inspiration for Anger as a surrealist.) Anger was also the first person to publicly publish the Black Dahlia crime scene photos in his “Hollywood Babylon” book.
  • Tate-LaBianca Murders: Anger’s connections to several Manson Family members, including Bobby Beausoleil (a former lover) and Susan Atkins, raise questions about his potential influence or involvement in the events leading up to the murders. Anger is also highly proximate to Anton LaVey, of the Church of Satan; who was also connected to the Manson Family.

Proven Russian Intelligence Associations – Agents of Influence or Useful Idiots?

While Kenneth Anger is not known for a Russian intelligence connection, there is a precedence among the Surrealist film directors. The evidence undeniably establishes objective connections between Orson Welles and individuals involved with Soviet intelligence or propaganda efforts. Welles’ self-described “political mentor,” Louis Dolivet, is confirmed as a Soviet agent through the Venona decryptions and other historical records. Dolivet’s influence on Welles is apparent, particularly in their collaboration on the film Mr. Arkadin, which was financed and produced by Dolivet. Further, Welles’ involvement in The Third Man places him within a network connected to the Cambridge Five spy ring, as the film’s script was heavily influenced by H.P. Smolka, a member of the spy ring, and the film itself is widely considered to be based on the exploits of Kim Philby. Additionally, Welles worked with Alexander Korda, whose studio employed Moura Budberg, another suspected Soviet agent with connections to the Cambridge Five.

These connections and collaborations, coupled with the thematic content of films like Citizen Kane and The Stranger, which could be interpreted as aligning with anti-fascist and pro-Soviet narratives, objectively position Welles within a network that served Soviet propaganda goals, regardless of his personal awareness or intentions.

While the evidence for Chaplin’s direct involvement with Soviet espionage is less substantial than that of Welles, his association with Ivor Montagu, a filmmaker with documented ties to Soviet intelligence, raises similar questions about potential collaboration or influence. Montagu was identified as a communist and a potential Soviet recruit in decrypted telegrams from the 1940s. His efforts to bring Sergei Eisenstein to Hollywood to direct an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds further highlight his connections to the Soviet film industry and its objectives. Chaplin’s friendship with Montagu and his own leftist political views suggest a potential pathway for collaboration or influence, even if it was indirect or unintentional.

It is with this background, we consider a grounding for the analysis of the “commodified death” in films like Monsieur Verdoux (to which Chaplin credited Welles as the creator of the concept); and to the theme of The Third Man – which depicted a cynical racket for black market penicillin which killed innocent people – as a theoretical strategic conspiracy narrative with roots in strategic Soviet communications.

Forensic Semiotics of the “Commodified Death” Conspiracy Theory: 

Assuming a hypothetical scenario where Surrealist directors have created a conspiracy theory utilizing the commodification of death to undermine Western society, aligned with Soviet-era disinformation and Cold War competition, we can construct Peircean FS1 and FS2 analyses to explore the potential sign systems at play.

First-Order Sign System (FS1 – Individual Level):

Peircean ConceptSign System ElementInterpretation
SignExposure to films, art, and media that explore themes of violence, death, and the occult, often with a Surrealist aesthetic or influence.These works act as the primary signifiers, introducing individuals to the concept of commodified death and its association with Western decadence.
ObjectThe object signified is multifaceted, encompassing the belief in the existence of snuff films and underground markets for extreme content, as well as the perceived link between these phenomena and the moral decay of Western societies.This object fuels anxieties about the commodification of human life and the erosion of ethical boundaries.
InterpretantFear, disgust, fascination, and a sense of disillusionment with Western values and societal norms.The interpretant varies among individuals but often leads to a questioning of the foundations of society and a distrust of established institutions.
RepresentamenThe specific content and aesthetics of Surrealist-inspired films, art, and media that depict violence, death, and the occult, often in a shocking or transgressive manner.The representamen shapes individual perceptions and reinforces the narrative of commodified death.
GroundThe ground for this narrative includes existing anxieties about social and moral decline, fascination with the macabre, and a general distrust of authority figures and institutions.This pre-existing cultural context makes individuals more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories and accepting the narrative of Western decadence.

Second-Order Sign System (FS2 – Organizational/Cultural Level):

Peircean ConceptSign System ElementInterpretation
SignThe proliferation of conspiracy theories and narratives about snuff films and the commodification of death, often disseminated through alternative media channels and online communities.This widespread dissemination acts as a sign of a coordinated information operation, aimed at influencing public opinion and shaping cultural perceptions.
ObjectThe object signified is the destabilization of Western societies, the erosion of trust in institutions, and the promotion of a narrative that aligns with Soviet-era propaganda and Cold War competition.This objective seeks to undermine the legitimacy of Western governments and promote alternative ideologies, potentially communism or other anti-capitalist systems.
InterpretantThe interpretant includes the understanding of these narratives as tools for achieving strategic objectives, weakening Western alliances, and influencing global perceptions of Western societies as morally corrupt and in decline.This interpretation suggests a deliberate and calculated strategy behind the dissemination of the “commodified death” conspiracy theory.
RepresentamenThe coordinated messaging, the use of propaganda techniques, and the alignment of the narrative with Soviet-era disinformation goals serve as the representamen.The way the information is presented and framed reinforces the intended interpretation and serves the broader strategic objectives.
GroundThe historical context of the Cold War, the ideological struggle between East and West, and the Soviet Union’s expertise in disinformation and active measures provide the ground for this sign system.This context makes the narrative of Western decline and the commodification of death more believable and impactful.

Functional Integration and Strategic Implications:

The FS1 and FS2 sign systems work together to create a powerful and synergistic effect:

  • Individual anxieties and predispositions (FS1) make people more susceptible to believing in the conspiracy theory and accepting the narrative of Western decline.
  • The organized dissemination of the narrative through various channels (FS2) amplifies these anxieties and beliefs, reaching a wider audience and influencing public opinion.
  • This creates a feedback loop, where the increased belief in the conspiracy theory further fuels individual anxieties and reinforces the narrative, making it more difficult to counter or debunk.

The strategic implications of this disinformation campaign include:

  • Erosion of Trust: Undermining public trust in institutions, media, and authority figures, leading to social division and instability.
  • Promoting Anti-Western Sentiment: Fueling anti-Western sentiment and portraying Western societies as morally corrupt and in decline, potentially driving support for alternative ideologies and political systems.
  • Justification for Authoritarianism: The narrative of Western decadence can be used to justify authoritarian regimes and their policies, claiming that they are necessary to maintain order and protect society from moral decay.

Challenges and Countermeasures:

  • Attribution: As with many disinformation campaigns, attributing this specific operation to Surrealist directors or any particular group may be difficult due to the covert nature of such activities and the challenges of tracing the origins of information.
  • Countering the Narrative: Developing effective counter-narratives that promote critical thinking, media literacy, and a more nuanced understanding of complex social issues is essential for mitigating the impact of disinformation.
  • Strengthening Social Cohesion: Building strong and resilient communities that are resistant to division and distrust is crucial for countering the destabilizing effects of disinformation campaigns.

Reflecting on the Potential Effectiveness of the Campaign Based on the Shift in Popular Narrative Surrounding Elizabeth Short’s Murder

It is striking to observe how contemporary news reports from 1947 covering the Black Dahlia murder lack the emphasis on commodification, exploitation, and societal decay that permeate modern interpretations of the case. Newspapers at the time focused primarily on the gruesome details of the crime, the ongoing police investigation, and the speculation surrounding potential suspects. While some articles touched on the dangers of Hollywood and the vulnerability of young women seeking fame, the focus was mainly on the sensational aspects of the murder rather than broader social commentary. This absence is telling, as it highlights the evolution of the narrative over time and the potential success of a long-term disinformation campaign.

The current prevalence of the “commodified death” narrative, with its focus on the dark underbelly of Hollywood, the exploitation of women, and the decline of Western morals, suggests that a significant shift in perception has occurred. Whether intentional or not, this narrative aligns with broader strategic objectives of portraying Western societies as decadent and corrupt. The fact that this interpretation has taken hold so firmly in popular culture and continues to fuel speculation and conspiracy theories speaks to the effectiveness of this narrative, whether hypothetical or grounded in a more deliberate disinformation campaign.


In conclusion, the “commodified death” conspiracy theory, within this hypothetical scenario, serves as a powerful tool for undermining Western societies and promoting a subversive worldview aligned with Soviet era disinformation goals. Understanding the sign systems at play and their functional integration allows for a more comprehensive analysis of the campaign’s strategic intent and its potential impact on individuals and society.