Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
Today AiPT! Movies editor Nathaniel Muir uncovers skeptic Erik Kristopher Myers’ independent film Butterfly Kisses, which takes a hard look at how easy it is to believe.
Released in 2018, Butterfly Kisses is a found footage movie that strives to be more than your run of the mill horror film. The film takes a familiar premise and puts a different spin on it. More character study than horror flick, it’s an interesting and fun watch.
Butterfly Kisses can be looked at in two ways. The first is as a straight-up found footage horror movie, a familiar premise. In 2015, filmmaker Gavin York finds a box of videotapes in the basement of his house. He watches them and discovers they were made by a pair of film students in 2004, who were investigating a local legend known as Peeping Tom. The pair’s disappearance becomes the subject of a documentary produced by York.
While the plot to Butterfly Kisses may sound unoriginal, the movie doesn’t follow the tropes the audience would expect. Though there is one or two, the film does not rely on jump scares to build tension. The atmosphere is created naturally through the frightening urban legend — after you’ve summoned Peeping Tom, every time you blink he appears a little closer. Once the young filmmakers have found a clever way to lure Tom out of hiding, the audience will constantly be looking around. The best horror movies create a sense of unease instead of fear.
Since found footage movies are supposed to be real, the acting has to be looked at a little differently. It is not so much about the performance we’re seeing, but the lack of an appearance of one. An award winning role is often complimented as being “natural.” Even then, it’s clearly an act.
Butterfly Kisses does a good job of having its cast just talk to the camera. These moments come off very well and the audience can easily be led to believe this is in fact an actual documentary. Unfortunately, there are moments when some people decide to act. These parts stand out from the rest of the movie and might ruin the immersion for the audience.
The other way to look at the film is as a character study, of the people in Butterfly Kisses, but also of us as individuals and society as a whole, which is where the movie truly succeeds. This is by far the more interesting way to look at it.
York is essentially the star of Butterfly Kisses, and it’s mainly through him that the audience sees how far a person will go to believe. Though he says he is verifying the authenticity of the tapes, it’s clear he never truly questions what he’s seen. Instead of asking those who would provide an objective answer regarding the urban legend, York instead speaks with a an author of ghost stories, the host of the television show Finding Bigfoot, and even a Facebook group that’s dedicated to investigating the paranormal. It speaks volumes when York states, “The absence of proof is not the absence of belief.”
Along with York, Butterfly Kisses shows how easy it is for people in general to convince themselves into believing the most far-fetched tales. As with any good documentary, the one about Peeping Tom is filled with man-on-the-street interviews. The fact that every subject believes in the legend is not surprising; the best comments can be cherry-picked in post production, after all. What is shocking is how nonchalantly those being interviewed discuss Peeping Tom.
As is the case with most urban legends, all the accounts are secondhand at best. The stories are of the “friend of a friend of a friend” variety. As to why there’s no proof? One man puts it plainly and without a hint of sarcasm or irony — there can’t be any proof since everyone who’s seen Peeping Tom dies. What makes these moments more poignant is these are the types of conversations we’ve all had with someone.
Butterfly Kisses is an engaging watch. As a horror movie, it’s not outstanding. It runs too long, stops being original, and loses its focus as it draws to a close. As an examination of the human belief system, it’s very interesting. Watching people casually describe why the ridiculous is believable and seeing an “unbiased” investigator go to sources who will validate his claim is what makes the film truly stand out. These moments are true to life and the scariest part of the entire endeavor.