Folklore Fights Back: Visual Archives and Unsettling Cultural Landscapes in Savageland (2015) and Butterfly Kisses (2018)

Isaiah Frost Rivera

Though often excluded from the found footage genre, mockumentary horror films offer a fascinating look at how contemporary found-footage media consistently reestablish and redefine horror conventions through innovative storytelling techniques.[1] Two independent films by first-time horror directors that embrace this generative quality are Savageland (2015) and Butterfly Kisses (2018), each a chilling, genre-bending mockumentary horror that reveals the disastrous consequences of suppressing local and global histories. Although their contents—and creatures—vary, these films utilize similar narrative elements such as technological manipulation, supernatural folklore, and infection in order to complicate our engagement with digital media in the metamodern age. They also push the limits of how found footage grapples with social violence and domination, since the transgression of conventional narrative structure reflects the potential transgression of the settler colonial nation-state.

By framing themselves as true crime exposés ending in bloodshed, Savageland and Butterfly Kisses highlight the importance of documenting crimes against humanity while also uncovering how historical artifacts, specifically photographs and video footage, can be manipulated to obscure an authentic account. They also interrogate the notion of bearing witness, as the desire to capture extraordinary phenomena on camera leads each film’s protagonists to make ethically troubling decisions. Using visual mediums including digital and single-lens reflex cameras, cassette tapes, and camera rolls, these films employ technology as a necessity for archiving the past even as their folkloric monsters unsettle digital and cultural landscapes in the found footage canon.

Written and directed by self-described ‘triumvirate’ Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan, Savageland expands the boundaries of what constitutes found footage thematically, in terms of  its sociopolitical realism, and literally, as the ‘footage’ in question is not video evidence but rather photographs that disrupt how folklore can preserve the experiences of marginalized communities. Butterfly Kisses, written and directed by the late Erik Kristopher Myers, offers a meta-deconstruction of the found footage genre that unpacks the allure of digital voyeurism and memetic distribution and displays how folklore literally takes on a life of its own, despite efforts to overwrite historical violence. Analyzed together, these two critically overlooked films effectively debunk alarmist claims that found footage is ‘oversaturated’, ‘outdated’, or even ‘dead’, proving that the genre continues to barrel forward in exciting and unpredictable ways.


‘Desert. Sand. Hate. Fear’: Archival Rage in Savageland (2015)

Savageland is a gritty mockumentary that investigates the community-wide massacre of fictionalized Arizona border town Sangre de Cristo (unaffectionately dubbed ‘Savageland’ by local gringos). On July 11th, 2011, all fifty-seven of the town’s residents were brutally killed, their bodies mutilated and covered in human bite marks, some missing altogether. Two years later, the sole survivor, local handyman and photographer Francisco Salazar (Noé Montes), is arrested for the crime, indicted, and executed. When a reporter (Lawrence Ross) uncovers Salazar’s camera roll of thirty-six photographs, taken the night of the murders, a retired Border Patrol officer (J.C. Carlos) retraces Salazar’s movements through the town, revealing that Sangre de Cristo was in fact wiped out by an unstoppable horde of flesh-eating zombies.

Like many found footage films, Savageland blurs reality and fiction to maintain a naturalistic style. Accordingly, many of its characters share names and/or occupations with the actors who portray them, a uniquely metatextual casting choice that reflects the film’s problematizing of image-production and historical preservation. Author and lecturer Lawrence Ross plays a version of himself who, one week before Salazar’s appeal verdict, publishes a book erroneously theorizing that the massacre’s true culprits were white supremacists: the film even juxtaposes Salazar’s photos with archival images of the Ku Klux Klan, as Ross lists several United States injustices: “Nat Turner. Scottsboro Boys. The Tulsa Race Riots. Zoot Suit Riots. Camp Grant Massacre. Operation Wetback. Rodney King. Sangre de Cristo.” The late Len Wein, creator of Swamp Thing and Wolverine, plays Len Matheson, a Vietnam war photographer who rationalizes Salazar’s impulse to document: “The amazing thing about being a photographer is so long as you’re behind that lens… you are indestructible.” Noé Montes, a California-based photographer who takes ethically minded portraits of disadvantaged communities, plays Francisco Salazar, whose photos frantically capture a supernatural force of terror: “They were the same people [I knew], but they were dead.”

Fig. 1 – (from left) Lawrence Ross, Len Wein, Noé Montes.

Savageland’s folklore expands this critique of the ongoing mistreatment of oppressed groups. Although set in Arizona, Savageland derives its creatures from “the mytho-reality of Haiti’s folk tradition,” invoking zombies with a distinctly Afro-Caribbean flair as a “catalyzing metaphor” (Glover 121) for ultranationalism and the anti-immigration movement in the U.S. Ultimately, such xenophobic rhetoric is what scapegoats, infects, and zombifies Francisco Salazar: having unlawfully crossed the border, Salazar is already alienated by what Rubén G. Rumbaut calls “zombie ideas” the public harbors about immigrants, documented or otherwise; then, the trauma of witnessing a massacre further isolates him as he reverts to a catatonic, or zombie-like, state during sentencing; once he is executed and buried, video footage of another undead bloodbath reveals Salazar himself has literally become a zombie.

Salazar’s photos uncover another model of zombification via the border-breaking monsters who destroy his community. An “odd mix of H.P. Lovecraft, 30 Days of Night and a George A. Romero flick” (H.C. 2021), Savageland’s zombies are not reanimated by a virus or radiation but by evil itself; they possess glowing eyes, sharp teeth, contorted figures—one even appears to have an inverted cross seared into its forehead. By locking their demonic migration in a visual archive, Salazar frees these transgressive creatures from cultural suppression, yet he is unable to meaningfully intervene against their ruinous violence beyond documenting it. Even when he enters the frame in his final photo, all he can do is reach through a gated window and hold hands with a local missionary’s young daughter as zombies consume her. In this way, Savageland reminds us that despite the necessity to preserve history, archives often amount to little more than a glorified graveyard.


‘The Camera Doesn’t Lie’: Infectious Sight and Folkloric Memes in Butterfly Kisses (2018)

Butterfly Kisses is a mockumentary film-within-a-film-within-a-film: in the first, missing Maryland film students Sophia Crane (Rachel Armiger) and Feldman (Reed DeLisle) investigate an urban legend about a supernatural creature named ‘Peeping Tom’, who will torment whoever can stare unblinking down Ilchester Tunnel for an hour, each subsequent blink drawing him—and one’s imminent death—closer; in the next, aspiring filmmaker Gavin York (Seth Kallick) finds footage of their project and struggles to prove its authenticity to the general public; in the last, director Erik Kristopher Myers and his crew attempt a character study of Gavin as his determination to prove Peeping Tom’s existence destroys his family, his livelihood, and eventually his life.

Like Savageland, Butterfly Kisses features meta-casting that reflects its narrative investment in archives and historical proof. Save for Sophia, Feldman, and Gavin, virtually every actor in the film plays a version of themselves: supernatural experts like Matt Lake and Inspired Ghost Tracking, found footage creators including Eduardo Sánchez—co-director of The Blair Witch Project—and the film’s own director continually undermine the veracity of the Peeping Tom tapes and of the found footage genre itself. However, while metatextual deconstruction is central to the film’s thematic foundation, Butterfly Kisses is “not just self-referential, it’s self-replicating” (Harvey 2018); and like any virus eager to reproduce, it requires a host—the camera itself.

Fig. 2 – Peeping Tom emerges.

Though found footage movies often expose how “the camera obscures our vision, and stands between our eye and the things we wish to see” (Heller-Nicholas 23), in Butterfly Kisses the camera is vision, its lens a technological extension of Sophia’s and Feldman’s gaze; thus, when they point their camera’s unblinking eye at the tunnel’s end for an hour, they infect it—and themselves—with Peeping Tom’s subversion of sight, as his technological haunting spreads like a viral meme that transmits to Gavin, then to Erik, then finally to us the viewers, unwitting recipients of a contagious folkloric obsession. (Considering the film ends with Gavin and Feldman dead, Sophia having severed her eyelids to evade Peeping Tom’s wrath, and Myers restarting the vicious loop, our fates look equally bleak.)

This perpetual cycle speaks to what horror podcasters Nathan Simmons and Eric Harris conceptualize as Peeping Tom’s embodiment of social taboo, particularly U.S. race relations in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter: “You can’t just close your eyes and pretend that racism doesn’t exist, because when you do it just keeps getting stronger and closer. But…  if you stare at it for too long… the hate and vitriol and just all the terrible things in the world… that’s going to drive you crazy” (51:57-52:20). If Savageland suggests repressed histories always come back to bite, Butterfly Kisses has an equally urgent message: no matter how hard we try to avert our eyes—or eyelids, as it were—from the horrors of historical trauma, history refuses to be forgotten; but truly confronting the violent past that precedes us may well destroy our lives.

In this light, Sophia Crane’s self-mutilation is a paradoxical reaction to the burden of cultural knowledge; by eliminating the ability to close her eyes, thereby the possibility of her death at the hands of Peeping Tom, she can never again avoid the pursuing specter that is her complicity in white supremacy. Her eyes have been permanently opened; she will never be the same again. Yet this horrifying confrontation contains a silver lining: though its final shot lingers on her anguished expression, Butterfly Kisses ends with Sophia caressing Peeping Tom’s invisible face, her lidless eyes transfixed by the perverse pleasures of eternal voyeurism.

Fig. 3 – Sophia’s permanent gaze.


Conspiracies and Cover-Ups: When Archives Are Not Enough

While other found footage films explore moments when “a traumatic present is erasing an idyllic past, [and] the former is antagonistic to the latter” (Jackson 80), Savageland and Butterfly Kisses suggest the opposite; that the idyllic past, stripped of its legacies of exploitative violence against minoritized populations, is in fact antagonistic to the traumatic present, whose violence is compartmentalized and displaced onto individuals, removed entirely from its historical context, and dismissed as isolated intrusions upon an otherwise safe and bloodless landscape. In other words, the past is the trauma that continues to unsettle the sterilized present, which means trauma itself can also be idyllic, even as it threatens to erase the idealism of the past, because the existence of so-called ‘senseless’ carnage allows media outlets, digital manipulators, and agents of the state to obscure reality and long for a bygone era wherein violence was intimate and familiar, inflicted solely on their terms.

Unsurprisingly, Savageland and Butterfly Kisses are largely unrecognized entries in found footage because they delegitimize the very notion of footage itself, and audiences well-fed by studio horror’s fixation on spectacle do not take kindly to the desecration of their traditions. Yet even when they give viewers what we think we want, these movies continue to transgress genre expectations. Just as their fictional audiences reject evidence of the supernatural, both films have been questioned by external viewers, ironically because their provocative conclusions show too much. To disbelieving viewers of Butterfly Kisses, the post-credits psychiatric ward footage of Sophia Crane’s madness is a “strange choice” (Knopf 1:03:46) that “undercuts the movie itself” (59:15) by asserting Peeping Tom’s—and therefore, the entire film’s—authenticity. If viewers assumed they had fully discerned the (un)reality of Butterfly Kisses’ anti-found footage conceit, this final reveal denies them, and Sophia, that certainty. Just as she has locked herself into an endless visual archive of evil, we too have no choice but to stare at our wrongs.

In Savageland, while impatient viewers may have desired more than disturbing photography to satisfy their horror appetites, reviewers flag the film’s “fleeting reversion” to conventional video evidence in its final scene as “oddly anti-climactic” (West) and “out of place… after a near-perfect run” (Wilson). Using shaky cam and frenetic digital glitches, this ending jars viewers precisely because of how expected it is within the found footage genre. Yet it is only through this crude footage, not his boundary-defying photographs, that Salazar ascends into martyrdom; his innocence made legible, the idealized past made horrifically present. Thus, even in the pursuit of alternative futures, the past, in all its rotted glory, will always re-emerge.

Fig. 4 – Salazar is posthumously exonerated.

The future of the found footage genre, then, is as precarious as the future of the world, which is to say there are as many opportunities for progress as there are for annihilation. Savageland and Butterfly Kisses explode such polarities—a zombie apocalypse is equal parts productive and destructive, just as a supernatural staring contest symbolizes extinction and survival. Where there are ends, there are beginnings, and apocalyptic folklore does not strictly conclude in hopelessness. If these films offer gory optimism about the future, they also remind us that archiving the wrongs of an already present past remains fraught, especially when authority figures have the wherewithal to distort historical memory and preserve their (re)vision of a spotless future. The state of Arizona needs Francisco Salazar to be an undocumented killer just as much as viewers need to disbelieve Sophia Crane—anything or anyone that dares to be more than just a manipulated image is a threat to power that must be marginalized. But like any great horror antagonist, folklore will always find a way to come back into the frame.


[1] While I intentionally frame mockumentary horror within found footage, I recognize that they “are not separate distinct categories as much as they offer a palate of formal and structural possibilities constructed from an appropriation of documentary’s codes and conventions” (Heller-Nicholas 16).

Works Cited

Butterfly Kisses, directed by Erik Kristopher Myers, Gravitas Ventures, 2018.

Glover, Kaiama L. “Exploiting the Undead: The Usefulness of the Zombie in Haitian Literature.” Journal of Haitian Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 2005, pp. 105-121.

H.C., Luiz. “‘Savageland’: Redefining Found-Footage With an Underseen Horror Gem.” Bloody Disgusting, 25 June 2021,

Harvey, Rupert. Review of Butterfly Kisses, directed by Erik Kristopher Myers. The Critical Critics, 23 Oct. 2018,

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality. McFarland, 2014.

Jackson, Kimberly. Technology, Monstrosity, and Reproduction in Twenty-first Century Horror. Palgrave, 2013.

Knopf, Robert, host. “#324 – Butterfly Kisses (2018).” Straight Chilling: Horror Movie Review, episode 324, Straight Chilling Podcast, 20 Jun. 2021,

Rumbaut, Rubén G. “Zombie Ideas and Moral Panics: Framing Immigrants as Criminal and Cultural Threats.” Interview by the Russell Sage Foundation, 2 Nov. 2016,

Savageland. Directed by Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan, Terror Films, 2015.

Simmons, Nathan and Harris, Eric, hosts. “Butterfly Kisses (2018).” Video Monsters, Anchor, 20 Jun. 2020,

West, Steven. Review of Savageland, directed by Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan. Horror Screams Video Vault, 21 Jul. 2019,

Wilson, Mike. “‘Savageland’ Disturbs Doubly With Social Commentary.” Review of Savageland, directed by Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan. Bloody Disgusting, 10 Apr. 2017,


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