Halloween has always been one of my favourite holidays. As a child, my sister and I would join forces with the girl across the street, and the three of us, with our fathers in tow, would traverse the dark and chilled neighbourhood. Pumpkin smoke, dressing up, spooky noises, candy overloads, I loved it all. But the thing I loved the most was being terrified of the brown house halfway down the block. This house went to town adding black lights, cobwebs and to top it off, a figure that would haunt my nightmares for years to come: an enormous Frankenstein’s monster figurine that stood guard by the door. It’s ghastly groans were enough to stop me from climbing the stairs; all I could do was look in horror, deciding that the candy wasn’t worth it. Looking back, this house wasn’t anything like some of the haunted houses I’ve seen since, but it went above and beyond what was in my neighbourhood, and made an impact such that I can remember it now, over 20 years later. Evidently people like this are known as “home haunters”, a term I recently picked up watching The American Scream. Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson, infamous for his lead role in the film Troll 2, The American Scream is a documentary that follows three families of home haunters as they prepare for Halloween in the suburb of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. All three groups have their own different family dynamics and ideas of what makes a scary Halloween display. Their bonds with family and community, and their passions for their craft make this film a very enjoyable experience.
We are first introduced to Victor Bariteau, a systems administrator whose favourite holiday is Halloween. He spends the entire year building new props for his haunted house and dreams of going pro. Although his family supports his ambitions, his oldest daughter is the only one who comes close to her father’s passion. Tina, Victor’s wife, pitches in to make costumes and help with preparations, but she seems exasperated with his hobby, which is slowly growing to consume all available space in their small home. Victor’s dedication to his work is notable, and he is always trying to outdo himself, building up his props each year. He looks to expand his knowledge by listening to Hauntcast (‘radio for haunters and Halloween fanatics’) and going to Hauntcon, a convention for home haunters who are looking to up their game by attending panels and workshops lead by pros and purchasing new props on the trade floor. In this way, Victor stands in stark contrast to the other two families featured in the film. Unlike them, Victor seems to be gaining a lot more personally by growing his passion, rather than doing it mainly to bond with his family.
We are also introduced to Manny Souza, and Rick and Matthew Broeder, all of whom live in the neighbourhood. Manny is a family man whose Halloween attraction is an intricate collection of creepy found objects. His children love helping set up, and his wife is sure to get friends and family involved. Manny admits that family is everything to him, and he’ll keep doing the haunted house for as long as he can because it gives him more time to bond with his children. This is the same for Rick and Matt Broeder, a father and son duo who spend large amounts of time with each other. Matt admits that his father is his best friend, and the two bond together building props for their haunted house. Matt, an award-winning amateur clown who proudly displays his trophies and plaques, also find home haunting an excellent artistic outlet. What Rick and Matthew may lack in artistry they make up for in ridiculous banter that gave this film a comedic edge.
The American Scream is wonderfully constructed. We meet not just the haunters but their families too. The film relies on interviews with family members to open a window into personal histories and of course, everyone’s opinion about their haunted house. The film is very entertaining but at other times it’s sad. Neither Manny nor Rick is in very good health, though thankfully they both have their family to support them. Victor too seems to be so focused on his dreams that he ignores all else around him, losing himself in his craft and burning himself out. His family is very understanding, but the film portrays them as ignoring their own needs and desires.
Many people write off Halloween as a children’s holiday, but these home haunters believe that it’s a time to bring people together. I felt all warm and fuzzy watching this movie, something that’s perhaps unexpected for a film titled The American Scream. This is a documentary with heart that peers into its subject’s successes, failures, troubles and most importantly their connections with their family and the greater community.