You know those people that go crazy every Halloween—the ones that decorate their front lawns with foam gravestones and mist, wear elaborate costumes, and make trick or treaters go through a scary maze in order to get their candy? They have a name for themselves: home haunters.
In the new indie documentary The American Scream, director Michael Paul Stephenson (Best Worst Movie) profiles three home haunters at different levels of obsession in the small town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
The American Scream is pretty straightforward stuff—following the Spellbound formula of profiling a number of interesting characters in the year leading up to the big event. In this case, it’s Halloween—when the fruits of their year-long labor pay off with long lines of kids and parents waiting outside, and the screams of children heard down the block.
Each family has their own distinct story, but Victor Bariteau has the deepest love for creating homemade haunted houses. It could possibly be traced back to his being raised as a Branch Dividian and not being able to celebrate holidays at all growing up, but this IT worker is being laid off soon and is spending all his money on coffins and home haunting conferences. (Yes, they have those.)
Victor is so obsessed that he bought the house they currently live in because it was located in a neighborhood that was perfect for trick-or-treating.
Stephenson starts the with Bariteaus and switches back and forth between the other families, keeping a nice throughline thematically and a brisk enough pace. Interspersed throughout are interviews with those in the home haunting industry. (Yep, there’s one of those, too—who knew?) With both this film and Best Worst Movie (a personal story of the cult of Troll 2, which Stephenson starred in as a boy), the director shows a real knack for empathizing with his subjects.
This is key with the father and son team of the Brodeurs because there is clearly something a little “off” about these guys. The American Scream approaches American Movie territory when it explores their clowning business and personal relationships, but both films do a great job of staying neutral and avoiding exploitation. The fact of the matter is: These guys are fascinating people. Not examining their lives outside of home haunting would be irresponsible.
The American Scream comes to life without the benefit of moments of huge conflict caught on camera. The interviews are surprisingly candid and reveal more than simple plot points. Each family has different things at stake and different reasons for getting into the home haunting “business.” This is in quotes because, although they each spend countless hours and various amounts of money putting this together, there are no actual paying customers. It puts a burden on the family in more than just financial ways, and its interesting to see how different family members react to this.
For Victor Bariteau, this is clearly a calling. He’s a perfectionist. He’s only happy when he’d embedded in his “work.” It’s a testament to Stephenson’s character-building that so much suspense is actually built up leading up to Halloween. Just like the big spelling bee in Spellbound, there is something cathartic about seeing all the hard work come to fruition.
The American Scream is an effective low-key documentary with a surprising amount of emotional payoff. One payoff I wanted that I didn’t quite get was to get a more detailed walk-through of the homemade haunted houses—a way to see all the paper mache and smoke come to life. Maybe I’m the only one, but I thought a room-by-room first-person camera was one thing it was building towards.
Then again, the fact that I was that wrapped up that much in the story of these DIY horror purveyors says something.