‘The American Scream’: Home Haunters Unite

“He does get a little crabby sometimes when he gets stressed out.”

— Barbara Bosworth

“My dad loves Halloween, we decorate the house a lot,” says 11-year-old Catherine Bariteau. She shows off her contributions, a set of Barbie dolls she’s found at yard sales, now dismembered and fake-bloodied. “I make these for my room in the Haunted House,” Catherine smiles, “I rip ’em up and put blood on ’em and stuff.”

This “stuff,” as you come to see in The American Scream, is a way for Catherine to spend some quality time with her dad, Victor, an amateur and very dedicated Home Haunter in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. It happens that several neighbors, Matt Brodeur and his dad Richard, as well as Manny Souza, are similarly invested in the holiday (Souza submits, “I do Christmas too,” even if it is with a yard full of Christmas trees with skulls hanging from them). Every year, they spend months thinking up and assembling new scares, from mechanical creatures and musical gravestones to dancing skeletons and gauzy ghosts, culling together the pieces in their basements and garages. What’s important is “the attention to detail,” says Souza. “I’m not here to make it look real, it’s the thought.” As they’re paying for their Haunts out of pocket, creativity is at a premium. “I’ll go dumpster diving and pick up anything,” says Souza, “I’ll make something out of it.” the camera tilts up to look at the pirates’ ship he’s made, with a crow’s nest out of free chicken wire and masts of free PBC pipe. For the figures, he uses tissue paper, latex, and wood stain. One figure looks a little shaky as he’s unpacked: “He’s old, so he’s coming apart,” Souza explains.

Such enthusiasm is both endearing and daunting. As Michael Stephenson’s documentary — screening on Chiller TV 31 October and in theaters through November — follows their efforts and invites their self-reflections, it features as well interviews with family members and friends. While the film doesn’t provide a precise explanation for the convening of Home Haunters in this one spot, it does take note of the phenomenon, as when professional Haunter Steve O’Connor offers this casual diagnosis: “If you have one crazy in your neighborhood, you’ll find that it’s contagious, to a degree.”

That’s not to say these particular crazies are unusual. As David Lindblom of Hauntforum.com points out, “The legacy of Home Haunting goes back a decade or two,” exploding with the advent of the internet in the late ’90s. Once Home Haunters could see what others were doing, began sharing ideas and congregating at conventions, interest and investment expanded. The film offers a brief montage of Haunts, in Milwaukee and Mountain View, CA and Santa Monica, hectic video footage highlighting the homemade efforts of the Haunters.

The attention brings competition as well, as Matt, Victor, and Manny compare their Haunts, even as they insist on their different aims (“I’m a little easier going,” says Souza, “If something’s not perfect, I’ll say, ‘Good enough’). The American Scream doesn’t compare so much as it marvels at the ingenuity and energy involved, and yes, the money. Tina Bariteau worries some about the costs, but, she calculates, “If he bought yearly football tickets, that would be a big chunk of money.” Victor admits that he might have made other choices. “There’s a lot of sacrifices,” he says, “I could have taken all this money and I could have dumped it into a nice house and we could have lived comfortably, but nobody would have remembered us, you know.”

Here the film cuts to a claustrophobic shot of Catherine and Gwendolyn in their decidedly cramped shared bedroom. “I’ve always wanted a clubhouse,” Catherine says. “I put it on my Christmas list every year.” But daddy forgets, and so, she half-smiles, “It’s just not happening.” Dad, in turn, tells the camera — and perhaps himself — “There are little things I have to sacrifice to keep this going and I think it’s worth it.” Here again, the camera cuts, this time to Catherine’s Halloweenish notebook doodle (“You will die!”) as her father adds, “I think my family thinks it’s all worth it.”

Certainly, the film makes clear that the Home Haunters depend on their families’ support, whether it’s the support that Matt receives from his good-natured friend Barbara Bosworth (“It’s not that he doesn’t have any friends,” she explains, “It’s just that he’s very choosy about who his friends are”) or the patience embodied by Tina, who sews costumes each Halloween and makes food for her husband’s volunteer (and somewhat beleaguered) laborers and character actors. True, she’s not thrilled that her kids won’t have a swing set again this year (“Because, you know, ‘Where am I gonna put the cemetery?'”), but neither does she want to stifle Victor’s passion. She reasons that he had a difficult childhood, growing up with strict Branch Davidian parents (his mother insists, “I didn’t know, my kids did not like it, they seemed happy”). Now, says Tina, “He’s trying to make up for almost lost time, all those lost celebrations, jamming them into one holiday.”

That holiday serves up any number of mythic connotations, from a carnivalesque inversion of order and delight in the blurring of borders between realms, say, life and death. Victor and his cohorts also see it as a way to bring a community together, a ritual where strangers as well as family might share in a basic and intense emotion, fear: “Your blood is pumping, you’re alert,” enthuses Victor, and yet, “You get to experience that in a safe environment.” Just so, the film offers up Halloween visitors making their way through the Haunt, screaming and laughing at once. “When you’re scared,” Bariteau sums up, “You’re most alive.”

RATING 8 / 10