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There's a special breed of documentaries that takes viewers into the eccentric realms of niche hobbyists. When well done, the result is films like King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters or Air Guitar Nation that not only acquaint us with the particulars and peculiarities of this hobby, but also make the drive of its quirky characters relatable, even laudable. Without digging into the why of a hobbyist's devotion— that can countless hours or money and sometimes puts personal relationships at risk—this kind of doc could easily write off its subjects as laughable kooks, but it's also tiresome when a doc suggests that if you don't get this particular hobby, that's your problem. Thankfully, The American Scream walks the line between observational and empathetic to create an intriguing look at the hobby of home haunts and a kind but compelling portrait of the people behind them.
For the uninitiated—which included myself before having watched this film—a home haunt is essentially an amateur-made haunted house staged in a backyard for trick or treaters. Home haunters take the scares and creepy mazes they build seriously, and in the charming suburb of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, home haunts have evolved into a competitive art.
As follow-up to his directorial effort Best Worst Movie, which documented the legacy of the notoriously terrible horror movie Troll 2, Michael Stephenson follows three families who think Halloween is the most wonderful time of the year. There's the Barbiteau household, where computer technician and family man Victor aims for perfection, prepping year-round to add new and ever-more complex creations to his haunted house. Two blocks away is Victor's pal Manny Souza, who found a deeper sense of community by crafting his own house haunt by upcycling discarded lumber and electronics. And lastly there's the bumbling father and son team of Rick and Matt Brodeur, a retired civil engineer and a part-time clown who bicker and bond each year while building their own haunt.
It's easy to instantly be taken in by these men's enthusiasm as they show off their home-made monsters and speak of their drive to create, connect and become memorable through their haunted houses, forging memories they hope the giggling trick or treaters will never forget. But Stephenson delves deeper to explore what it costs to stage such massive spectacles each year, and the toll is not solely financial. But while Victor and his wife might grate on each other as the pressure is on, she is ultimately unfailingly supportive of his dreams of becoming a pro-haunter; and it's charming to see Victor's love of the craft already taking root in his creative and scream-seeking daughter, who proudly holds her own room at their haunt. Similarly Manny hopes to be building a tradition his own kids will not only revel in now, but also will carry on once he's gone. (His moment of voicing this wish is perhaps the most tender of the surprisingly poignant doc.) As for the Brodeurs, their push and pull on each other seems the stuff of silly sitcoms, yet it's easy to see how their creative collaboration is nourishing for them both.
Sure, on its surface it seems odd to spend your time carefully crafting giant spiders, or urging your kids to arrange plastic skeleton bones or cover Barbies in fake blood. But the men of Fairhaven create an annual wonderland that draws in massive crowds eager to be spooked and dazzled. Each Halloween they are rechristened neighborhood celebrities, cheered for their ingenuity and creativity, and so it's easy to see the allure of home haunting. Like one professional haunter declares in the doc, this is a hobby that is contagious, and so The American Scream is sure to inspire new haunts to rise across the country.