Throughout the neighborhoods of America, there's a visible October tradition underway that's as old as trick-or-treating and agreeable as women dressing as French maids at costume parties: neighborhood houses adorned with excessive amounts of seasonal decorations. Everything from inflatable skeletons to makeshift scarecrows and cardboard tombstones covered with names like Frank N. Furter populate front lawns, and folks from all over the respective states flock to the properties to check out the festiveness. But have you ever stopped to think about just how much hard work, money, dedication, and sacrifice go into pulling off those elaborate home makeovers?
In the heartwarming and entertaining new documentary The American Scream (premiering Sunday night, 8 p.m. EST, on Chiller), filmmaker Michael Paul Stephenson (2009's excellent Best Worst Movie) steps beyond the funny headstones to enter the houses of three "home haunters" living in the quaint suburban community of Fairhaven, MA. Granted all-access passes into the families' everyday lives, Stephenson follows the patriarchs (Victor Bariteua, Manny Souza, and the father/son team of Richard and Matt Brodeur) who spearhead, along with help from their wives and children, a month's worth of preparations and stress in order to stage crowded walk-throughs on October 31st.
Like he did in Best Worst Movie, Stephenson deftly balances naturalistic humor, fascinating people, and moments of poignant tenderness. Furthermore, The American Scream captures the true spirit of Halloween—celebrating all things fun and spooky with loves ones—better than any Hollywood production ever could. Complex sat down with Stephenson, Bariteau, and Souza to discuss The American Scream's humble origins and why now, more than ever, the world needs to re-embrace every horror movie lover's favorite holiday.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Before starting work on The American Scream, did you know these families already? The film provides such strong personal access into all of their lives—one would think that you've known them for years.
Michael Paul Stephenson: No, I did not know these gentlemen before I had the privilege to meet them for this film. The idea to do a documentary on homemade haunted houses was not my idea; it was actually producer Meyer Shwaezstein's idea. I knew Meyer from Best Worst Movie, and he had this fun idea about creating this film that took place in this world of homemade, amateur haunted houses. That's where it began.
From there, as with the joys of making documentaries, the trail starts to define itself. I was led to Victor and Manny in a way that was, really…. It almost didn't happen. Basically, we did a nationwide announcement that we were making this documentary and we were looking for home-haunters. We had over 600 submissions in just over a week; at that point, it was really overwhelming. We wanted to find a character-driven story, as opposed to a snapshot approach, where it'd be something like, "OK, here's this haunted house, and now here's another one," and so on. We really wanted to get to know these people.
Immediately, we all decided that it was going to be on the East Coast, and specifically New England—that says Halloween. We ended up with our list of the top 12 home-haunters we were considering for the film. Ultimately, I had planned to focus on one to three families, and that top 12 didn't have either Victor or Manny on the list, oddly enough; they had submitted, but nothing had jumped out enough on paper to inspire us to reach out to them. As we were doing our little road trip to meet with each home-haunter, a couple days before we left, by mistake, I came across a photo of Catherine, Victor's daughter, in front of a giant spider, and she had this big smile on her face. She was this cute girl and it just took hold of me. It was one of those moments where I thought, OK, I can't stop staring at this.
At the last minute, I said, "You know, Victor is only an hour away from this other gentleman," who was on our top 12 list. We decided that we'd take a chance and visit him, since we were going to be nearby anyway. As we pulled into his neighborhood, it was the best. Everything about it was so perfect. And then this guy [Manny], was a mistake…wait, I don't mean it that way. [Laughs.]
Manny Souza: [Laughs.] It's OK, you can say it.
Stephenson: [Laughs.] I swear, that's not how I meant it. What I meant to say was, he was an added bonus that we would have never seen coming. We were wrapping up with Victor, and then all of the sudden he says, "Hey, wait, hold on. My neighbor does this really great thing, too, and he's only a couple blocks away." Then we walked into Manny's backyard, and, again, we thought, Wow, this is where it is. This is perfect. So we got lucky.
Victor and Manny, was it intimidating to suddenly have a camera documenting your every move with your friends and families?
Victor Bariteau: Well, the appeal was them. They weren't just a camera crew—they were genuinely great people. My daughters latched onto them immediately. They came over for lunch all the time, and my wife would make lunch for them. It wasn't just a bunch of guys with cameras entering our house—it was this special group of really great guys. So it was easy to adjust. They became friends coming over to our house.
Souza: Yeah, it was the same thing for me and my family. There were days where these guys would come over when they weren't even filming, and they'd start playing with my kids, and it was really nice. It was great. They became part of our family. It became a guarantee that whenever I'd come home from work, they'd be there, and I had no problem whatsoever with that. I looked forward to it. In the beginning, of course, it was awkward, but after a couple of days you don't even know the camera is there. You just go about your business as usual.
Stephenson: Yeah, we weren't going anyway. [Laughs.]
Souza: Tell me about it. Even after Halloween, they were still there! [Laughs.]
Bariteau: I will say this: When they left, there were tears from everyone in my family.
One thing that really resonates after watching The American Scream is just how meaningful Halloween and all of its best traditions are for both your families and your community as a whole. It made me wish that my own neighborhood was that passionate about Halloween when I was growing up, and, frankly, as cool as your neighborhood. Even today, I see fewer and fewer trick-or-treaters outside every year.
Souza: I bet there were people like us in your neighborhood, but you just didn't know it.
That's the thing. There's the line from Victor that says how home-haunting is "contagious." One family does it and then, all of the sudden, other families in the neighborhood are doing the same thing. Why do you think that more neighborhoods throughout the country don't show that same kind of enthusiasm for Halloween?
Bariteau: Well, it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of commitment. Everybody loves it, but not everybody is willing to take all of their time to do it. All it takes is one person in that neighborhood to start. There was one year when I didn't do the home-haunt, and, let me tell you, I thought my neighbors were going to lynch me. [Laughs.] They were really upset with me for not doing it. But it just takes someone with enough passion who's willing to make those sacrifices.
To be honest, at least in our neighborhood, the large amounts of trick-or-treaters happened before I moved into the neighborhood. I had a gentleman who was like an uncle to me; we worked in a garage together. I showed up one night in my scarecrow outfit and he was like, "Oh, you have to scare the kids!" I said, "No, I'm looking for a party." But he talked me into it. I went to his neighborhood, which is where the movie takes places. I sat on his porch, and there were trick-or-treaters everywhere, and I scared them all. I had a blast doing it, so when I met my wife, Tina, we were looking for a house in that neighborhood. There's just a charm to that neighborhood.
After the camera crew left, did you find that even more people in the neighborhood were starting to get excited about home-haunting?
Bariteau: Well, we'll find out this year. [Laughs.] But, unfortunately, I won't be doing the home-haunt this year. I'm going pro. I re-mortgaged my house to do this; we've got a space at the Silver City Galleria Mall [in Taunton, MA], and I'm under a lot of pressure right now. But I'm going to miss the home-haunt, no question.
Michael, did you and your family do these sorts of things when you were growing up?
Stephenson: I did, yeah. I grew up in a small town of about 9,000 people, and Halloween was a big deal. We went out with big pillowcases to trick-or-treat, and there was this one lady in the neighborhood whose house, every year, would transform into this awesome kind of witch's castle.
My wife and I, we've been living in L.A. for eight years now, and we've never found that same sense of Halloween anywhere we've lived together. As our kids started getting older, I started to think, Man, I really miss how it used to be on Halloween. You write it off as, "Well, that's the price to pay for being in a big city." But we fortunately ended up finding two or three streets where people in L.A. will drive into by the busloads to see a lot of really cool, elaborate decorations and home-haunting stuff. That was refreshing, even though it wasn't quite the same.
The timing of this film was weird. We had been complaining about not having these types of things for our kids that we had growing up, like trick-or-treating. In many cities now, trick-or-treating doesn't exist because people don't know their neighbors or their community, and they don't want their kids going next door to a person they don't know. Trick-or-treating, in some places, has transformed into this truck-or-treat thing, where everyone goes to a parking lot and you take your kids truck to trunk to get candy.
Really? Wow, I've never even heard of that before.
Bariteau: Man, I really hate that.
Stephenson: Yeah, it's awful! There's so much to be said about having traditions in communities that are shared between neighbors and families, and when you see some of those start to be erased or reshaped into something safer, it's sad.
Was that the primary goal in making this film, to re-instill that old sense of traditions?
Stephenson: The big thing for me, right off the bat, was to capture a great sense of tradition, family, and small-town values. And saying important things about those topics but within a fun, visual, playful space. I wanted to speak to the American dream, to somebody who's from a small town, has a dream of something bigger, and finally gets the opportunity to step out on that ledge, so to speak.
How quickly from when you first arrived in their neighborhood did the film's angle really gel for you?
Stephenson: After first meeting Victor, when we were figuring out our "cast," so to speak, there was an immediate feeling of the warmth I wanted to feel within a family, and the neighborhood was beautiful. The setting was perfect, so I said to myself, "OK, this feels good." Then his daughter came in and dumped out all these Barbie dolls with burnt faces, and it started feeling even better. And then we learned that Victor didn't have all of these kinds of things back when he was a kid: He didn't have birthdays, he didn't have Saturday morning cartoons. He didn't have any of these things that I think are really healthy parts of childhood.
Then it just continued to get more defined, very quickly. We learned about his job being outsourced to India, and we learned that he had this dream of becoming a professional home-haunter. So all of that was clear. The ending, even at the beginning, was clear. I knew where this film was going to end.
The pieces came together quickly, as opposed to Best Worst Movie, where we filmed for years and I found myself saying, "Damn, I really need to find this ending." This one felt like broad strokes were painted really quickly. The pressure, though, came from having to work within a condensed window; everything was taking place in this one October, pre-Halloween moment. There was a ticking clock.
One part of the film that really sticks out is when Victor's daughter talks about how she really wants a swing-set but to get one would interfere with the cemetery. Moments like that are so authentic—The American Scream is about these people who are dealing with everyday life's problems while trying to carry out a holiday tradition that they love so much.
Bariteau: What I want people to take away from this film really doesn't have much to do with haunted houses—it has to do with your family and following your passion, no matter what it is, whether it's haunted houses or music or whatever. Just do it. Just do it and keep your family close for support.
Souza: And not just your family, but if you live in a particular house, there are other people around you who could be part of your family. Holidays like Halloween are a great way for neighbors to spend time together, band together, and share something that's special.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)