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October 28, 2017

The American Scream

by Franz Patrick

American Scream, The (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

“If you can see it in anybody’s backyard, what’s the point in coming to mine?” asks Victor, one of the subjects of Michael Stephenson’s “The American Scream,” profiling three groups who live in Fairhaven, Massachusetts—families who consider themselves to be “home haunters,” people willing to go the extra mile to set up highly elaborate props and walkthroughs for Halloween—all without charge.

The documentary is surprising on several levels. First is the choice of its subjects. Victor is a perfectionist, one who prepares many months prior to Halloween night. His high quality work shows. During the last fifteen minutes, we get a glimpse of the three walkthroughs. His is arguably the best, as reflected by the long lines of costumed people, perhaps due to the level of detail of the walls, the props, the masks, down to the scarers’ clothing. The other subjects take a more laid-back approach. For instance, Manny believes that preparing for Halloween night should be fun, not stressful. Meanwhile, Rick and Matt use the holiday, in a way, to get closer as father and son.

It is surprising in its emotional depth. These are real families who are not financially well-off but are so passionate about Halloween. We understand not only what the holiday means to them but also what the wives and children think it means to their husbands and fathers. A lot of sacrifices are made—money, patience, energy—and we can see it in the eyes of those facing the camera. Is the hobby worth it in the long run?

In between interviews, we get a behind-the-scenes peek at how some of the decorations, big and small, are made. It is impressive how, for example, a piece of blocky, nondescript material is transformed into a sculpture that demands attention even from several feet away. The home haunters make a point about not buying their props from stores and displaying them as they are. The items, if bought, must have a twist or something original about them.

Although the material is interesting, it lacks organization at times. It requires some time to establish a flow as it jumps from one family to another and back again. More importantly, we are not given in-depth information about their inspirations. What is it about Halloween that is so special? Having the chance to scare and bring someone joy is too generic of an answer so it is not good enough. A better answer is somewhat touched upon in Victor’s story—how, as a child, because of his family’s religion, he was not allowed to celebrate Halloween among many other holidays. But what about Manny, Rick, and Matt?

Nevertheless, “The American Scream” is worth seeing because it offers a look at real people who are so into their hobby, one is forced to question how passionate one is about his or her own. I found myself drawn to the stories of the film’s subjects—especially Victor’s. He feels it in his bones that he can be haunter professionally. Upon observing his level of commitment, I have no doubt he can and I wish him all the best.


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