Home Video Hovel- The American Scream, by Tyler Smith
“Everybody needs a hobby,” as the saying goes. While life can get us bogged down and exhausted with obligations and responsibilities, most everybody acknowledges that we all need something to distract us from our own stress. But, when it comes right down to it, there are some hobbies that are viewed as more socially acceptable, such as sports or movies or knitting, and some that are not.
We hear about people that play Dungeons and Dragons or dress up for Comic-Con and our first instinct is to look down our noses at these specific hobbies. Frankly, I’m not totally sure why this is. Perhaps certain hobbies attract certain types of people that are socially awkward to such an extent that the hobbies themselves start to take on an air of unacceptability, as if we all started collectively saying, “Well, yes, everybody needs a hobby, but not that.”
Some of the best documentaries are about people whose interests lie outside the mainstream. People obsessed with video games, pinball, Scrabble, Donkey Kong, and countless other things the rest of us are quick to label as inconsequential. These films follow a few of these seeming weirdos and allow us the time to get to know them, helping us to realize that, when it comes right down to it, we’re not really that different from these people.
Michael Paul Stephenson’s wonderful The American Scream deals with “Home Haunters,” people that spend the month of October transforming their quiet suburban homes into macabre, disturbing haunted houses for the neighborhood kids to walk through. These men have families and jobs and would appear to be pretty normal. It seems incongruous that they would spend so much time and energy piecing together skulls and dead bodies and devising ways to terrify their neighbors.
But Stephenson treats this rather unusual past time as perfectly normal, no different than those that pore over baseball statistics with their friends. And over the course of the film, we feel like we really get to know these men. There is Matt and his father, Richard. They are both more than a little socially awkward and have a bumbling quality to them. They often serve as the comic relief of the film, but, just when you think you’ve got them figured out, we are allowed to see how truly loving and nurturing they can be toward one another.
We meet Manny, a blue collar family man whose heart attack a year ago threatens to keep him from putting together his haunted house, only to have his friends, neighbors, and co-workers come to his aid. Manny puts together a pretty good haunt, but chooses not to focus too closely on the details. He views this as a fun way to bond with his family, and the moment it starts to become stressful, he pulls himself back. He wants to put on a good show, but if it means snapping at his kids or even giving himself another heart attack, it’s just not worth it.
Which brings us to Victor, the quiet IT guy whose life over the years has slowly become consumed by his haunted house. He gets his family in on the action, whether they really want to be a part of it or not. Props and costumes fill every nook and cranny of a house that he chose due to its prime trick-or-treating location, even though his wife would have preferred to live elsewhere. While Manny chooses not to sweat the small stuff, Victor agonizes over every detail. He drives his friends nuts making sure that everything is just so.
There are moments when Victor appears to be extremely unlikable, oblivious to the needs and desires of his loved ones as he pursues his passion for scaring people. But, just when we start to turn on him, we learn about his childhood, in which his extremely religious parents forbid him from celebrating Halloween, Christmas, or even birthdays. He would sit and watch as the other kids walked down the street, wearing their costumes and getting candy. Suddenly, his devotion to Halloween looks as though he is trying to make up for lost time; even his children seem to understand it.
It is this approach that makes The American Scream such a fascinating watch. Just when you think you’ve got these people figured out, we find out a new piece of information that changes our perspective. And we soon come to realize that these men may appear to fit nicely into a simple 90-minute film, but they are real people, with thoughts and feelings and experiences. They cannot be summed up easily, even within the context of their very unusual hobby.