Fantastic Fest: A Haunting We Go With ‘American Scream’ Crew Michael Paul Stephenson, Victor Bariteau, and Meyer Shwarzstein
With October on the horizon, as well as that glorious holiday there contained, many of us are gearing up for haunted house season. In many ways the last vestige of the roaming carnival days, companies come in every year, occupy some abandoned retail space, and commence with a nightly regimen of shrieks, jumps, and frights that carries us screaming into November. But what happens when those with the desire to create an effective spook house don’t have the benefit of such monstrous budgets? The more organic, love-labor-intensive community haunted houses are the results of an entire year’s worth of work by blue collar artists and their families.
The process by which they transform their own homes into cathedrals to low-budget scares, called home haunts, is the subject of Michael Paul Stephenson’s (Best Worst Movie) latest documentary: The American Scream. A touching, fascinating, and deeply sincere testament to unflappable creative spark, The American Scream found easy purchase in the Fantastic Fest lineup this year. In fact, beside the theater, in what used to be a scooter retailer, the Alamo Drafthouse partnered with Manny Souza (a featured subject in the doc) to quickly, and with a MacGyver-like resourcefulness, build a miniature home haunt right next door. It was in this hallowed place that we were fortunate enough to sit down with Stephenson, producer Meyer Shwarzstein, and another featured home haunt artist Victor Bariteau to talk about the film. Even in the light of day, the appropriateness of this meeting place was not lost on us.
First off, did everyone else have as late a night as I did?
All: Oh yes.
Victor: And an early morning.
Good, so we’re all on the same page. Victor, thanks especially to you for being here in late September when I imagine you are probably at your busiest. This is like crunch time for you.
Victor: [laughs] Yes it is.
How’s the new space?
Victor: It’s going very well. I’ve got a lot of able-bodied people helping me out, which allowed me to come here. Michael asked me months ago to come with him to Fantastic Fest, and I said no outright. There’s no way. And then a while later…
Michael: I asked again. (laughs)
Victor: He said, “we could do this during the week, can you come down for one day?” So I agreed. What really happened was, I was lacking a TV commercial. So I asked Michael if he’d be willing to take some of that extra footage and make a TV commercial for me. I told him I’d pay him whatever his rate was, and refused to accept any money. So he did it for me, but after that he was like, “hey, we’re booked for Sunday at Fantastic Fest, you’re coming down for the whole weekend.”
Got you on the hook at that point.
Victor: I was like, “ok, he’s doing a commercial for me.” It turned out to be, in my region, the best commercial. So how could I say no? He’s helped me out so much. How could I not do this. I asked the people I’m working with, and they were very supportive of me going. So Friday night I left the haunt at 3a.m. I got home, kids are getting up, the wife was getting up at four so we could catch the plane. It’s been very stressful, but to be honest, since I got here, I feel kind of relaxed.
[Looking around at the Halloween store trappings of the makeshift haunted house] Gee, can’t imagine what makes you feel so comfortable here.
Victor: (laughs) Right.
Has the family seen the documentary?
Does seeing the doc make your youngest any more interested in being a part of this?
Victor: I don’t know, I mean she was happy to see herself on screen. And she did take part last year, and she’s taking part this year. She’s just not into it like my older daughter, which is fine. She’s a very smart kid; she can do whatever she wants. She’s a very talented…everything. Everything that she does, she applies herself. So if she’s not interested in doing this when she gets older, by all means do what you love. I want her to be happy.
Doing what you love is clearly your m.o., and that’s fantastic. Michael, how did you decide on this topic for your next doc, were you always interested in haunted houses?
Michael: The idea for this doc actually wasn’t mine. It came from Meyer. He called me up one day and said he had a great idea for a documentary. Asked me what I thought about people who make homemade haunted houses. It was kind of an immediate moment, very similar to when I decided to do Best Worst Movie. Meyer and I talked for a while, and I connected to it from a personal place. I grew up in a small town of nine thousand people where Halloween was very much a part of growing up and a part of the community. There was this lady who was the “weird person.” Everybody thought she was a weird person until Halloween came and everybody was at her house. Her house transformed into this great, elaborate witch’s castle. So I had immediate fond memories of small town Halloween.
And the timing was really interesting, it was quickly apparent that the pieces were coming together for it. My wife and I had previously complained about living in L.A., about Halloween there specifically. We have two kids, and in the neighborhood we were living in there was no sense of any holiday Christmas, Halloween, or otherwise. It was like, “trick-or-treating, I guess it doesn’t happen in L.A.” You want the same memories for your kids that you had. It was just inspired. And I was on the phone with Zack [Carlson], we’re working on another project together, and he’s like, “I love haunted houses!” It was too perfect.
Everything coming together at once.
And I can’t explain that, it’s crazy. When it happens, and you see it happening, you kind of just get out of the way. You recognize that you’re part of something that is going in the direction it’s going to go. It’s amazing.
Meyer, what attracted you to the idea of the smaller, homemade haunted houses as opposed to the bigger, sponsored installations?
Meyer: It’s just so much more interesting to me. The initiative that people take on their own, and the fact that people are volunteering every year to do something in their own neighborhoods for their own neighbors. I was impacted as a kid, going across the street and being creeped out; putting my hands in bowls of eggs and spaghetti and stuff.
[Doing my best late 80s horror host voice] It’s braaaaaains!
Meyer: (laughs) It creeped the hell out of me, but I remember it very well. So for me, and I think this comes out in the film, it’s the neighborhood aspect of it; the local aspect of it. Halloween is one of the most commercial holidays, maybe the most commercial holiday, but this aspect of it isn’t commercial. I like that. And it was also fascinating seeing the degree to which people will go. Every Halloween it came up as an idea in my head. Then the Chiller [Network] guys, who I was with, loved Best Worst Movie and asked me what Michael was doing next. I saw an opportunity there and, even though I didn’t have a clue what he was doing next, I just blurted out this notion. When they said they were interested, I called him up and he was, thankfully, more than intrigued. It was incredibly good fortune there. It was fun to be able to realize this idea I’d had for awhile but had never had a way to take the initiative.
Michael, do you see a thematic parallel between The American Scream and Best Worst Movie? The idea of creating beyond your means? That labor of love aspect of homemade haunted houses and something like Troll 2?
Absolutely. At the root of both is a certain level of artistic genius and passion. Most importantly it’s about doing something that you love, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. With Troll 2, I was so taken by Claudio [Fragasso] because he was so passionate and he was doing what he loved. Despite what everyone thought of the movie, it’s rooted in that since passion. That’s not at all dissimilar to home haunters, to Victor. The passion and the level of creativity that they pour into their work is very similar.
Victor, as you look around this hastily prepared haunted house we’re sitting in, are you immediately thinking, “I would’ve done that, I would have put that there?”
Victor: [laughs] No, just because I know they had about nineteen hours to do this. I think what they got accomplished in that short amount of time is amazing. Manny’s [Souza] talented.
Another labor of love, clearly. So with your new, bigger space, is there something you’re wanting to change about your home haunting experience other than just the scale?
Victor: Yes. Ghoulie Manor is in fact a manor. I’m trying to make it feel like you are actually in a mansion, not just walking through halls like the home haunt was. As people walked from room to room before, we could just throw any theme in there that we wanted. But the pro haunt is a little different. I’m trying to have cohesiveness with the theme. I really want to make you feel like you’re in a spooky house, not a retail space. I’m also trying to, and my guys are focused on this, keep that same home haunt charm. So we’ve still got the graveyard at the back of the house and it’s not all blood and guts. We’re trying to make it look professional, take it up several notches, but we’re still trying to capture that same feel people had when they went through the home haunt.
Are you working on a particular centerpiece prop this year?
Victor: There are a few things, I don’t even know if they’re going to get done by opening.
I feel like that’s something you say a lot, “I don’t know if it’s going to get done on time.” But you always manage to pull it off, it’s really impressive.
Victor: [laughs] There are a few props, the dad under the bed for my daughter. She wants her dad to get sucked under the bed, so we’re going to do that with his feet like he’s under there already and the feet will be shaking. To be honest, that prop is still in its infancy. I gotta get to work on that, and then we’ve got the skull in the grand foyer that reads the rules, that’s close to being done. But really it’s the façade. When you first walk into this place, the queue line is right there but what you see is the façade of the house. And it’s huge; it’s sixty feet long. It looks like a house, there’s even a porch that doubles as a stage. I didn’t have room to work at the home haunt to build something this massive. And it’s beautiful. I think the masterpiece is actually that façade. It’s already finished, and I think that’s the most impressive thing people are going to see.
Michael: It’s amazing. I’ve only seen part of it, but it’s very impressive. I’ve gone through a couple of pro haunts that were really successful, and Victor’s level of artistry and detail in his haunts is greater than these pro haunts. So much of what he does is in those details, that last 2% of what he does. Victor goes overboard in a very positive way to transform a space and makes you feel like you are somewhere else. The details really sell it.
Victor, the dad under the bed prop, was that the item you were discussing with your daughter in the movie when you told her she was a sick little girl?
Victor: Yeah, I loved that. That was her idea.
A great mix of fear and beaming pride in that moment, very much enjoyed it.
Editor’s Note: If you live in the vicinity of Taunton, Massachusetts, Victor’s Ghoulie Manor is now open for business! Trespass if you dare.