Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The American Scream: A Prelude to Chainsawnukah

The American Scream (2012)
Dir. Michael Stephenson

Or, “How Samuel Jackson’s Arm Made Me a Better Person”

This is a movie about what a few families in Fairhaven, MA do to decorate their yard for Halloween. But in a larger sense, it’s about obsession, creativity, community, loss, fear, and the American Dream. Which is good, because Halloween is a pretty big deal to me, too, and this is an interesting start to a discussion of why that is, and what it means.

First, though, the players. We meet Victor Barbiteau, in danger of losing his IT job by day, obsessive, visionary creator of the phantasmagoric by night, along with his amazingly accepting wife and somewhat more enthusiastic children. We meet Manny Souza, construction worker, family man, whose over-the-top Halloween show seems to grow more elaborate every year. And we meet Matthew and Richard Brodeur, an unemployed father/son duo who create their own ramshackled Halloween wonderland and are decidedly… odd. All three are “home haunters,” which as we learn is a small but fierce community of obsessive Halloween decorators around which there has sprung up a small cottage industry (which I myself have probably done more than my share to prop up). At first glance, the three protagonists --who all know each other-- seem to be on the same page. After all, they all share the same unusual fixation, they collaborate with each other and other “haunters,” they experience the same frustrations and lack of understanding from non-haunters who can’t figure out what’s motivating these nutballs to go to all this trouble.

But the more we get to know them, the more it becomes clear that although the symptoms are the same, the disease is different and distinct in each man. Barbiteau is motivated by his desire to recapture the youth he lost with the Branch Davidian cult (not his fault, his mom was a member). Souza is motivated by his desire to share a memorable project with his family. And the Brodeurs… uh, who knows what they’re thinking. If there’s a reason behind their efforts, they never mention it. They haunt because they must.

The Barbiteua clan. Who paints a coffin Lake Placid Blue? That truly is horrifying.

The movie tries to give us revealing suggestions from each man about why they’re compelled to build life-sized Egyptian statuary and buy discount (used?) coffins off craigslist and so forth. But really, I’m not 100% buying. Barbiteau, probably the most fanatical --he ends up directing a crew of volunteers and spending most of his disposable income in the quest for what admittedly ends up being an absolutely jaw-dropping creation-- offers a variety of explanations, from the lost Halloweens of his childhood, to the need to share a Holiday with the community (Thanksgiving and Christmas are for family, he says, but Halloween is for the whole world) to the power of fear in our psyche. All are probably part of it, as they probably are on some level for all the families we see. Really, though, I think these guys do it because they’re simply creative people. The have to build, they have to create, and this is simply the outlet that they’ve found. The specific motivations are probably complex and obscure, by the desire to do something is overwhelming. The proof is that they simply started one year by taking a shot a building something themselves, more or less on a whim, and that it’s spiraled out of control ever since. The creative impulse is powerful, and it will find a way. Whatever you tell yourself and whatever you can articulate about your motivation, the drive to make something bigger, better, crazier, and more elaborate will win the day.

Since we are entering the Chainsawnukah season, though, I think the most interesting aspect of the film is the one least explored. The question is not necessarily why do these guys build this stuff, but who are these complete strangers who come from far away to be scared by them, and also why do I want to do it so badly, too? Barbiteau offers a tantalizing explanation (and also sounds like he and the good Dr. Jonathan Crane would have a lot to talk about): “When you’re scared, you’re most alive.” There may be some truth to that. Fear is invigorating, fear has the capacity to remind you of the scarcity and fragility of life, reminding us to never take life for granted. And fear does it without the depressingness of having to watch Susan Sarandon die of cancer or something. Fear activates your brain in a way which makes it hyper-alert, releasing adrenaline, focusing your attention, forcing you to actively and intensely engage with the world. Treating ourselves to known artificial fears activates a very primal part of our brain and causes us to undergo a great intensity of experience without actually putting ourselves and loved ones at risk. So he may have a point, there’s definitely something there.

The Sauza clan.

But there must be a second part, too, that doesn’t have to do with fear. Or at least not the same kind of startled, heart-pumping fear that a guy in in a monster mask jumping out at you will produce. I mean, plenty of things trigger the fight-or-flight response in our brain; a loud air horn will do the job nicely, and you don’t see people lining up for that. So I maintain that there’s something about the macabre that may be related to fear, but isn’t at all the same thing Barbiteau is talking about. There’s something deeply, perversely appealing about the grotesque, the disgusting, the disquieting, which has nothing to with anything as superficial as a scare. In fact, Barbiteau eventually even acknowledges that “I don’t understand my reasons,” perhaps genuinely flummoxed at having to explain his objectively strange fixation, or perhaps a little afraid to probe much deeper. I mean, if you’re a guy with two adorable kids and a very understanding wife who is willing to tolerate this sort of shenanigan, maybe you’re not too keen to really dig deep into the motivation for your fixation on the icons of death.

Fortunately for me, I have no dependents who might get creeped out by psychoanalyzing the darker aspects of my soul, so I have the luxury of wondering what it is about horror that brings me back to it with such passion every year around this time. Why is it that every year, I seek out a universe of fucked up shit that so many people spend their lives actively avoiding? Why does THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE make me giggle like a schoolgirl, when to most people the very concept results in an immediate gag reflex? I mean, I’m a nice guy. In real life, I loathe violence and suffering and depravity, and to the best of my limited ability I try to work against it. So why do I love it when it shows up in my movies?

I’ve been asked that question a lot, for most of my life. And the best answer that I’ve ever come up with is that I can be a nice guy because I love this stuff. I think every human has the capacity to enact things which are unimaginably horrible. As this year’s most painfully horrifying film, THE ACT OF KILLING, makes clear, it’s a complete self-serving illusion to believe that there is some kind of clear dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys. We’re all people, we all live, we all love, laugh, cry, scream, eat, watch a movie every now and then. Sometimes we do wonderful things, sometimes we do terrible things. Most of us in our lives will do some mixture of both, though perhaps it’s easier to swing towards the positive in the relatively peaceful, resource-abundant modern Western world. I have one major advantage in this: most of my life, my destructive impulses have focused inward rather than outward. I am very seldom tempted to hurt other people, but with myself and my own life, it can be very difficult not to give in to negative impulses. If you’re in introverted person, it’s likely a fight that you’ll have to wage your whole life, and it’s also one that only rarely makes it to the surface long enough to involve anyone else. So you spend a lot of your time living down in the black pit, with all the nameless, formless vague thoughts that weigh down on you like the water at the bottom of a dark ocean. You either learn how to live with, and co-exist with these dark sirens of the subconscious, or, well, you don’t.

And that’s where the horror fan comes in. I was a sensitive child. I remember vividly the day of my youth that I first really listened to the lyrics to Warren Zevon’s immortal nightmare boogie “Excitable Boy” and it reduced me to tears. I used to feel the pain and horror of the world so, so vividly that some days it was paralyzing. Some days it felt like the world itself was screaming in horror, like the primal figure in Munch’s famous painting. I would shut my eyes tight and run out of the room at a death on TV, even a fictional one, because otherwise it would haunt me for days. I guess I was trying to deal with the awful permanence of mortality, with the abominable injustice of loss, and trying to reconcile the horror of the universe which would allow such cruelty with the sublime and awe-inspiring universe I already knew to exist. My response was to shut it out. Most children have adults to shield them from life’s uglier side; I suppose I did too, but like most kids it didn’t take long for me to put the pieces together and uncover the darker strands of the world at the edges of our perception. And once I’d seen them, I wanted to part of them. I didn’t need adults to try to censor the world for me; I took to that task myself, and with the dogmatic intensity only fear can really produce.

And then JURASSIC PARK happened. The moment with Samuel Jackson’s arm --which today plays as almost a parody of ridiculous unearned movie scares-- was at the time the single most horrifiying thing I had ever seen in my life. It happened too suddenly to look away, and once it had made it through my eyes, it took up residence in my mind. I had nightmares about it, that image burning itself into my brain to spring forward when I least expected it.

But a funny thing happened, too. The more it stuck with me, the more fascinated I became with it. JURASSIC PARK is a pretty scary movie for a fourth-grader, but it also has Spielberg’s unmistakable sense of rollicking fun, and that energy has at least as much power as the horror. And they were intertwined, somehow; as repulsed as I was by the image of death and terror, it was so closely interwoven with the power of the tale being told that it became impossible to entirely disentangle them. And my horror became entangled with excitement, and even a cautious, quietly urgent curiosity. The horror wasn’t going to leave my head, and so I simply had to get used to this new, frightening but subversively compelling permanent occupant. The horror wouldn’t leave leave the world I inhabited any more than it would leave my head, and increasingly, being paralyzed by the pain was turning me inward, planting seeds of despair and isolation that took root early and grew live creeping kudzu into other parts of my psyche. So the only option left became to give in to the pull of the dark. To live with it, I had to know it, and to know it I had to explore it. And so I started on my adventures in horror cinema, into House Haunting, into the music of Nick Cave and Warren Zevon and Metal and punk and horrorcore and, eventually, my personal heaven, the Theatre Bizarre.

The greatest haunt of all

Seeking out darkness in art did not desensitize me to horror, as you might first suspect and as censorship advocates might be quick to suggest. I still ache at the pain and cruelty in the world, and rage at the universe’s monstrous indifference to suffering. And there are still some things which go too far for even for me, mostly articles of simple puerile sadism, which I dearly hope I will always find repugnant, unpleasant, and --perhaps most damningly-- juvenile and unimaginative. But mostly, the dark arts have helped me become paradoxically more sensitive. Not only to the suffering of the world, but crucially to my own life, helped me actually face the darkness inside and discover it’s unique and ultimately ridiculous character. Ironically, our worst impulses are often the most blatantly absurd, and the easiest to tame and direct once we’ve managed to face them, to force them into the light where we can put a shape and a name to them and thus deny them the power of their more nebulous kin. Horror cinema and the whole Halloween season give us the gift of allowing us to, for a short while, bring the whole ridiculous circus of anger and fear and perversity and self-destruction and superstition and vulnerability out into the limelight, parade it about your our amusement, celebrate it as part of ourselves, and let it retire back to the twilight of applause and merriment. It’s part of us, it’s part of the human experience, and as such it has only the power over our lives that we give to it. It is, I think, the ultimate explanation behind the home haunters in AMERICAN SCREAM, and the reason why their fixation represents a triumph over fear as much as a celebration of it. And for me, personally? If I have to watch THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE PART III to find its face and make sure it stays where it belongs, well, it’s something I’ll do with a huge smile on my face, and hopefully with some good friends too. And some whisky.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, let the horror festival begin. Last year I watched in excess of 40 movies, and if October 1 was any indication, there’s plenty more out there for me to find this year. Join me, as we celebrate the grotesque, the depraved, the horrific, the macabre, the just plain bizarre, and of course the grindingly incompetent world of…



  1. A+ blog post, Joe. A fantastic introduction to the season, to the THIRD year of watching horror movies together in this somewhat insane manner, and into the psychology of the whole shabang.

    I'd argue your thoughts on why we need horror can expand even more broadly to the creative impulse you mentioned in the "home haunters"--that by taking what we think, experience, and feel, and creating something tangible out of them (be they words, pictures, music, what have you), we take ownership of them, take what happens *to* us and turn it into something deliberate, that comes from us and is of us. But most importantly, something we actively choose. We cultivate a very deliberate experience and connection (as all art is communication) with the world, and in doing so, turn everything into a sort of affirmation: something to show for what we experience, a testament to how we can both affect and be affected that self-perpetuates as each new person experiences it.

    It also reminded me of, I think, why The Exorcist was, for ages, the scariest of all scary movies to me, and might possibly explain by illogical, deep-seated fear of demon possession: it was the only movie I was ever banned from seeing. What we shove down has the most power over us, indeed.

    Your friends and whiskey await!

  2. Yeah, I agree with you. The creative process doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's part of the way we engage the world and our own inner lives through the process of shaping our expression. Still, I casually wonder if in the end, the act of enjoying art is actually MORE about the meaning itself than the process of creation, which has it's own separate meaning and internal logic.

  3. Oh def- I was just coming at it from the "create" angle since you pretty well covered the "consume" angle :)

  4. But, I suppose my point was, both have elements of active choice, taking something we feel or fear that we may not be crazy about, and choosing to bring it to light and celebrate it, in a sense, make art out of it or consume the experience of it. And thus, do all that snazzy psychological processing you talked about.

  5. Hello from way in the future! I just stumbled upon this guy's art-horror photographs on the interwebs, and thought they (and the concept behind them, linked to there) were kind of line with this whole blog post and discussion, and thought you might appreciate them:

  6. Some cool photos there. It's interesting that he says he thinks that horror comes from our fear of the randomness of death, and yet many (even most?) of the photos don't directly imply physical harm, they're more about our fear of the unknown. Are we afraid that the monster in our closet will attack us, or is the bigger fear simply the fact that it exists?

  7. Hmm interesting question (and whoa, sorry I forgot to check back for your reply!). Isn't the unknown somewhat implied in randomness? In not being able to predict or control when death or harm or trauma might strike? In the fact that bad things happen to good people, etc? Even if direct physical harm isn't implied, the terror of the strange seems inextricable from the terror of not being able to know and therefore influence the world around that we don't die. Is my take.