As a follow up to his impressive 2009 film debut “Best Worst Movie,” documentary filmmaker Michael Paul Stephenson, 34, explores America’s obsession with the Halloween culture in “The American Scream.” In the film, Stephenson follows different sets of extremely passionate Halloween enthusiasts who transform their homes into haunted houses and make it their mission to get everyone in their community into the Halloween spirit.
“The American Scream” debuts Sunday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. on Chiller.
How did you end up making a movie about people who create haunted houses?
Chiller Network was a fan of “Best Worst Movie.” They reached out to one of my producers and asked what my next project was going to be. They explained they needed some programming for October. My producer told me about this idea he had about doing a film about people who turn their houses in to haunted houses for Halloween. I thought it was a great idea. I connected to the subject. I grew up in a small-town neighborhood where Halloween was a big thing.
Was there anyone in your neighborhood who was as passionate about Halloween as the people in your movie?
Yeah, there was this one lady who would always go overboard and turn her house into this kind of witch’s lair. She had this wooded area in the backyard where you would walk through. As my producer was telling me his idea, it was like I was back to being a 10 year old with this magical feeling of Halloween. I had some fond memories of Halloween being with my friends and family and going through the house of a lady I didn’t know with a pillowcase of candy.
Your last movie “Best Worst Movie” was a personal one for you because it’s a documentary about a film you were a part of as a kid. How did you face going into a new film where the subject matter was personal for other people instead?
For me, capturing real people is the thing that always drives me to a documentary. It’s not so much about the content or places or things. This was one of those opportunities to tell a story about family and community and tradition. I wanted to focus on character as opposed to props. It’s like “Best Worst Movie” – it’s really not about bad movies, it’s about the bad movie phenomenon. When I made that movie, I wasn’t interested in bad movies. I was interested in people.
Do you have a backbone these days for haunted houses yourself?
(Laughs) I’ve done the haunted house thing. I love it. As we were making this movie I had the opportunity to visit a few pro haunts (professional haunted houses). They’re fun attractions. I was genuinely terrified of one we went to in Pittsburgh. There were moments where I screamed like I hadn’t screamed in years. It was exhilarating.
What made you scream? Is there something specific that scares you the most as you walk through these things?
All the startle scares get me. It’s all about timing and anticipation just like good horror movies. You don’t have one scare after another. There has to be a buildup. It’s not so much a prop that scares me, it’s the atmosphere you’re walking into. The anticipation of the scare is what’s most nerve-wracking because you don’t know where it’s going to come from.
What are you doing for Halloween?
Fortunately, this Halloween I am going to be home. I missed it last year. My wife and I haven’t decided what we’re going to dress up as yet. My five year old wants to be a really scary, classic witch. My two year old is saying she wants to be a ladybug. We live in a really special part of L.A. where people actually go trick or treating still. People come into our neighborhood by the busload just to do that. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’ll be a lot of fun.