Fantastic Fest 2023: Spooktacular – Autumnal Reverie

We lived for October. In rural Ohio, there were not many thrills growing up. Circleville Ohio is named after the shape of the town. An old town circle. No interesting geography. No interesting buildings, except one: a water tower shaped like a pumpkin. The town was downright worshipful about the autumnal orange squash. There was one event and one thing to do every year and it was the annual, and if you are from there, the famed Circleville Pumpkin Show. One week a year everyone came out from their corn rows and joined in the circular downtown plaza. They’d always have the world’s biggest pumpkins, pumpkin pies, and everything “downtown” reflected the love for pumpkins. The event remains one of my most cherished memories. As the thinning veil of Fall set over the sleepy Ohio town, the pumpkins came to town, and everything was right again.

There’s nothing like an autumnal town fair. A harvest festival will do but you’ve got to love a full-on celebration of the Halloween season. It was everything we lived for. Naturally, I love to see the regional traditions and oddities of towns really going all-out for my most beloved holiday. Thus, Spooktacular offers a useful point of entry: one of the first regional Halloween theme parks.

So, let’s travel to Berlin. Not that one. In Berlin, Massachusetts, David Bertolino had an unconventional dream. What began with horror-themed haunted hayrides (do folks outside rural communities understand this concept?), soon expanded to haunted houses and sideshow attractions. Celebrities filtered in right away. He called it Spooky World. From the start, you could spot notable genre celebrities at the event: Kane Hodder, Linda Blaire, and Tom Savini made early appearances. Each provides their notes in the documentary and Tom Savini has even produced the movie.

There is always an uneasiness when documentaries promise a “warts and all” showing about the history of a subject from the horse’s mouth. We are getting only one perspective. It is a positive perspective here. Hagiography doesn’t matter too much, because it is a more trivial event, and not quite related to a personal history, although a corporation does stand to profit off of the movie’s success, the annual show being taken over by a company who puts a lot of these things on. But it does breeze through matters of self-critique.

The other matter is that watching a documentary about a fun place to be is never going to be as good as going there. Watching a commercial for Disney Land is not as good as going to Disney Land. It just plants the ideas about that place in your mind and maybe they’ll grow and be realized later. But probably you’re just going to watch this regional profile, note that this place exists, and at best, perhaps you’ll research your own local places. When we get profiles of businesses and events that are mostly just important to the subjects, it’s hard to know what the end goal for an audience would be. In this case, it’s just to celebrate a cool thing that happened. But we cannot mistake the movie for the thing that happened. It is just a tribute to Spooky World.

Whether you want to watch a documentary about Halloween culture is already predicated on how you feel about the holiday. It’s an easy sell or it can’t be sold to you. It works for me. Perhaps it’s the seasonal joy they exude and that the subjects truly live and breathe the season, but these works always provide a curiosity worth investigating. This is, of course, a regionally-focused special based on a very specific interest. It’s not going to have any compelling call to action. It won’t move the audience or interest someone who is not already all-in enough on the holiday to watch a whole documentary about it.

Spooktacular is a fun but perfunctory documentary that uses its format as a celebration and a love letter to a cool thing a community created. For the right person, it’s an agreeable seasonal watch between horror movies. For me, it is fine and, most usefully, sparked a nostalgic journey back to my youth. Back when Halloween was king and nothing mattered more to a whole community than a bunch of pumpkins. You had to be there.


Leave a Reply