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Saturday, October 12, 2002

Hell House
On Friday night we walked down to the Little Theatre to see Hell House, a documentary about an original Christian house of horrors (see clips here).

Haunted houses are an American Halloween staple: People pay a few bucks to get scared in familiar ways, like a sort of walk-through version of a fairground ghost train. But instead of ghosts and goblins and bags of peeled-grape eyeballs, Hell House shows the Christian vision of hell: alcohol, which inevitably leads to murderous drunken driving; “rave” dancing, which inevitably leads to drug-taking and rape; homosexuality, which inevitably leads to AIDS and death; the Internet, which inevitably leads to illicit relationships, family violence, and incest; stuttering, which inevitably leads to classroom suicide (as dramatic as that re-enactment of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video was, it was hard to glean the theological point); sex, which can either lead to abortion—and therefore death—or to suicide; and the slippery slope of Harry Potter novels/ouija boards/role-playing games, which inevitably leads to the occult and … well, who knows, but most likely suicide, since that seemed to be the consequence of first resort.

These late-October Christian theme parks are all over the country these days, but the movie focused on the original and best-known, organized by the Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, which draws 13,000 people every year. After passing through the various rooms of the house, the tour groups get an intense soul-saving pitch, and according to the organizers’ claims, in the last 10 years, about 15,000 of the 75,000 visitor have been “saved” after their visit to the house.

The movie focused on the preparations for the show—deciding the year’s themes, writing the script, holding auditions, building the house, rehearsing—with the last 15 minutes or so devoted to the live performances and some attendees’ reactions. The director also threw in a few semi-random scenes from the participants’ lives—a single father of five, two of whom have cerebral palsy, struggling to cope with the hectic morning routine (his wife left him after an Internet affair), the dating habits of Christian teenagers, the curricula of Christian schools (although it would’ve been a tangent, I wish I could’ve seen a Christian Spanish class—when the movie flashed on the Trinity School textbooks, I wanted to see them in use), the beliefs of the participants, and lots of scenes of speaking in tongues and laying on of hands, which looked very, very sketchy.

In the end, they were just a bunch of kids playing parts—even the adults involved: the preacher tricked out in T-shirts and a hideous Hitler mustache so he could appeal to his youth “audience”; the sad loser of a Spanish teacher living out his fantasies in a weird Hell House race-war scene; the smug, creepy tech dude twiddling his knobs and dials; the “DJ” desperate to look like a hip rave-scene expert but clearly clueless. And then lots of teenagers getting to act out intense scenes of torment—a drama teen’s dream, in other words.

Toward the end there was a strong scene of some slacker teens who had been through the house confronting the cop who organizes security and supplies the guns they use in the show. The cop didn’t have an answer as to why the show was so focused on death as the inevitable consequence of straying from the straight and narrow—why should the only image of gayness be a dude dying on AIDS; why should the only consequence of going to a rave be that you’ll be drugged and raped; why should reading Harry Potter lead you straight to Satan? (I’d add to that another unasked question: Why does the script present men as evil pigs and women as helpless victims?)

In the very earliest stage of conceptualizing the show, the preacher made it clear that some topics were off-limits—there would be no lesbian or gay couples for the same reason there are no boy-girl scenes: the kids spend so much time together … He trailed off, but it seemed he was afraid that by working together for so long in the rehearsals and the performances, the “actors” might actually become a couple and. Way to have faith, dude.

Despite the general creepiness of most of the adults portrayed in the movie, I was impressed by the sincerity and articulateness of pretty much everyone involved. I’m very glad I didn’t grow up in a small Texas town like that, but as long as you can get out of it without too many scars, there are worse ways to grow up.

Once again, the plague of inappropriate laughter was in full force. These days it seems that people feel the need to laugh like a drain whenever there’s something “difficult” on the screen. Sometimes—as at Punch-Drunk Love or last year’s The Royal Tenenbaums—the audience seems desperate to show how hip they are, to signal that they appreciate the director’s ironic or arch sensibility. Last night it felt as though people needed to show that they were different from those crazy Christian rubes; more urban, less gullible, more sophisticated. No doubt they are, but it strikes me as disrespectful. It reminds me though of something director George Ratliff said on NPR: When asked how general audiences’ reaction to the movie differed from the Hell House congregation’s, he said, “They just laughed in different places.”

Hell House bonus: Check out the Hell House feature on the excellent Public Radio International show, This American Life (it’s the second story), and this piece from NPR’s Weekend Edition. Also, the real Hell House XII kicked off this weekend; this year's show appears to have a 9-11 theme: Check out their site!