Friday, October 28, 2011

Hell Houses

Has anyone heard about this disturbing Halloween trend?  Because it is truly frightening, and I don't mean in the traditional Halloween "all in good fun" kind of way, either.

For those of you who don't know, a "Hell House" is an October attraction put on by a religious organization, usually a fundamentalist Christian church, that started in the 90's.  It mimics a typical haunted house in that it is erected temporarily for the fall or Halloween season and its goal is to scare the crap out of anyone who enters.  However, the similarities end there.  The scenes in a Hell House depict real-life scenarios of what the church considers "sin," such as suicide, abortion, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, etc.  At the end of the Hell House is a final scene showing the damned burning or otherwise suffering in hell, and almost all visits to a Hell House conclude with a push toward conversion, in which the tour guide, host, or other representative asks the participants to go pray with waiting church officials, either renewing their commitment to Christianity or "giving their souls to Christ" for the first time.  So the sole purpose of the Hell House, essentially, is to proselytize, and is just one more way that fundamentalists and evangelicals are bullying and scaring people into converting.  According to Wikipedia, Jerry Fallwell (big surprise) is credited with the creation of the first Hell House in the 1970's.

The Movie:

Director George Ratliff explores this phenomenon in his 2001 movie "Hell House," which documents the entire Hell House process from beginning to end at Trinity Assembly of God church in Dallas, Texas.   I found the movie extremely interesting and somehow a lot less creepy than I expected. 

When I watched this movie, I was prepared to get upset and pissed-off at the kind of intolerance, bigotry, and messages of hate and fear that religious fanatics like these people usually perpetuate.  And I wasn't disappointed; topics of the Hell House include two lesbians who "choose" to be gay, a girl who bleeds to death following an abortion, a gay man dying of AIDS, a girl who gets fed drugs at a rave, gang-raped, and then reveals how she was sexually abused by her father before committing suicide (WTF??!), and of course the obligatory topic of occult "brainwashing" by popular culture and the Satanic worship that supposedly follows.  It also irritated me that in almost all of these scenes, there is a "demon" who is allowing the situation to unfold or is egging on the sinner (as with the suicide scene), suggesting that people who sin are not fully in control of their actions or do not have free will, but are damned anyway.  Not surprisingly, those who die in the scenes who are not "saved" also end up in hell, and get dragged away kicking and screaming by more demons.

What I wasn't prepared for was how inadvertently hilarious the movie would also be.  For one thing (as the director points out in a radio interview included in the extras), all of the squeaky-clean Christian youths that try out for the various parts in the Hell House for some reason just CAN'T WAIT to play the "sinners," whereas the parts of the faithful, the angels, and even Jesus Christ himself have to be actively recruited.  Another really humorous (although pretty sad, in reality) aspect of the film is in how ignorant and misinformed the actors and organizers of the Hell House are about the things that they are condemning. 

My favorite example of this (which almost made me fall off the couch, I laughed so hard) is when the camera briefly pans over to a part of the set being constructed for the "Satanic Sacrifice" room, which shows a black wall on which, in red spray-paint, are the numbers "666" and a Star of David inside a circle.  Presumably it is supposed to be an inverted pentagram (the stereotypical "sign of Satan"), but apparently they don't know what that is, or are under the delusion that evil, human-sacrificing, Satan-worshipping Jews are lurking about.  And let's not trivialize the fact that these people are apparently still living in the 80's, when ritual human sacrifice and other Satanic Cult paranoia (long since debunked as an urban legend) was at its height. 

Another pretty funny scene happens between two of the Hell House's organizers who are writing the script, who want to portray role-playing games (in this case, Magic the Gathering) as introductions to the Occult, but can't remember and then agree on what the the game is called.  I also personally giggled at the self-proclaimed "reformed raver," who considered himself to be an expert on raves and rave culture, and who is convinced that every teenager outside of the church does nothing but go to raves, do drugs, and sleep with strangers.  In light of this conviction, he pushes for a "Rave Room" every year at the Hell House, thus showing how even personal agendas exist within the larger Hell House agenda of pushing church dogma onto the viewers and "saving their souls."

All in all,  I highly recommend the movie, despite the fact that it shows how once again, fundie Christians are trying to ruin a harmless good time.  However, it also shows their hypocrisy: Halloween, which has its origins in various Pagan celebrations and traditions, was once assimilated into Catholicism and later other branches of Christianity as All Saint's Day.  Many churches across the country, such as the one depicted in the movie, have rejected the holiday now that it has become a secular celebration, only to co-opt it once again by hosting Hell Houses.  Once these churches figured out how to turn things in their favor, Halloween was "officially" happening again.  Plus, they discovered a way to make it profitable, by building ever-bigger, badder, and more controversial Hell Houses every year, so as to be able to charge a higher entrance fee.  At Trinity Assembly of God, the proceeds from Hell House make it the church's biggest fundraiser every year.  How convenient.

Other Hell House Information

Religious has quite a few negative things to say about Hell Houses and their practice:  To my pleasant surprise, there is also an Author's Note section at the end which states that "Hell Houses appear to spread misinformation and disinformation about a variety of topics," including "the appearance, beliefs and activities of Witches and other Neopagans."

Here is a link to Pastor Keenan Roberts' "Hell House Outreach Kits" (mentioned in the above article.) Only $299!  Order now!  Also click on the links on the left to read more about the kit, especially the "Issues Addressed" link.  Man, are these people afraid of gays and the Occult.

Reverend Brian Kirk of Rethinking Youth wrote this thoughtful essay about Hell Houses that brings up some very good points:  My favorite is that he asks the youth of his church, "if you discovered tomorrow there is no afterlife, would you still be a Christian?"  Good question.

Here is an online interactive Hell House that is so offensive, it's actually funny (which is the point, by the way, because it turns out that the entire "church" is made-up, and is meant to be a joke):

This is the only site I came across (through various Google searches) that had anything positive to say about Hell Houses.  However, it's a discussion on a Christian forum between a bunch of people who have participated in Hell Houses before or who belong to churches that host them now.  And a few people still chimed in about why they didn't like Hell Houses. 

That's all for now.... I'll leave you with a quote from my boyfriend, who so elegantly and succinctly summed up what he thought about these Halloween-haters:  "If you don't want to eat a bunch of candy like everyone else, then f**k you!"  Happy Halloween, and happy Samhain as well!