For Christians, Hell has long been represented as a shadowy netherworld dotted with lakes of fire and the overwhelming stench of sulfur where the damned are tortured for all eternity. It’s interesting to note that this version of hell in not mentioned anywhere in the bible. It is now believed that this view is a combination of repeated incorrect translations from the original Hebrew, and visions of hell that traders brought back with them from Asia. Even the Catholic Church recently admitted that Hell is a theoretical concept as opposed to a physical place. A hundred million fundamentalists seemed to have missed the bulletin.
For the past 10 years the Trinity Church in Cedar Hill Texas has designed an updated parable-themed “Hell House” for Halloween. Their hope is that the graphic depictions of bloodied sinners being dragged away by remorseless hideous demons will help to convert unbelievers in the audience.
The project begins in earnest every August with the casting: students compete for such roles as “abortion girl”, “drug dealer” , and of course the much coveted “rape victim/suicide” (best, according to the participants, because it combines acting with dancing in the spun out rave scene). But it isn’t the cartoonish performances or buckets of fake blood that I found to be unsettling.
Many of the “actors” reveal a wide range of personal traumas: a father of one of the participants – who lost his wife to an Internet affair – tries to cure his infants seizures through prayer (yet won’t hesitate to call 911); a young girl who was raped forgives her attacker and blames herself, etc. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they are obviously seeking catharsis and understanding.
It is interesting to watch participants as they are interviewed. When they are asked to speak on religious subjects, they easily regurgitate the evangelical fire and brimstone rhetoric that they’ve been subjected to since childhood. Yet when asked for their opinions on simple secular subjects they are tongue-tied - clearly they’ve not been encouraged to think about things outside of their religious realm, and thus the cycle perpetuates itself. And the gospel they preach isn’t a loving one.
The skewed list of “sinners” – a passenger killed in a DUI, a gay incest victim dying of AIDS and a bullied young man who kills himself - only serves to highlight the intolerance of the group. The skits themselves range from the laughable to the ludicrous, but the standout involves a young woman who is drawn to the dark side after reading Harry Potter novels. The centerpiece in the occult sacrificial dungeon is supposed to be a pentagram, yet upon closer inspection however it is revealed that it is a Star of David. This unintentional mistake – I don’t think they’re trying to encourage anti-Semitism - says more than words ever could.
The most frightening scene in the film occurs just before the end credits roll - at the end of the tour young attendees are pressured to go into the prayer room where the conversion work-over begins. According to the Hell House designers, they’ve swayed over 15,000 to their way of thinking and other Hell Houses have sprung up throughout the US. I can’t think of anything more terrifying...