October 29, 2003

Hell House : Movie Review

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. (Romans 6:23)

This time of year, one thing that can be counted on (here in New England) is that someone is running a haunted house. They range from small, brief conference-room-sized affairs (like the one our local library runs for free) to elaborate multi-room affairs which cost a few bucks to enter and are geared toward a slightly older group (such as Fall River's "Factory of Terror").

The point of these haunted houses is entertainment, and not much more. It's a way to safely join in the fun of Halloween and scare a few people. For some organizations, it's a way to raise some funds. When I was a kid, my friends and I (who were avid horror movie fans and skilled in horror makeup art from reading industry magazines) sometimes volunteered our services at the Police Athletic League haunted house, or the one at Pottersville School.

But what if you could harness the interest in haunted houses to further a religious and political agenda? Instead of scaring people for fun, you could scare them with God's threatened punishment by showing them what's going to happen to them if they don't toe the line. What will happen to them if they're gay, or have an abortion, or flirt with people on the internet?

Well, some folks do just that. The movie "Hell House" documents one such godly house of horrors - the oldest running one, in fact, at Trinity Church just outside of Dallas, TX. The result is an important examination of a vein of fear which runs through our population. It's a fear that could be coming to your town someday, if you choose to ignore it.

From the first brainstorming process through the execution of the horrors and the prayer room that follows, the filmmakers chronicled the entire event. Further, they examine some of the personal lives of the hell house organizers to reveal some of the real demons these people are dealing with.

There are revealing glimpses along the way. In one of the planning sessions, there is discussion of placing a gay marriage scene into the show. If it were to follow the mold of the other segments of the house, it would probably have played the two gay folks up as stereotypes, and then had some tragedy befall the wedding party so that demons could be seen dragging the screaming homosexuals to their eternal doom as they loudly proclaimed that they wished they could go back and un-gay themselves. One woman objected to the ideas that were being bandied about and, to their credit, they nixed the gay segment. She cited that she had gay friends.

(BTW, Hell Houses have since taken up the slack on this issue. One existing house does indeed have a gay marriage-themed segment.)

The filmmakers show the sincerity of the organizers. And while they pull no punches in revealing the details of the Hell House, the organizers certainly come across as human, if a little misguided. The only time an opposing opinion to the Hell House is given is when some of the patrons objected to the message of the Hell House, prompting an argument in the parking lot outside. What follows is not much of a debate, and here is where we see the balance of the filmmakers. They allow the protestors to have their brief say, but don't wander off at that point to explore the protest in depth, or an opposing opinion. In this way, the film is kept pretty pure.

Sure, you're meant to come to some sort of conclusion. Certainly the filmmakers chose to show you the private life of one man whose wife left him after an internet affair, and how he is personally tormented by the one scene that nearly mirrors his own life. There is irony when one young girl is excited to play the "abortion gone wrong" or the "date rape scene."

Without batting an eye, a girl portrays a teen who is slipped a date-rape drug, and then is raped. Back in her room she faces her inner demons. The message is clear - she never should have gone to the party. There is no sympathy for this teen who (the demon reveals) was also molested by her father. Regardless, she is on the path to Hell.

The ignorance of the organizers sometimes takes center stage as when they are excited to include a date rape scene, but can't think of a date rape drug. One begins to wonder at the motivation behind the scenes chosen. Ostensibly, it is to deter people from sin. But after a while it starts to feel more like a way to express their own frustration with a world that frightens them. This is their cathartic voodoo-doll attack on their own demons (the gays, loose women, the internet culture, etc.).

By the end of the movie you will likely feel sorry for the organizers. They're truly trapped in their ideology and are motivated not by hatred (as opponents might assume) or by love (as they might tell you) but by fear. And it is that fear that the choose to give back to the community, in the form of the Hell House.

I highly recommend this film. This cultural phenomenon is not just a form of entertainment, but a bellwether. It's an inkblot of parts of America that are usually not accessible to the east/west coast culture. This is an opportunity to understand the fear that has consumed these people, and the helplessness that they feel.

The last two years of news have been dominated by America's reaction to terrorism. What is terrorism if not the child of fear and helplessness? Fear, combined with helplessness and a growing population of people who feel they have no future (unemployed, or marginally employed and surrounded by poverty) finds a home when it encounters a religion with apocalyptic overtones. Clearly, we ignore this at our own risk.

You might think "Well, I don't see this happening in my town yet." I thought the same thing, but then I realized that we have our own version of this. It doesn't happen to run during the Halloween season, but instead during the summer. It's called "Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames" and is basically the same idea, without the Halloween themes. It's run by a local protestant sect which was started by a felonious preacher (whome they have recently disowned). Clearly, the idea of symbolically striking out at one's enemy through these events to reaffirm their own riteousness is a concept with legs.

Hell House The Movie Website
Hell House on IMDB
Related stories on Hell Houses: 1, 2, 3
NPR story
Brandon's Post @ Instick Musings

Posted by James at October 29, 2003 10:59 AM
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Ah, yes. Good old "Hell House."

Last year, Steve Inskeep reported on this, um, phenomenon for NPR.


Posted by: Patti M. at October 29, 2003 11:10 AM

I had to laugh at the "don't see this happening in my own town" line. It WAS happening in my own town (several rinky-dink efforts in Orlando and thereabouts).

Posted by: Julie at October 29, 2003 1:08 PM

Damn things are popping up everywhere, sometimes by different names and hosted by different companies.

Newspaper article:
Scream House in Pembroke Pines traumatizes kids, angry parents say

There is a Judgement House near where I work:

Scares the heck out of me, that's for sure ...

Posted by: Brandon at October 29, 2003 1:49 PM

Brandon, I just read the story you posted. Yow!

What is wrong with these people? I can't believe they didn't think to mention that their "haunted house" was inappropriate for young children. If this kind of stuff was in a G-rated movie, I'm sure they would be the first ones to raise the hue and cry.

Posted by: Patti M. at October 29, 2003 3:24 PM

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