Hell House

Last year Kevin Kelly recommended the documentary Hell House on his Cool Tools blog. I rented it through NetFlix, and couldn’t stop watching it. I ran through it 10-12 times before my wife said it absolutely had to go back because she couldn’t take anymore.

The documentary is about the Trinity Assembly of God Church in Dallas, TX, and the “hell house” phenomenon it started back in 1990. (The church is Apostolic, btw, and there’s some awesome footage of people speaking tongues). It was apparently the first Christian church to do a haunted house where the horrors depicted are the wages of sin. Now, of course, these things are a relatively common.

The Church runs a private high school and the Hell House is a collaboration between the two, with the students trying out for parts in Hell House like students in other schools try out for parts in some bastardized version of a Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams play. Except most of the parts in Hell House are so far out there, that they’d never be allowed in a play at most schools.

The documentary works because the people involved are so fascinating. The documentary both shows them at their most vulnerable and human — such as a hapless father (and Hell House webmaster) who doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the pain of his ex-wife’s adultery to a 20-something church member who seems to be searching for something to fill the emptiness of his life and Hell House is simply the flavor of the week.

At the same time I identified with and felt sympathy for the people, they hold extreme fundamentalist views that are expressed very graphically and offensively in the documentary. The last part of the film is devoted to following visitors through on a walkthrough of Hell House which includes a scene depicting a man dying from AIDS while a demonic creature explains to the man that AIDS is the price he paid for straying from God’s chosen path into a life of homosexuality.

The film intersperses its live footage with clips that are clearly shot in a studio in which someone off camera appears to have asked the students in the film questions, and we are shown their answers as if they are simply impromptu (I *really* hate this device in documentaries). In one of these scenes, a teenage girl captures the entire thrust of the Hell House when she matter of factly states her view that the world outside is corrupt and lost.

On the one hand, the folks in the film come across almost as a parody of right wing fundamentalists — these people make Jerry Falwell look like a Unitarian minister. On the other hand, at least their faith isn’t some wishy-washy Unitarian style nonsense. These people actually believe in something. Unfortunately, what they actually believe in is far scarier than any horror film I’ve ever seen.

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