Hell House (IMDB) is a documentary about an annual haunted house sponsored by Trinity Assembly of God Church near Dallas, Texas, designed quite literally “to scare the hell out of you.” At the time of filming, the church was working on its tenth annual Hell House and an estimated 75,000 people had passed through the gates. As someone who grew up in a Pentecostal church (and attended an evangelical college), I’ve been curious to see this film for some time.
The film documents, in verite style, the entire process of conducting a Hell House, from the initial planning stages to the main event. Also included are brief interviews, against a pure white backdrop, with several of the actors or participants in Hell House who reflect on what they imagine hell to be like or relate their observations that we are living in the end times (another set of interviews on the existence of demons was deleted). These scenes are particularly jarring, especially when middle-class teenagers describe hell as a place of “everlasting torment” or point to symptoms such as abortion as a sign that the world is in the worst state it has ever been.
The hell houses themselves are divided into various rooms that portray various crises such as an abortion that goes wrong, a homosexual man dying of AIDS, a teenager who commits suicide after being date-raped at a rave (apparently the contemporary equivalent of a den of iniquity), and an abusive husband who assaults his wife after discovering her Internet affair. These segments play more like stereotypical self-help concepts than actual life horrors. As J. Hoberman reminded me, one volunteer cautions that he wishes we “didn’t have to see” what he’s about to show us. And yet the people who are participating seem to enjoy it so much–the teenage girls compete for the opportunity to play “suicide girl” and others look forward to playing in the rave scene because they like to dance. The characters seem to enjoy the roleplaying deeply. Hoberman’s comparison to a Judy Garland musical captures the mood in these scenes quite nicely, and it struck me that their performance, rather than identifying the fundamental rift between God and Satan, seemed to more powerfully underline their complicity, the conspiarcy bewteen good and evil in which good needs evil in order to exist in the first place.
There is a significant moment of criticism when a few locals criticize Hell House for perpetuating “Christian faggot shit,” contentiously asking on what authority the Hell House crew determines what’s a sin, but the filmmaker treats his subjects with some compassion and avoids overtly making fun of them, although their lack of awareness comes through on a couple of occasions, especially when they can’t remember the name of “the date rape drug.”
I have to admit it was strange to revisit that part of my past, but there was also a strange distance, like hearing a language I once knew and sopke fluently but have long forgotten, and while the film has its nuances, I’m not sure that it completely captures all of the tensions and contradictions that I encountered during that time of my lfe (or if that’s even possible). The film’s comic detachment seems to preclude that kind of analysis, but on second thought, the filmmaker’s coyness may be just the right touch. And now it’s time for me to get some sleep: grading marathon tomorrow.