The Non-Fiction Section: “Hell House”

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October 20, 2010 by abbyo

In honor of Halloween, this week’s Non-Fiction Section is dedicated to “Hell House,” George Ratliff’s 2002 documentary about a fundamentalist church in Texas putting on its tenth annual fire-and-brimstone themed “alternative” haunted house. At the time the documentary was made, Hell Houses were something of a rarity. Now, of course, they’re everywhere. Even if you weren’t previously aware of Ratliff’s documentary, you’ve probably heard about them from the New York Times, This American Life, or NPR. Heck, you may even have one in your town. On the surface, “Hell House” is an interesting little window into a few weeks in the life of Trinity Assembly of God Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. In a deeper sense, it’s a telling portrait of conservative Christianity that never judges the subjects, but instead lets them speak for themselves (and, in some cases, lets them dig their own graves…pun partially intended).

I’ve always found the concept of Hell Houses fascinating and repulsive in equal measures. A church depicting scenes of mortal sins and eternal damnation in gruesome ways is hardly tactful, but you’ve got to admit it’s intriguing. In the documentary, The Trinity Hell House’s scenes include the following: a botched abortion, a school shooting, a gay man dying of AIDS, a rape (followed by suicide), domestic violence, and a drug deal gone wrong. Each scene is accompanied by a sneering, whiny-voiced demon character that tempts the sinner into doing something drastic, then drags them off to meet their spiritual fate. The film’s combination of horror and amateur theater dynamics result in a documentary that feels a bit like Wes Craven directing “Waiting for Guffman.” It’s shot on 16mm film with a low-budget quality and often-shaky camerawork, making it bear aesthetic resemblance to horror movies like Craven’s original “Last House on the Left,” especially during the opening scenes.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie involves Ratliff’s profiles of the Hell House cast and crew. There’s the burly small-time pro wrestler, who plays an abusive father in the domestic violence scene, but seems like a kind, devoted churchgoer and family man in every other respect. There’s the cast member who met his girlfriend when she played a rape victim. The film’s closest profile is Alexandra Cassar (“Abortion Girl”) and her family, which includes her single father and a seizure-prone baby brother with cerebral palsy. Absent (but still ever-present) is Alexandra’s mother, who left the family to be with a man she met on the Internet. Trinity’s congregation is filled with similar stories of members enduring hardships in their lives, and finding salvation in the church.

Of course, the other major area the film covers is Trinity Church’s theology. It’s a doozy, but unfortunately not that surprising or uncommon. In a secular society like the one we live in, it would have been easy for the director to make his subjects look like fools. But Ratliff never takes that step. Never once does the filmmaker’s perspective come into the film. Instead, he simply depicts what happens, and lets the events tell the audience everything they need to know. The Trinity congregation end up coming off as nice folks, but far too serious about their message and without a doubt out-of-touch with the culture they’re trying to influence. For reference, I’ll direct your attention to the picture below, part of the set for the “Occult Human Sacrifice” scene:


It’s supposed to be a Pentagram. As you can see, it’s clearly a Star of David. Oops.

Similar moments involve a monologue for the occult scene that mentions the Harry Potter and Goosebumps books as points of entry for satanic influence. In preparation for a rave scene, participants repeatedly mention “the date rape drug,” but forget its proper name (that’d be Rohypnol, guys). Another scene shows a teenage couple going on their first date…to a church service. This sequence is particularly telling, as it includes Trinity Church’s pastor charging his congregation to “infect the culture.” According to him, it’s what Jesus came to do. As a Christian myself, I don’t agree that Trinity’s approach to influencing secular culture is the way to go about saving souls, nor do I believe that it was the approach Jesus took. But, as “Hell House” shows, it is a point of view held by a number of other Christians.

Whether you believe in God or not, the last half of “Hell House,” which shows the event itself, is truly scary. It’s one thing to hear the scenes described, but quite another to actually watch them and see attendees react. To me (and, I suspect, many other viewers), it wasn’t scary in the way the church meant it to be. It was scary to come face-to-face with a form of theology that tries to scare people into conversion. Ratliff does show some rowdy dissenters arguing with a church member, but neither the angry attendees nor the Hell House representative they speak with provide an intelligent argument for or against the scenes on display.

In fact, if “Hell House” lacks anything, it’s a reaction from non-Trinity members. It being a verite film, I’m sure this wasn’t the goal, but for non-Christian viewers, the film simply reinforces an unfortunate stereotype that all Christians are right-wing nutjobs whose good intentions are undermined by fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.  “Hell House” proves that this type of Christianity does exist, but it’s certainly not the only kind out there. It would have been nice to know if there were any members of local religious groups who didn’t approve of Trinity’s Hell House, as I’m sure there must be. After all, a church that thinks it’s okay to re-enact the Columbine shooting as a means to get people right with God is just begging for controversy.

Some related links:

Film Web site

An interview with George Ratliff in the Austin Chronicle

Review of “Hell House” in The Village Voice

A satirical celebrity Hell House in L.A.

For additional reference, I really do recommend that you check out the “This American Life” story I linked above. Like everything Ira Glass and co. do, it’s top-notch.

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46 thoughts on “The Non-Fiction Section: “Hell House”

  1. runtobefit says:

    I definitely have to see this documentary. I always love interesting documentaries and this is a great subject!

    http://www.runtobefit.wordpress.com

  2. Hell House is scarier than any scripted horror film.

  3. CrystalSpins says:

    I’ve been to one of these Hell Houses — back when I was going to a small Christian college in Oklahoma. It was interesting, but I found it silly at best. But, I already considered myself a Christian at that time. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t moving in any way. Along the lines of “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames” (http://www.mze.com/heavensgates/) it mostly came off as bad theatrics.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

  4. joanierobi says:

    Wow I have never heard of ‘Hell Houses’ until now. Unbelievable! Going to have go go back and click a few of those links. Congrats on being ‘Freshly Pressed’ and, um, Happy Halloween!
    http://www.thepeoplestuff.com

  5. James Grimes says:

    This is a film I’ve had in my NetFlix queue for some time. I’m a devout Christian. I dropped out of ministry school due to frustration with the ignorance and arrogance of the leadership; something I see reflected in the makers of the hell houses. It makes it extremely difficult to watch without getting angry. Still, this is an important socio-religious phenomenon and as my film review blog, http://thesilvermirror.wordpress.com, is going through horror films this month, I should probably watch it and weigh in myself. Thanks for the insightful article.

  6. LK says:

    Great post!

  7. Wow, that film sounds like a must-see. I’ve never been personally exposed to much of the fanaticism you refer to, but that it exists is abundantly clear, and rather terrifying.

  8. thank you for your perspective on this. we recently watched this film in a class i’m in through my church…outraged at the way some Christians handle those who don’t think the same way, we had to be reminded that they are still our brothers and sisters. your review on this seems to be more tempered in that direction.

  9. I’ve never understood the idea of scaring people into agreeing with you, rather than appealing to them with a rational argument. But, alas, I guess that’s what makes us all different and wonderful? Except if you’re going to hell for being like one of those people in the Hell House dramatizations… Those people obviously weren’t created in G-d’s likeness.

  10. I’ve heard of hell houses, but never of this particular one, or the film. Intriguing, if for no other reason than to review something controversial and make my own opinion about it, though I whole heartedly appreciate yours! Thanks for the info! And congrats on being FP’d!

  11. I’ve never heard of this. I find it terrifying, and not in the way it was intended.

  12. Kathy Larson says:

    I’ve never heard of ‘hell houses’. I think I would like to see this documentary. Fanatics — what would the world be without them? Thanks for an enlightening post.

  13. Evie Garone says:

    There are extremists in every religion. To take it to this extreme as in these “hell houses” is fanatical and ridiculous! I want NO part of it!

    evelyngarone.com

  14. No Way To Noting says:

    As stated in the article, there are self proclaimed “Hell Houses” all over the country. This documentary which I felt was meant to expose the false-pretenses under which these attractions are started actually INSPIRED evangelists to go out and start there horror shows attacking pro-choice, homosexuality, suicide and other very offensive topics.

    Way to go, extremists.

    • abbyo says:

      After doing some digging, it looks like most of these Hell Houses come from a pastor out in Colorado (the name escapes me) who actually sells the script and ideas for staging. The NPR piece I linked to on the satirical “Hollywood Hell House” uses that same script with a very different approach. I kind of wish I’d been able to see it myself!

  15. callmeams says:

    I remember when this came out and the uproar over the abortion scenes. I haven’t seen it myself and at the time I didn’t care to. I am a Christian and I don’t believe people need to be scared into belief.

  16. I would have dug it if they went uber philosophical with the concept…for example, the “Hell House” is nothing but a facade. When you walk through the doors you enter the literal “other side.” Just back outside with the other visitors to ponder what right and wrong means to them sans the fearful manipulation. Pure nakedness. Pure Hell. Get it?

    Please don’t take me too seriously, I don’t, at any rate…good post by the way. I’ve been meaning to check the doc out, just haven’t got around to it yet.

    God’s Nature

    • abbyo says:

      Hey! I think I would have appreciated a little more philosophical discussion, too. I read in an interview with Ratliff that he was trying to make a verite documentary, which means he wasn’t interested in much else than just the events at hand, but I think that as interesting as the movie is, he missed out on an opportunity to make it more. The “This American Life” piece covers both Ratliff’s movie and Hell Houses in general, and goes a little further in discussion of the idea itself. Thanks so much for your comment!

  17. badbadwebbis says:

    I too heard the NPR piece on the Hell Houses, and then I tracked down and read pretty much anything I could find on them.

    And then I had nightmares.

    But I know enough people like these that the whole thing doesn’t surprise me (frighten me, yes) – it’s an aspect of the Easy Peasy Jeezy syndrome that many fundamentalists seem to be encouraging these days. It emphasizes an egocentric approach to religion (‘What does this mean for me, Al Franken?’) whose commitment can be demonstrated by the wearing of a t-shirt. No need to think, no need to hold any real beliefs. Just wave your arms in the air and cry for Jeebus.

    By the way, I am an Episcopalian.

  18. gnarlyoak says:

    Although frightening, a hilarious article. Religion gets taken way too far.

  19. rtcrita says:

    Wow… I think I prefer my own kind of Halloween activities. http://rtcrita.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/its-almost-time/ It’s not as scary or offensive or extreme. Just good old fashioned fun.

    I think I’ll pass on viewing those “films.” But thanks for sharing so I know what to stay away from. Good post.

  20. The Woods At Night says:

    Interesting blog entry. I have to admit though that I think the whole Hell House thing is ridiculous. And people that are shocked by it obviously aren’t the tv watching types.
    I also have a strong opinion of organized religion, but I doubt this is the place to discuss that.

  21. crenabog says:

    Thanks for the good post, very interesting to me. Probably I’ll never see this film ’cause I live in Italy so perhaps it’ll never arrive here but I read you and got all the notices to know it. Religiously I’m a faithful of a particular saint, S. Judas Taddeus, and use to follow my church as possible but also if I think that is good to speak to everyone about Christ and God , doing it that way is a no good way. People must understand and believe, not be terrified about! Excuse me for my english! Have a nice day!

    • abbyo says:

      Thanks for your comment! “Hell House” is actually on DVD these days and is available all over the internet. I believe (but am not sure) that the whole film is posted on YouTube. I know sometimes online videos don’t always work in different countries for various reasons, but if you’re interested in the film, you might give it a try!

  22. skyeee says:

    Another terrifying movie, “Gay Bar in a Small Town”. Hearing Fred Phelps from Westboro Church speaks makes me get goosebumps…and then my blood boils.

  23. I’ve never been to a Hell House, but I have been to something called “Tribulation Trail” that depicts scenes from the book of Revelation. I believe it got started around the time that the Left Behind Series became popular.

    I’m a Christian and I do not believe that scare tactics like this, especially ones that target children, are appropriate in any way. I just cannot understand how extremists like these believe that they are accomplishing anything positive or valuable through terrifying people.

  24. Rob says:

    Wow, can’t believe I’ve never heard of “Hell House.” I will check it out.
    thanks

  25. Michele says:

    Even the most well meaning ppl can go off kilter. There’s a verse in the bible that says don’t let your good be evil spoken of…which to me translates don’t get carried away especially in the name of doing something for “good or God.” Needless to say if even well meaning ppl can get off the track, ppl who’s well meaning meter is totally broken well … they’re just so far off that they just don’t see clearly what they do…until something clicks inside. Something clicked for me about 5 yr. ago. Now I live a more happy life. I stear clear of closed minded stuff like this movie. There’s soo much more to life that will bring more peace, more joy, more love, more of everything we all truely want.
    http://www.youtube.com/screenartsanimation

  26. This tactic of Hell Houses goes hand in hand with plays and movies out there that are meant to scare you into christianity. The ‘Left Behind’ movies series (with incredibly laughable special effects and dialogue) is another example used by extremists in the Christian religion. Perhaps this is the only way they would have found religion and, therefore, believe it is one of their best methods to bring others to the fold.

  27. geekpyxie says:

    I will definitely have to check those out, just to see what they really look like. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, so I’m all for religious diversity, and I try hard not to judge anyone for their beliefs, but these “hell houses” sound like the unfortunate ignorance that appears in many different religions these days.

  28. Tiffany Hope says:

    Hell House? Never heard of it. But a botched abortion, a school shooting, a gay man dying of AIDS, a rape followed by suicide, domestic violence, and a drug deal gone wrong… sound very interesting. Gotta watch this before I… never mind.

  29. felicia says:

    Haha, never heard of hell house

  30. Generation 26 says:

    I believe in God, but I find sometimess when i’m down and overthink thigs I need a bit of reassurance. I’m not the biggest fan of my church becuase I feel they’ve started using the tithes to pay for unneccesary things…like the christmas decorations that seem to get bigger and brighter and stay on longer each year…..but I’d like to see them do a Hell house. I just might go

  31. I went to a Catholic high school in which theology was a required class every year. During one class session in my junior year, students watched Hell House and we were all disgusted. Stuff like hell houses and anti-abortion protests showing pictures of dead babies is just wrong and insensitive. I don’t believe forcing your beliefs on others. People should engage in intellectual arguments and allow others to decide for themselves. I’m glad I went to a school that is relatively sane and understanding of other religions. As for me, I was raised a Catholic, but am now questioning my faith through philosophy.

  32. Ed Ju says:

    Haven’t heard of this before, it seems effectively intense… Thanks for the share! I hope everything goes well with that~

    ed
    http://edxju.wordpress.com/

  33. docutuesday says:

    sounds interesting! great post.

  34. This is the first time I have ever heard of this and find it a bit extreme. I see there are children in the audience and I don’t agree with them watching this type of thing even though it is a just act. Yet again I am a christian and i don’t judge people on their religions so I wish them luck but wouldn’t want a part of it. Thanks for the info!

  35. Tony says:

    I’ve been to a Hell House and I saw this movie. Pretty acurate depiction. It would be cool to get an idea of how many folks actually end up in relationship with Jesus based on this approach. Good post. Thanks for the review.

    Tony
    http://www.kingdombard.com

  36. educlaytion says:

    I agree with Michele who referenced the verse about not letting your good be speaking evil of. The question is what is good in the first place. I’m trying to picture Jesus in the 21st century. I don’t see him putting all his time into something like a Hell House when he could be way more effective just meeting people wherever they were and letting them know they were special and loved. Unfortunately, Christians often fail to look anything like the One they follow.

  37. Michael Dion says:

    Simply stated. This is not the way to reach the lost. People will “accept Christ” because they are scared and not as a result of the realization of their sin. No tact. No love. Not Christlike. Not appropriate.

  38. […] piece of cinema verite, so this week I’m doing a full review. Like George Ratliff’s movie “Hell House,” “Subway Preacher” is an interesting, frustrating and strangely entertaining look into the lives […]

  39. […] and style, “Wrestling for Jesus” is a good companion piece to George Ratliff’s documentary “Hell House.” It’s basically a more uplifting perspective of a similar community.  As with the church in […]

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