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:
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:
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.