October 31, 2006

It's a hell of a horror show

Here's my "Hallowe'en special." Enjoy!

Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, near Dallas, Texas has put on a haunted house every Hallowe'en since 1990. But instead of coffins, skeletons, and bats, their house of horrors features domestic violence, abortion, AIDS, the occult, and suicide. This is the infamous "Hell House" - an evangelistic tool meant to warn the unsaved about the evils of modern society and the hellish consequences of making bad moral choices while rejecting Jesus. Thousands go through the Hell House every year, and the church has sold additional kits to churches all over the U.S.

In 1999, the church made headlines when that year's Hell House featured a school shooting. This was regarded as insensitive, following as closely as it did on the heels of the Columbine massacre only six months earlier. This inspired documentarian George Ratliff to make a short documentary, titled The Devil Made Me Do It about the production. On the basis of this film, the Pentecostal church allowed Ratliff to film a feature-length documentary about the attraction, giving him full access to every aspect of the production. Hell House is that documentary.

This doc follows the progress of the Hell house starting with scriptwriting and auditions, through production and rehearsal, and finally opening night. It's shot in "verité" style: Ratliff simply points the cameras at the church members and lets them speak for themselves. There is no editorializing, apart from that which is intrinsic to the editing process, and a short montage of reaction to the Hell House from some locals. While many of the participants get a chance to speak, Ratliff focuses on a single family: John Cassar and his five children. John plays one of Hell House's masked demonic tour guides, while his eldest daughter Alex auditions for, and wins, the part of "Abortion Girl."

Ratliff seems to be trying to portray the people of Trinity Church as kooks, part of a sinister underbelly of evangelical Christianity that most people don't know about. But if that was his plan, it backfired when he decided to focus on the Cassars. Cassar is a single, divorced father who lost his wife to an Internet affair. The viewer can't help but sympathize with him as he carries out the difficult task of raising five kids on his own (his day begins at 6 am), chiding Alex for taking too long in the bathroom, and responding quickly to an emergency when his youngest child, who has cerebral palsy, suddenly suffers a seizure. Toward the end of the movie we learn that life imitates Hell House: the "domestic violence" scenario centres around an unfaithful wife's clandestine Internet affair.

Equally kooky, supposedly, are the multiple instances of prayer meetings in which pastor Jim Hennesy and the members of Trinity speak in tongues. Now, glossolalia is certainly unconventional, especially for a straitlaced Baptist like me. However, it's a hallmark of Pentecostalism, and the Assemblies of God are a pretty big denomination. How dirty can this little secret be, really?

Despite what I assume are the director's intent, I find the Hell House actors to be generally likeable and sympathetic. You can't help feeling for someone like John Cassar, who has been dealt a bad hand in life and found acceptance and community in the church. Another female actor recounts how she had once been raped, then later spotted her rapist in the Hell House audience; for her the experience was cathartic, enabling her to forgive the man for the first time.

If anything, the Trinity folks come across not so much as weird or creepy, as naïve and sheltered from the culture they are trying to engage. The "DJ" in the "rave scene" was a real rave DJ before he was saved, but he has some trouble recalling the name of the "date rape" drug. The set constructors for the "occult scene" argue over whether real Satanists would use white or red to draw a pentagram; they settle on red, but mistakenly spray-paint a six-pointed Star of David on the wall instead of a five-pointed pentagram. And one teenage girl makes a big production out of getting ready for a date with her boyfriend, who comes to pick her up in his car - for the regular church youth group meeting.

For me, the real concern is the shoddy theology behind Hell House's evangelism. There is plenty of talk about the consequences of bad choices resulting in condemnation in hell, but although Jesus is given lip service as the Saviour, there is nothing of the Cross in this presentation. How should we understand Jesus as Saviour if we don't know how, or why, our salvation was accomplished? There's plenty of condemnation, but none of the "comfortable words" of redemption and forgiveness. Readers of Christian novels such as Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness will recognize the comic-book Manichaeism, as masked demons taunt and tempt sinners into committing acts that lead to their deaths, then drag them screaming into hell. Meanwhile, angels shield those who have accepted Jesus from demonic attack. The Bible warns us to avoid temptation from the world, the flesh, and the devil; Hell House spreads the devil thick, but the world and the flesh thin. In fact, when someone like the "school suicide" kid dies and goes to hell, we never find out what happens to the teenagers who drove him to it by their mockery.

Another cause for concern is the zeal with which the participants pursue the "juicier" parts. The part of "abortion girl," for which Alex Cassar's audition is successful, is the most coveted, with parts like "teen suicide girl" or "rave rape girl" follow closely at its heels. "Ravers" like the rave scene because they get to dance (which activity, I presume, is otherwise discouraged by the church). You almost come away with the impression that the Hell Housers want to live vicariously as "bad girls," if only for a few weeks, or that the rave DJ hasn't made all that clean a break with his past life.

One of the last scenes of the documentary shows some of the audience reactions to the Hell House. An argument between a Roman Catholic and a Hell Houser over the canon seems a little out of place. More interesting is the young man in a Fear Factory T-shirt who takes issue with the church's portrayal of homosexuality. Who is to say what is right and wrong, he keeps asking, as a church member tries patiently to explain the biblical position. In the end Fear Factory gives up trying to argue, hoists his middle finger, and walks off in search of a smoke.

If you're like me, in the end you'll have enjoyed watching Hell House. Some parts are informative, some are humorous, and in still other places you'll feel embarrassed for the participants. But it's an entertaining look at a Christian subculture you might not have been aware of, and a fascinating case study of how far at least one church will go to reach its community.