In the opening moments of the documentary “Hell House” a female narrator states that the house in question is the “home of dramatized rapes, incurable disease, suicide and abortion—the shock of which Trinity Church of Cedar Hill hopes will disturb young people into giving their lives to God this Halloween.”
One of this Texas church’s (which is part of the Assembly of God churches) leaders, Tim Ferguson, freely admits that among their primary tactics for recruiting new parishioners is the use of fear. This approach had lead to such stunts as re-enacting the Columbine massacre for loads of bused-in youngsters who paid seven dollars a pop to literally have the Devil scared out of them.
In this modern, self-styled variation on the old-timey haunted house, local church members act out grim, heavy-handed scenes dealing with incest, drug addiction, the occult, etc. Why all the drama? “ “They’ll come see Hell House,” Ferguson explains. “When they would never walk inside the doors of a church.”
Clearly, this is no small undertaking. We are told that as many as 12,000 people see this production every October. And the church auditions actors and rehearses (as well as building a new Hell House) for two months prior to the three-week long scare fest. In trying to keep up with the times the church has even incorporated a date rape scene at a rave into the production, with a lot of effort going into making the drama look and feel authentic for the teens.
At a pre-show rally the cast and crew whip themselves into a Christ-fearin’ frenzy that has all the subtlety of a cult indoctrination, or a convention of rabid vacuum cleaner salesmen. The actual performances are both darkly humorous and deeply disturbing. A depiction of a gay teen dying of AIDS in a hospital bed while being mocked by a Grim Reaper type character in a black cloak is, at best, in highly questionable taste.
A small group of teens show up to protest this and other heinous images in the Hell House drama and are quickly subdued by a fast-talking church official with whom they unfortunately possess neither the vocabulary nor savvy to argue-down successfully.
Post-performance, young audience members are herded into “The Decision Room” where another church insider suggests that they can walk into the next room and join the church—guaranteeing themselves a comfy spot in Heaven or leave and end-up on that big, fiery rotisserie in Hades. The kids who don’t succumb to the shameless high-pressure sales tactics/brainwashing disguised as religion slink out of the building shamefully passed the new converts who are immediately taken aside and bombarded with more church propaganda.
Director George Ratliff does a remarkably even-handed job of showing the church and its members without seeming to pass judgment on their actions. The result is a riveting look at the inner workings of a segment of society most of us will probably never encounter.
DVD extras include bonus footage from the film, a revealing segment on “Hell House” from NPR’s “This American Life,” an excerpt from Trinity Church’s “Academy Awards”—for best performances in the mini psycho-dramas, as well as Ratliff’s 1999 short film on Hell House “The Devil Made Me Do It.”
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