Every year in October in Cedar Hill, Texas, the Cedar Hill Trinity Church puts together a show to help teach youth about making right decisions and not losing one’s way. Except, this show takes place in the form of a haunted house on Halloween and teaches youth that if they make ‘bad’ decisions, they are sent to hell. Thousands and thousands of people attend Hell House every year. Audiences move through a series of spaces, each hosting an independent scene and story. There are scenes related to drinking, rape, drug dealing, abortion, suicide and homosexuality.
Watching “Hell House”, a 2001 documentary by George Ratliff, I felt disgusted. I tried to remind myself that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but Hell House crosses a line. I have never seen (or at least been actively aware of) the propagation of art to convey religious beliefs. Of course participants are willingly involved in the performance as they come to a specific time and place, and even pay an entrance fee. The scenes Hell House portrays all follow similar story structures (at least as the documentary presents them to be so). Tensions always seem high within a scene, with the demon – a cloaked figure wearing a mask – ever present from the start to the end. There is never a moment of happiness and in the end the consequence is always that the individual the story revolves around, is sent to hell. The scene surrounding the date-rape-drug, is slightly different to the others as it begins with two girls dancing at a rave. One girl is not enjoying the rave and when two guys approach her, they slip her with a drug, which she consumes without much thought. She ends up being raped, and feeling depressed over the experience, she questions why God did not protect her and then proceeds to slit her wrists, committing suicide. The scene pins the girl as the sinner, having not only taken the drug but made the active choice to go to a rave. There is never any punishment or consequence seen against the boys who drugged and raped her. In the documentary, there was a group of adolescents who came up to one of the organizers of Hell House and questioned them on the reason why “the rape girl” was sent to hell. The organizer responded that it was because she gave up her belief in God.
I feel like the motivations and intentions of Hell House are lost during the production. If they intend to help people find their way by having them believe in God, that is perfectly fine however it seems as though the only real lesson is that if something negative happens in one’s life, the consequence is hell. Particularly with the rave scene, total blame is placed on the girl and there is never any acknowledgement of the men. It feels as though Hell House equates victims to sinners. It might even be the case (we would have to see the whole performance and not snippets of scenes from the documentary) that the performance is rooted in gendered roles. In the Bible, it is Eve who is seen as the rebel, having disobeyed God in eating the apple and enticing Adam to do the same. It would seem that the scenes in Hell House target women as sinners. It is the women in the performance who go through abortion, have sex before marriage, consume drugs, etc. In one scene where the father of a household is drunk and abusive, the woman is the sinner because she is cheating on her husband. In the cases where men are the victims, they are portrayed as sinners because they are homosexual and within the beliefs of this particular church, homosexuality is seen as not acceptable.
Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian philosopher who believed that the actions of an individual affect the community around him. Bentham defines utility as “that property in any object which tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness…. Or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness” (Bentham 14-15). Faith and the belief in God therefore in Hell House, are seen as a utility. In Geertz’s article on cockfighting in the island of Bali, he mentions Bentham and the concept of deep play. From a utilitarian standpoint, Bentham describes ‘deep play’ to be when “the stakes are so high that [play] is…. irrational for men to engage in it at all” (Geertz 7). Deep play then is play that is able to transcend; the everyday and the real bleed into the imagined, and vice versa. Hell House is rooted in deep play in that it aims to make an audience member so engaged in the performance that they recommit their faith or convert. Pellegrini comments on how “that deeper structure of religious feeling… can tie together disparate, even contradictory, experiences, bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts” (Pellegrini 918). In deep play therefore, one can be spiritually and physically invested in a performance.
Pellegrini acknowledges that Hell House uses “fear in the service of a higher good” (Pellegrini 932). I do not agree with the content and representation of the scenes in Hell House. As much as the church appears to believe in finding strength within the community, they never once convey that same sense of community in their performance. They never suggest that someone going through a difficult time can turn to their community for guidance. The answer appears to always be to pray to God, or kill oneself and face the flames of hell. Even at the very end of Hell House, one must choose whether they pass through a door believing that they will go to heaven by praying, or stay behind and never know whether they would end up in heaven or hell. However it should be acknowledged that Hell House, for better or worse, does have an impact on people. As the documentary reveals, at the time about 15,000 people recommitted or converted. Deep play is perhaps one of the most powerful forms of play, and it certainly is amazing to see Hell House as a performance transcend beyond a specific time and place.
Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New York: Hafner Pub., 1948. Print.
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” 1-11. PDF.
Hell House. Dir. George Ratliff. Perf. Trinity Church Youth Group. 2001. DVD.
Pellegrini, Ann. “”Signaling Through the Flames”: Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling.” American Quarterly 59.3 (2007): 911-35. PDF.