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Hell House

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Hell House
from Film Forum, 09/19/02

A new independent film called Hell House is beginning to get a lot of attention from mainstream and religious media critics. It is a documentary about a sort of shock-theatre tradition that has been going on in some churches for some time. In the "Hell House," actors portray horrific scenarios of sin and judgment—for instance, a rape, an abortion, or domestic violence—in hopes of terrifying their audiences into accepting Jesus Christ as their savior.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) describes the film: "Director George Ratcliff … takes his cameras behind the scenes of the 10th annual Halloween Hell House production offered by the sincere and well-meaning fundamental Christians of the Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) in Cedar Hill, Texas. This surprisingly unjudgmental documentary gives us an extended look into an extremely controversial and oftentimes distasteful exercise in evangelical fervor."

The film has been showing at various film festivals recently. Mixed reviews are coming in from both mainstream critics and religious media reviewers. Many, even some Christian critics, applaud the film's carefully neutral tone, but the same writers express bewilderment at why anyone would engage in such propagandistic theatre.

Have you seen the film? Are you familiar with the "Hell House" tradition? I'd be interested in hearing from you.

In the upcoming weeks, Film Forum will include links to reviews and responses regarding this film that is leaving so many viewers bewildered and disturbed.

from Film Forum, 10/10/02

Hell House is a new independent film about one church's unique method of spreading the gospel. It is not, as the title suggests, a horror film, although some viewers might be horrified by what they see. It is a challenging documentary that is starting debates among viewers, earning raves among critics, and winning awards at film festivals as it tours the country.

Director George Ratliff takes us behind the scenes in the construction of a haunted house organized by Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) in Cedar Hill, Texas. The exhibits inside are written and performed by well-intentioned young churchgoers who want to "encourage" visitors to turn to Jesus by showing them melodramatic, bloody, nightmarish spectacles of sinful behaviors like suicide, abortion, domestic violence, and more.

The Hell House experience is drawing thousands of people, and a profit, to the church, not to mention a great deal of criticism from unbelievers and Christians alike. The head of the program responds to the nay-sayers: "Is our ministry driven by fear? Is fear a part of it? Absolutely. A part of salvation is the fear of going to hell."

Director Ratliff deserves all of the praise he earns for not taking sides in his film. He just lets the camera roll. He shows the brainstorming sessions for skits like "the Rave Scene", where someone asks "Does anybody know the name of the date rape drug?" He shows the set construction, as designers try to paint a good pentagram on the wall of the Occult Scene, and others install openings in the floor where visitors will look down and see hell-dwellers trapped in their misery. Ratliff also takes us to the Sunday morning service at Trinity Church, complete with an outburst of tongues-speaking.

When the show goes on, we embark on a spooky tour of the grisly scenes. Hell House visitors either giddily cheer for the violent acts, laugh at the corny dialogue, or watch in wide-eyed terror as a young girl is lured into a rape. Some are reduced to tears by the end, where they take comfort in prayer circles. Outside, a group of angry teenagers protest Hell House, objecting to the program's blanket condemnation of all homosexuals. Regarding his film, Ratliff says, "Some people think it's propaganda for the church, some people think it's making fun of them. People take it absolutely differently everywhere. I love that."

Rave reviews for the documentary are coming in from both mainstream critics and religious media reviewers.

Christian critic Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "This surprisingly unjudgmental documentary gives us an extended look into an extremely controversial and oftentimes distasteful exercise in evangelical fervor."

In the secular media magazine Variety, Dennis Harvey writes, "Hell House is a slice of contemporary life many viewers will find bizarre and disturbing, not necessarily in the precautionary-moral way its subjects intend." When discussing the film's prospects for wide distribution, he remarks, "Offshore, this is an incriminating slice of Americana pie one rather hopes won't travel far."

Gerald Peary at The Boston Phoenix says, "The drama is right-wing shlock but also, like a zany 'B' movie, madly entertaining. And if you've yearned to have been there at a medieval morality play (I have!), you'll never get closer to that pre-Shakespearean experience than Hell House."

At About Film, Jeff Vorndam writes, "Usually in a film like this, the filmmaker edits the film to make to make the subjects look like buffoons. Ratliff's style is admirably poker-faced. He affords his subjects their dignity and lets them speak without cutting their sentences on awkward beats or juxtaposing their words with ironic images. It's left to the audience to decide whether the church's activities are commendable or insidious."

I saw the film earlier this week, and while I found it an excellent documentary, the efforts of these young, passionate, well-meaning evangelists troubled me. Drawing stark lines between a sinner's behavior and a saved person's behavior, the performers imply that we can judge for ourselves who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Certain sins are treated as one-way tickets to hell—rape, spousal abuse, abortion, drugs, homosexuality. More common sins like pride, jealousy, or self-righteousness, just as heinous in God's sight, don't show up on the Hell House radar. Shouldn't the emphasis be on Christ's mission to forgive us from any sin, no matter how depraved, and on his power to heal us when we are the victims of other people's sins?

It is also disturbing to watch young churchgoers giddily auditioning for the part of "rapist" or "abortion girl," eager to scream and bleed in the spotlight. It seems a strange business to be going on in a body of worship.

Most troubling of all is the way the Hell House tour concludes. When visitors come to the end of these horrors, they are pressured to make a quick decision: Choose Jesus and move into a room where church members will pray with you, or else leave the Hell House and show everyone that you are willing to "gamble" your life away to the Devil. There is no place for meditation or reflection. No option for those who want to keep their thoughts or decisions private. "I'm going to count to five!" declares a grim tour guide, as the visitors make their hasty decision. How many lasting, healthy relationships with Christ have come out of such hurried, pressured, terror-induced decisions?

The Hell House treatment of homosexuality is stirring up strong responses. At DignityUSA, the nation's largest organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trangender Catholics and their families and friends, a representative responds, "The message of the Hell House is quite clear: if you are anything but straight, you simply do not belong in their community. The intolerance that this group, and that of the Religious Right, are advocating is a gross misuse of the message and spirit of Christ. It is our hope that all women and men of faith will reject the Abundant Life Christian Center's message of intolerance and their blatant attempt to profit from their bigotry."

In spite of these discomforting revelations, Hell House also shows us that God is indeed at work in the Trinity community. We hear testimonies of changed lives, healthy relationships, and a sincere desire to serve God. The question for viewers to ponder after the movie is over is this: Is their zeal being put to the best use? Is this what Jesus intended when he asked us to seek the lost and feed his sheep?

Michael Elliott says, "There is no doubt that fear motivates. It is used with great effectiveness by our spiritual enemy. We need not adopt his tactics. There is a stronger motivation that should be used to bring people to Christ. Scaring people into prayer will not build strong, committed believers. It is love that is the "bond of perfectness," not fear."