On YouTube I saw a video done by a gay kid describing how a church tricked him into going into a “hell house.” People had shown up at the gay club where he was hanging out, handing out free tickets to a “haunted house.” The boy went to this alleged “haunted house” which was really a “hell house.” The video included the first few minutes of the 2001 documentary Hell House.
The Hell House tradition was started by the Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, TX. It’s supposed to be a “Christian alternative” to the “evil demonic” haunted houses. Advertised as “family friendly,” they are anything but this. The point of a Hell House is to terrify children into accepting Jesus by putting on spectacles of people being brutally tortured in hell for making “sinful” choices like smoking a joint. Churches use deceptive tactics like the one described by the gay teen in the YouTube video to attract kids. Hell Houses are common where I live, here in north Texas. You have to be careful here when visiting a haunted house with your friends, because a lot of them are actually hell houses in disguise.
I decided to watch the entire Hell House documentary. I will warn you that this essay and the Hell House video contain the following triggers: rape, incest, blood and gore, domestic violence, gang violence, suicide, self-harm, drug abuse, homophobia, and racism.
The video begins with a group of members from the Trinity Church planning their tenth annual hell house. They mention that in the past they’ve gotten negative media attention for reenacting the Columbine school shooting shortly after it happened in one of their hell houses. The church members don’t care that the media called them out for being insensitive; they seem to think that making people upset and offended is a good thing is some weird logic that I don’t understand.
We then meet one of the main characters, John. John is a single dad, and one of his kids has cerebral palsy. Throughout the video, we see that John is struggling with caring for the children by himself. I’ll talk more about John in a bit.
In the planning stage section of the movie, the preacher says that his religion is not based on fear, but that “fear is a part of salvation—fear of hell.” Yet this movie shows that his beliefs are based on fear. Don’t drink alcohol because the devil will get you. Don’t read Harry Potter because the devil will get you, and so on.
The Hell House works by sending visitors through various rooms, each containing a skit about issues like drugs and HIV. I’m going over those featured in the movie one by one.
One of these rooms contains the “occult scene.” We don’t get to see all the details of this one, but it tells the story of a kid who gets into Harry Potter. This sparks his interest in fantasy stuff like dragons, witches, wizards, etc. He starts playing Magic cards and this leads to the kid trying to get into “the occult,” which is portrayed as the stereotypical stuff you see in horror movies: people dressed in black robes, summoning the devil, human sacrifice, etc. There is a “pentagram” decorating this room which is not a pentagram, but a Star of David. Sigh. During the planning of this scene, one of the adults says that last year when they did this skit, a “warlock” criticized them for having white candles because “no real occultist would use white candles” and would go with colored ones. I did a quick Google search and colored candles are an invention of the 20th century, when people starting using electricity and no longer needed candles to light their homes; therefore candles became decorative objects. Until then, candles were uncolored, so any magician before then would have used plain candles. I *think* I remember reading in The Satanic Bible that LaVey didn’t like the use of white candles because white is associated with the Christian God. Maybe that is what this “warlock” was referring to.
There is a skit about a drug deal gone bad by a gang member. This is the only skit that contains any POC. One gang member is black and the other is Hispanic.
In a hospital scene, a boy is dying of AIDS in a bed next to a young girl, also dying, who is bleeding to death after taking an abortion pill. The boy says that he is gay because a relative sexually abused him when he was a little kid, telling him that the abuse is okay because he was “born gay.” There are so many things wrong here. The skit is telling kids that no one is naturally homosexual, and that it’s often caused by other things like trauma. Then there’s the long-debunked idea that AIDS is a “gay disease.” As for the dying from the abortion pill, I looked up information on its safety and found this on Planned Parenthood:
In extremely rare cases, very serious complications may be fatal. The risk of death from medication abortion is much less than from a full-term pregnancy or childbirth.
Lying to teen girls about medication abortions by telling them they’ll likely die from having one is wrong on so many levels. Telling them that dying is a just punishment for having an abortion is disgusting. One thing I was worried about while watching this movie was that the performances could trigger some hell house visitors, and that is exactly what happened in this scene. A woman who had recently gone through a miscarriage was so triggered by seeing the girl bleeding out that she fainted. This is another example of how fucking irresponsible it is to deliberately hide from the audience what they’re going to be seeing.
There is a skit about domestic violence in which a drunk dad abuses his family. We only get to see a few seconds of it, as well of a scene about a boy who kills himself because the kids at school are bullying him.
Finally we get to the rape scene, which is so disgusting and problematic that I had to stop the movie and finish later. It begins with a girl going to a rave. One of the script writers claims that he once went to raves a lot and that after each one about 8-10 bodies would be hauled out of the building. Wtf? I’ve never been to a rave, but I’m sure that each one doesn’t end with several dead bodies. He also says that all the people at raves do drugs and will consume any drug you place in their hand without even asking what it is. That is exactly what the girl in this skit does—swallow a random pill a random guy places in her hand. The girl ends up unconscious and gets raped.
She wakes up in her bed and remembers what happened to her. She starts freaking out. A kid playing a demon hovers over her shoulder, taunting her, and this is the point where I get really fucking pissed off. The demon tells her that it’s all her fault that she got raped because she went to a rave and swallowed that pill, and this is what the script writers want us to believe. The demon says the girl “should be used to it because of what your daddy liked to do to you.” She becomes so upset that she grabs a knife from her beside table and kills herself by slitting her wrists. Of course, she goes to hell. That’s right: the consequences of going to a rave are getting raped and going to hell and women are to blame for their own rape. This scene makes me so angry that I don’t know what to say.
The grand finale of the hell house is watching all the sinners burn and suffer while screaming about how they shouldn’t have “chosen” to be gay or whatever. Afterward, the visitors are taken into a room and pressured to pray with church members. John walks into the prayer room and tells a young girl that he is struggling to care for multiple children, one of whom is disabled, all by himself. He says sometimes he feels very angry and that he can’t forgive his kids for doing the things that kids do. The girl’s response makes me upset. She very flippantly tells John that all he needs to do is pray his problems away, and John’s face makes it obvious that he thinks this girl is full of shit. I feel really bad for John. He obviously needs help but doesn’t know how to get it. He attends church regularly and appeals to church members for help, because in places like Texas where conservative Christian culture is strong, people are told that that’s what you need to do when you have problems. Praying can help and religious communities can provide comfort, but that won’t magically solve things. Being so dismissive of John’s struggles is horrible and cruel. John at least needs a counselor to confide in who will help him figure out strategies to handle the stress he is going through.
The church’s response to John’s problems are typical. In this video, every problem presented—AIDS, suicide, domestic violence, etc., is presented in childish, black-and-white terms. The people are suffering because they don’t have Jesus. Things happen to them because demons whisper temptations in their ears. Everything would just be okay if these people would pray, read the Bible, and go to church often. It’s a very naive view of the world. Issues like school bullying are complicated and are not caused by a person not doing religion right. What bothers me is that the actors in the hell house don’t take these issues seriously and that it’s all very funny to them. At one point, someone asks the kids what their favorite scene is and one replies “the rape scene because we get to dance.” I think part of this is because these are kids we’re talking about; most of them are very sheltered middle-class whites who don’t have much real world experience. All they’ve been told about these kinds of things is what their church says. Churches like these shield kids from “the world” by telling them what books to read, what music to listen to, what to wear, what movies to watch, who they can be friends with, etc., to make sure they don’t encounter viewpoints outside of the church’s. As I’ve said, I grew in a Fundamentalist Christian home, and sects like these are very controlling and cult-like.
Close to the end, we see a group of teens trying to talk sense into one of the adults running the hell house. They say that stuff like this is why these churches are losing the majority of their young people. Young people hate the church’s use of fear to control people and increase membership. They are more open-minded and progressive than the church elders; for example, they are way more accepting of LGBT people and many kids know someone who is LGBT, so scenes condemning gays are only going to alienate kids. Of course, the adult doesn’t listen and one of the teenagers gets so mad that he starts cursing and flips the guy off. One of the girls picks apart his rave scene, saying that raves don’t really go that way and lots of teens like herself attend raves without doing drugs. She says that the skits are ridiculously unrealistic, dishonest, and “present things as very black and white” which is not how the real world works. The church leader guy says that each person suffered things like AIDS “because of choices.” If they hadn’t made “wrong choices” then they wouldn’t have gotten AIDS or gone through any of the other terrible “consequences” depicted in the hell house. Frustrated, the kids walk away.
Those kids are right. The hell house is the worst way to talk to young people about issues like drugs and gangs.