Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and here are … abortion, homosexuality and gun violence—at least in the annual "Hell House" sponsored by Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) in Cedar Hill, Texas.
This haunted house, built on that church's belief in the Bible, is the subject of director George Ratliff's new documentary, "Hell House." I saw the 85-minute film at the Nashville Independent Film Festival in June. The experience left me bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
Trinity Church put on its first Hell House in 1990. The general idea: create a haunted house graphically depicting various apparent sins; sell tickets and lead guests past the scenes and into hell, where they encounter the tortured sinners; then offer the gift of salvation.
Ratliff and his crew documented this process at Trinity in 2000, capturing everything from initial planning meetings for Hell House to guests debating its "best parts."
That process, as caught and edited, is sociologically fascinating:
Trinity's Hell House team meets and decides the theme for that year's production: "The Walking Dead." Ticket price: $7.
They get a pep-talk from Tim Ferguson, Trinity's youth pastor, who's integral to the whole endeavor. "A part of salvation is being afraid of going to hell," he says. He encourages the team to come up with new twists on the same scenarios, and the creative juices start flowing for the best Hell House ever.
They have an orientation meeting for other kids and adults interesting in helping with the production, and then they hold auditions for certain roles: the abortion girl, the shooter, the drug dealer, etc.
Deliberations about who screams the loudest and writhes in the most anguish aren't easy, but when the cast list is posted, smiles abound. "You're the guy who rapes the girl!" one eagerly says to another.
Construction of the actual Hell House begins in earnest. The workload is immense, for the church members do everything—even digging pits to hold kids playing sinners trapped in hell, screaming amid red lights and smoke.
The cast and crew hold a rally where they pray, anoint each other and speak in tongues. "We're competing for lost souls," Ferguson tells them.
Opening night arrives and all systems are go—except when a knife for the occult scene turns up missing, prompting a crewmember to suggest to another that he "go to hell and look in there" for it.
Patrons arrive by the busload and are ferried to the actual Hell House in a remote location. They witness scenes portraying drunk driving, an abortion, the death of a homosexual, a rave (party), a drug deal, the occult, family violence and school gun violence. Some patrons like it. Some don't. One woman faints.
Guests wind up in hell, where they confront the fate of all unrepentant sinners. Fortunately, though, that's not the final stop. They're led into a room where an invitation is given—though it's far from the prolonged four-stanza call some are used to. No, the gentleman extending this call gives about five seconds to make a decision, explaining that another group is about to leave hell and come on in.
Subtitles at documentary's end say 75,000 people have gone through Hell House in its 10 years. In that decade, 15,000 guests made commitments.
"Hell House"—the documentary—is well worth watching. Ratliff and company caught a slice of religious America that will probably interest everyone. And they did so fairly. The documentary lets actors and actions speak for themselves—and lets viewers draw their own conclusions about this evangelism tool.
Peek into a Hell House, and you'll see another way in which Americans "play" with death at this time of year.
Most Americans use Halloween, however subconsciously, as a time to fool around with their own mortality. Engaging death takes playful forms like ghouls and goblins and witches on broomsticks.
What makes Hell Houses so controversial, though, is that they play differently, so to speak.
As Trinity's Hell House Web site states: "HELL HOUSE uses the enticement of a haunted house to draw the attention of our young people. Instead of ghosts and goblins, though, they will see REAL LIFE DRAMAS of our young people."
Halloween and "real life" death don't mix well for most folks. Just ask people in Washington, D.C., who are still rethinking trick-or-treating on account of the recent sniper shootings. Recall that last year's Halloween was altered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Of course, the emphasis on what's "real" is Trinity's point—and part of critics' problem with the whole event.
Many critics, Christian and otherwise, are upset over Hell Houses' decisions on which activities are sinful and which ones they choose to portray.
However, would folks find it more tasteful if "victims" in Hell Houses died by accident? Would they like the houses better if they only showed someone dying of a heart attack? Being hit by a car? Falling from a ladder?
Perhaps they would, if only because it would bleach the mantle of judgmentalism that Christians have worn so fashionably.
But in another sense, such a house would seem just as hellish. Its message: "Bad choices or not, your death is imminent. Decide your fate now."
Show me a Hell House built with those timbers, and I'll rechristen it.
It's not a Hell House. It's God's House, where "the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong," but where "time and chance happen to them all."
Or to paraphrase that verse from Ecclesiastes, "Trick or treat."
Cliff Vaughn is BCE's associate director.