The Haunting (and subsequent co-opting) of Hell House
HELL HOUSE is a documentary chronicling the efforts of a Texas church to put on a Christian-themed haunted attraction designed to bring its visitors to the arms of Jesus.
I find that cliche’d qualifying statement necessary because, A, I tend to be vocal in my criticisms of certain Christian groups, and, B, these criticisms, coupled with my love of dark and subversive art forms, might easily create the impression that I’m anti-Christian.
My Christian friends are generally patient and tolerant with me, more often than not exemplifying the teachings of their namesake. I applaud and appreciate most of their beliefs, even if I don’t necessarily share them.
I recently watched two similarly themed documentaries more or less back-to-back, allowing me a good opportunity to compare and contrast their content.
The first, THE AMERICAN SCREAM, takes us to a neat middle class Massachusetts town, where a trio of home owners, including Victor Barriteau and family, devote their properties, as well as a large portion of their energies and finances, toward creating spectacular home/yard haunts.
Both are presented without external narration, more or less allowing the participants to tell their own stories via a combination of interviews and shadowing, as the respective haunts are built essentially from the ground up.
Being a self-professed Halloween enthusiast, who sometimes marvels at the intensity of my own infatuation, I didn’t like seeing Barriteau’s daughter and wife searching for diplomatic ways to relate their own experiences trying to live in the shadow of their patriarch’s obsession. Even less did I like seeing very young children being exposed to Hell House’s bludgeoning presentation of what they’ve more or less arbitrarily decided are the world’s ills.
I can still remember a time when churches put on a “regular” haunted house, where “secular” ghosts and ghouls jumped out at you, and dudes with neutered chainsaws chased you to the parking lot, or at least until they got winded. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but those particular churches at least, seemed more interested in bringing together the community and sprinkling in a little fun between Sundays, whereas these days, the urging of parishioners to vote anti-gay or bemoan their wide-spread imaginary persecution seems higher on the agenda.
Hell House concerns itself with an annual event of the same name; an elaborate, if not particularly imaginative, spookhouse walkthrough consisting of a series of rooms in which scenarios depicting the consequences of various sins such as homosexuality, abortion, drugs, going to raves, etcetera are presented. My bias is already showing, I suppose.
They spend a little time with a good cross section of its cast, from proudly virginal teens, to a hulking-but-gentle family man in the position of raising a family on his own in the wake of a bitter divorce. It’s on this individual level that a viewer might find some angle with which to relate. We are given a glimpse of the auditions, set building, scene-writing, scenario brainstorming (during which the use of fear as a soul-saving tool is heavily emphasized,) proselytizing, and ultimately the event itself.
Apparently, this particular Hell House is the original; the model for thousands of similar “Bible-based” haunted houses staged throughout the country every fall in response to the more mainstream haunted attractions that have become an industry of their own, or a faith-based alternative to the demonic influences presented by your local neighborhood haunt in The American Scream.
If I may conjecture based my own, admittedly limited research, and some of the banter in ‘House’, it seems that at some point around two decades ago, a faction of charlatans popped up claiming to have had harrowing experiences with “The O-cult,” and “Sat’nists,” that included child (and adult) sacrifice, orgies with demons, a shadow government of devil worshipers, a gay agenda to turn everybody else gay, legitimization of pedophilia (now there’s an irony), the blasphemous movement to treat women as people, ad nauseum.
Halloween was at the top of the list among the many “gateways” leading to devlitry, and ultimately, hell itself. With the introduction of this line of “reason,” churches gave up the traditional haunted house business–until, of course, the advent of Hell House, and the chance to exercise the age-old tradition of taking something deemed “secular” and re-inventing it as a Christian tradition, presumably to keep the youth interested, much like “MegaLife” T-shirts, or the Westboro Church singing their own version of Ozzy’s Crazy Train, or indeed–Halloween itself.
A few of the other obvious differences in the two documentaries:
Hell House charges its patrons Seven dollars a head (absolutely NO REFUNDS), while the home haunts of The American Scream are free of charge.
To the builders and set dressers of House, a Star of David is interchangeable with a so-called “Satanic” pentagram-as long as it’s red.
The behind-the-scenes crew of the Hell House sit in a large control room complete with video monitors of each sin scenario, where they issue commands to the overseers, much like God himself communicating to his angels. This directing team, including the pastor, are not above angrily barking orders at their ‘lieutenants.’
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, our trio of intrepid amateur haunters and their families are out among the masses, essaying good-natured “boos” and sharing smiles and fellowship, if I may use that word, with their community.
And in the end, Barriteau’s dedication seems to have paid off with poignant, karmic beauty that makes me proud of and for him. Meanwhile, the architects of Hell House seem likely to remain, ironically, in the hell of staging their own lurid live action torture porn show, for autumns eternal.