"When I was a kid my uncle did things to me, he told me I was born that way!" wails one of the damned souls in "Hell House." Every Halloween since 1992 the Trinity Assembly of God Pentecostal Church has staged Hell House. Superficially, it's like the standard haunted house you would find in most North American towns at that time of year. However, Hell House has a goal: saving souls. Through 13 chambers, depicting abortion, the occult, infidelity, drug busts, drunk driving, and an infamous dramatisation of the Columbine massacre in '99, the organisers hope to scare patrons back to the fold.
Like the Chic Religious comics (often found on bus or subway seats) come to life, skull-faced demons coax actors through scenarios in which: a man dying of AIDS refuses to give up his "homosexual lifestyle" and declares "I hate you god!" (talk about scared straight); a girl is raped after taking the rape drug at a rave, and remembering her father's molestation, commits bloody suicide; a boy shoots himself in the head in front his class and the bullies who taunted him, before being dragged, screaming off to hell by demons; and a girl vaginally bleeding to death after taking the abortion pill embraces Jesus, and is defended from demons by a white cloaked angle. After witnessing all of the vignettes and seeing the victims suffering in hell, the tour members are given the chance to avoid that fate by joining the church. Over the last decade about 75,000 "souls" have passed through Hell Houses, and 15,000 have joined or returned to the church. That's 20 percent, or one in five, not bad odds for an amateurish collection of papier mache fire and brimstone.
The documentary isn't just about Hell House, however. It's about the people who stage it and the process of putting together. Director George Ratliff lets the players tell their own story in an even-handed and charmingly funny way. We watch as Christian high school kids audition for "the molestation girl" and "the rape girl," giddily hoping to get their parts. We witness as the crew and cast speak in tongues and lay hands at a meeting in a Christian bookshop. We also meet the endearingly sweet single father of "the abortion girl," whose ex-wife's infidelity has been adapted into one of Hell House's chambers. We see the day to day human face of church members, and still the audience in the theatre cheered a group of pierced, "Fear Factory" and "Slipknot" T-shirt wearing teens that inarticulately challenge a calm but insistent member of the Assembly on its depiction of homosexuality, and it's moral judgements. "Hell House" is a fascinating glimpse into a strangely foreign world in our neighbour's backyard, that's just familiar enough to be unsettling.
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