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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, February 27, 2007
    Hell House on your trail
    When I was in a church youth club we used to put on pantos every year. The most extreme acting I ever did was to dress as Widow Twankey with wildly exaggerated physical features (two fully-inflated balloons), my friend's mum's spare wig and exuberant amounts of red lippy. For my 40th birthday a so-called friend of mine reminded me of that production when he presented me with a photo of myself taken all those years ago in that alarming guise. It was quite disturbing, I thought, could be something out of a horror movie. But then, last night, I watched Hell House, and now it's all in perspective.

    The youth of Trinity Church, Dallas, don't go for anything as feeble or randomly entertaining as Aladdin for their annual show. To the Assemblies of God believers Aladdin might be construed as satanic, with its genie-in-a-bottle sorcery deviating from the true word. But Aladdin is mere flim-flam compared to Hell House, which is what they do instead.

    Hell House is what the youth of Trinity put on at Halloween. We're not talking about a dozen actors hamming around a tiny church hall stage in front of fifty aunties. We're talking of a cast and production crew of hundreds staging what is effectively a full-blown theme-park experience for thousands of (mostly young) people who are driven between venues on flatback trailers. And the Hell House crew aren't in it to entertain. Their aim is to graphically depict a series of devilish scenes from contemporary society: school massacres, date rapes, AIDS-related deaths, fatal drunk driving crashes, and botched abortions. The message is predictably unambiguous: if you don't turn from such activities then you'll burn (punters are corralled into a constructed Hell at the end of the show which illustrates this very graphically). And the horror of it is that these cameos often focus on condemning the victim; it's not the rapist but the raped who goes to hell, not the bully but the suicidal victim.

    George Ratliff's documentary crew were given full access to the Hell House team, the film following the process from the first script meeting until the last of the 10,000 visitors passed through the Hell House exit doors somewhat shocked and shaken by the terror show they'd witnessed. His crew were 'a little shook up ourselves,' by the experience, Ratliff writes in the liner notes, 'but not for the reasons the church intended.' They constantly fought the urge to impose their own belief system on the film, as they had promised the people of Trinity that the film would be an even-handed, verite-style documentary. And so it is. And therein lies its strength, and what makes it eminently watchable from start to end.

    Though the rationale for Hell House is itself disturbingly hellish, Ratliff gets behind the shock-masks of the actors and reveals them as complex, sensitive human beings. The youngsters auditioning for roles such as Rape Girl or Suicide Boy do it with the same wide-eyed keenness as any prospective teen actor; their joy on fulfilling their parts is warmly evident. Of the 75,000 punters who have experienced Hell House over the past few years only 15,000 took the (intensely heavy-handed) invitation to 'commit themselves to Christ' at the end of the show (no, I've no idea what that actually means in that context), and most leave the event angered, appalled, alienated by the message. But the film shows that Hell House does make a positive difference - at least to those who take part. I was struck by the young woman's story who one night, playing a Rape Girl in a Hell House scene, spotted in the audience the man who years previously had raped her - and in that moment, as never before, found herself able to forgive and to move on from the trauma. And then there is the Trinity Church man whose wife had recently walked out on him and their six children for a guy she'd met on the internet, putting himself in the audience to watch a scene uncannily close to his own story ... because (for healing, maybe, for purging) he'd written it.

    The Hell House serves a horrifically distorted version of Christianity; but Hell House the film is so thoughfully crafted and delicately nuanced that there is some redemption to be found in it after all.