I just finished watching Hell House, a 2001 documentary about a Halloween haunted house describing the tortures of Hell, started by the Trinity Church in Texas and now carried on at evangelical churches throughout the world.
Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Wow, what horseshit.
Not the film itself. Hell House has all the earmarks of a great documentary: it covers the subject with a sense of balance, it allows the basic humanity of the topic to show through, it’s compelling and it’s relevant. (Boy howdy, is it relevant.) It’s the concept of the Hell House itself that I have come to loathe.
For about two-thirds of the film I tried my very best to keep an open mind about what I was seeing. I’m no enemy of faith, even if I have no capacity for it myself. And these dedicated true believers are only doing what they think they must to keep people from burning in the eternal lake of fire, etc., etc. The creators of this milieu are trying to relay a point that is obvious to them—that Satan is behind all of the evil, pain and suffering in the world, not just the eerie supernatural stuff shown in fiction. The actors really throw themselves into the roles, too, showing a zeal not often seen in high-school students.
But when the film makes it to the actual implementation of Hell House, the performance itself, impartiality took a nose dive and I began to get really pissed off. Forgive the irony, but oh my God, what a horror show.
Here, with only a few notable exceptions, is a gaggle of fresh-faced, pristine little princes and princesses, still wet behind the ears from their dunk in the Kool Aid, role-playing all the horrible, grotty, real-life things they are told to avoid every day (or at least every Sunday), lest they risk those eternal fires themselves. They shriek in cathartic faux-agony as they put guns to their heads in the presence of jeering classmates, writhe their final paroxysms of agony in an AIDS ward, slash their wrists with box cutters.
And when they’re done, they get return to the light, secure in the knowledge that they can pray all the base, carnal, fetid, icky bad stuff away.
It’s like having your Eucharist and eating it too.
(One of my very favorite scenes from the movie, shot during construction. Someone called for a “pentagram” to be painted on a piece of the set. This is what the budding math-major in charge of the artwork came up with. No doubt whoever drew the symbol knew he’d seen it somewhere before, but just couldn’t quite place it. Oh well, they’re all going to hell anyway, right, Pastor?)
Of course there are some hard-tagged survivors in the bunch as well, and their stories are told in the film in their own words, with frankness and compassion. There is no doubt that faith has had a positive impact in many of their lives. Any system for coping with hardship will attract those in need of succor. As I have said before, religion offers those in need a prefabricated community in which to invest themselves. Those who are dealing with personal strife can often find support they crave in the arms of a church, and this emotional superstructure may actually be enough for some of them. (I have trouble believing that all or even most of the rape victims who find their inner peace solely through their relationship with God aren’t in for a rather unpleasant surprise a few months or years down the road, and as for the “recovering homosexuals”….don’t even get me started.) Whatever works, works.
But I can’t bear the sentiment I have heard more than once with my very own two ears that Jesus Christ (or Allah, or Jehovah, insert your favorite deity here–but usually Jesus) is the only way to achieve true, permanent healing. Pardon me for being blunt here, but fuck that. There are a million paths to inner peace, and cutting oneself off from all available avenues to recovery from whatever ails you only makes the journey more difficult. Belief in a higher power won’t save a depressed person from their depression, an abuse survivor or traumatized veteran from their post-traumatic stress, or a gay person from the fact that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. It may be a step along the way, but that’s it.
If you want to put the argument in a less secular framework, psychological trauma is a terrestrial—not a celestial—issue, and must be dealt with here on Earth, no matter what awaits us after we die.
My resentment came to a boil around the time that we were introduced to the “Suicide Girl” vignette, where young Jessica stumbles home after being drugged and gang-raped during a rave, only to be tormented by a black-cloaked figure who urges her to slit her wrists. “You don’t know how many guys you had tonight, do you Jessica? You don’t remember a single one of them!” The figure follows the sobbing girl as she crumples to her bed. “You should be used to it by now,” it mewls impishly, “remember what your daddy used to do to you when you were a little girl?”
At this point I was absolutely beside myself with rage, real rage. I wanted to jump through the screen and throttle the plump, smug little sixteen-year-old beneath the cheap boogeyman costume, assault her, drag her through the mud, rub shit in her hair. Give her some real Hell to contemplate. See if she can whine and caper about in her Devil disguise after that.
Frankly, I was a bit surprised at myself. I don’t get this mad watching documentaries about Neo Nazis. Maybe that’s because, when you watch white separatists gamboling and aping for the camera, you’re watching people dabbling in evil for evil’s sake. But when I watched these simpering brats do their little Pageant of the Damned, I saw no comprehension there. Just a horrible naiveté, masquerading as (other)worldly sophistication, a kind of “I know everything that’s wrong with you and I know just how to fix it” that coated everything they were doing with a layer of sugary slime.
Anyone actually swallowing this simplistic line of reasoning should feel abused, cheated. Like they were led to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and found its boughs laden with Pixy Stix.
Underneath the (by definition) self-righteous histrionics of Hell House is, I feel, a much deeper and more important thread of consciousness running through any number of modern religious movements, particularly those of extremely charismatic Christian sects: the scary (to them) realization that it’s becoming harder and harder to believe in the existence of devils.
Is there anyone born in this country in the last fifty years who really believes, if they do not live a life prescribed by the dictates of God/The Good Book/some guy in a building down the street, that when they die they will be dragged kicking and screaming underground, to a world of unquenchable fires, searing heat and molten rivers, to be tortured and tormented by horrible imps throughout eternity? Is anyone who has lived in a world of modern technology that superstitious, that primitive any more?
From my own limited personal experience, it seems that most modern believers have a much more robust and choate internal vocabulary for expressing their concept of Heaven than that of Hell. Even though the basic logic of duality would suggest that the existence of one would demand the existence of the other….and the major religions of the world do not seem ready to discard either one. My friends who are contemporary Christians–if they are able to express the concept at all–are more likely to try to find some quasi-psychological elaboration of Hell. It’s a place where all the bad feelings you ever felt come back to you again and again forever. It’s a place where you’re always cold and and alone and in the dark. It’s where you feel your true, ultimate worthlessness outside of the love of God.
Similarly, the expression of Satan’s power on Earth no longer has to do with witches sacrificing babies under the full moon, dragons breathing on the crops to make them wither and die or succubi luring innocent God-fearing men into nocturnal acts of forbidden carnality. In the modern idiom, the Prince of Darkness shows his hand through AIDS, abortion and Dungeons & Dragons; rape, drugs and suicide; through Columbine, Kosovo and the twin towers.
The question that then comes immediately to my mind is: given how mind-bogglingly huge a divide there exists between concepts of “sinful” or “diabolical” behavior as perceived by different communities in different places at different points in history, how can one possibly construct a viable framework of behavioral guidelines, using only the edict, “God wants you to do it this way”?
In which case, why in the world would I take these people’s contemporary interpretation of Hell–much less the behavior that will get me there–at face value, rather than come to the much simpler and more verifiable conclusion that the evil that human beings perpetrate upon one another originate from and are the fault of the human beings committing them?
I see Hell House as a tool for eliciting as primitive, as alligator-brained a response as possible in the viewer, in an attempt to dampen their cognitive functions and obliterate their 21st-century mindset. Wielded with skill, it reduces the susceptible among those exposed to the point where they will make absurdly simple, iconic connections among scores of complex, interconnected webs of problems. War? Satan. Crime? Satan. Disease? Satan. Suicide? Satan. Abortion? Democrats. And Satan.
(In fact, the take on “disease” can be quite telling. Ask one of the folks behind Hell House if ischemic cardiomyopathy is caused by demons, they’d probably laugh. Ask them if AIDS is a torment visited by Satan upon those who have chosen to violate God’s decrees regarding homosexuality, you’d likely get quite a different response. Interesting.)
Sophisticated people of every faith, including none at all, understand the complexity of the world—or more to the point, they understand that they understand very little of the complexity of the world. Only the most primitive thinker believes that they have the answer to everything, or believes they know someone who does.
Look, I don’t hate religion, I don’t hate religious people. But I think I’ve decided that I do hate this particular church for what they have wrought with this horrible, self-serving, perversely masturbatory annual exercise. Religion at its best is a community of people united around a set of common beliefs and goals. Unfortunately, this can also be religion at its worst. In this case, the distinction comes down to tactics. If you can’t convince people to act the way you feel is best for them by setting an example, the proper response is not to try to scare the–ahem–Almighty shit out of them in an attempt to force their compliance. As any grade-school recess monitor would tell you.
It is for this reason that I give Hell House a resounding thumbs-up. I think that anyone who can stomach it should see this movie. To the extent that we are capable, we should be all be more aware of the kinds of weird machinery that rumbles on in the minds of some of our fellow citizens. Particularly if they tend to vote. 😈