Demons & Halloween Lies: A Trip Through Hell House

Evangelical Christian culture is an enduring fascination of mine; as someone who grew up secularly, in a left-wing mainline Protestant stronghold it’s so alien to me it feels as fringe as UFO channelers, Indigo children, or internet werewolf cults. Evangelical right-wingers actually make up the largest religious group in the US, but for reasons both intentional and geographic they feel like a weirdo artifact.

Evangelical separation from mainstream pop culture results in, above all, a hidden world of films that are completely terrible in both filmmaking and assumptions about human nature, a world glimpsed by others only in fleeting PureFlix ads on Youtube. We Arrogant Liberal Elites know so little about the culture that large chunks of society belong to; what goes on in the world of people who agree with Mike “Horsefucker” Pence’s views on talking with women (don’t, lest those slutty, slutty whores tempt you into sin by existing in a professional context)?

One element of evangelical culture absolutely confounding to outsiders are hell houses, captured in George Ratliff’s 2002 documentary Hell House, which I somehow missed then despite being deep in my edgy atheist phase.

Hell houses are fake Halloween haunted houses with a Christian message, guiding visitors through scenes of sin that play like community theater Grand Guignol. Blood, guts, and acting that vacillates between stiff and downright feral.

Though the concept started in the 70s, and became common in the 90s, hell houses didn’t attract mainstream notice until one in Cedar Hill, Texas staged a scene based on the Columbine…a mere six months after the shooting. Clearly stung by the bad publicity two years prior, a church in Waco would base a scene off 9/11.

Hell houses naturally attract outrage and mockery, but Ratliff’s film, much like 2006’s Jesus Camp, stays relatively neutral. Instead of on-screen narrators or expert interviews, the believers in Cedar Hill tell their own story, and the film refuses to turn them into a sideshow, shooting them speaking in tongues as if they were singing “Happy Birthday”.

The planning for the next Hell house dives into awkward comedy: a debate over whether the occult “roleplaying game” Magic: The Gathering is called Magic or The Gathering, delight over being cast in “the suicide scene”, portentous talk of how dozens of people die at every rave ever held, a switch in the occult scene’s candles after a warlock’s complaint. But Ratliff plays their beliefs sincerely.

And it’s the sincerity that makes passages of Hell House chilling. A woman whose experience acting in the Hell house led her to forgive her rapist, who attended that Christian event openly; a man who prays over a seizing child to cure him. Moments like this, of course, wouldn’t seem chilling in the culture of Cedar Hills’ evangelicals. Of course you forgive those who hurt you. Of course you attribute healing to God. It’s a clash between fundamentally different views of how the world works.

The climatic trip through the hell house makes you wonder how many people truly come to a place to be converted. Much of evangelical pop culture is aimed at outsiders, but consumed by the in-group. Turns out most people don’t want to watch turgid indie films in the hopes of changing their entire religion. The silliest manifestation of this tendency were Chick tracts, which invariably act as if people who grew up white in America would never have heard of Jesus until someone hands them a cheap comic at a bowling alley. I always wonder to what extent they realize they’re preaching to the choir – the hell house’s visitors are already-converted locals or outsiders tricked by its resemblance to a typical haunted house and more apt to be annoyed than converted.

Most commentary on hell houses attack their most obviously offensive elements – the allusions to recent tragedies – and pass over their hatred of women. Who could ever guess why skeptics & atheists of the 2000s mostly ignored women’s rights unless it let them be racist?

But the “rave” scene involves a woman being date raped, and in the end someone goes to Hell. Guess who? That’s right – the rape victim, who is victim blamed for her rape, kills herself in despair of ever being believed, and is dragged off to Hell. We can only hope the rapist would be granted a chance to repent, and maybe even get a seat on the Supreme Court.

The Columbine scene is here downgraded to a schoolroom suicide (and obligatory Hell-dragging-offing). The true centerpiece is a sequence that combines two hell house obsessions – AIDS and abortion – into one bloody tableau.

Hell houses first attracted controversy by advertising a chance to see AIDS funerals; here, a gay man is dying of AIDS when a woman who just took an abortion drug, and is now bleeding to death because that’s absolutely how abortions work, is wheeled in. He rejects God and goes to Hell; she repents at the last second and is saved.

The final sequence in any Hell house depicts Heaven and, well, heck. A man enters the gates of Heaven; his sins were many, but he was cool with Jesus, so it’s alright. Others descend to Hell, where a man babbles about how being molested as a child made him think being gay was okay (you’d think the child molester would be in Hell too, but I guess he was cool with Jesus, too, so it’s all good).

Here is where Ratliff pierces the bubble and introduces the film’s only critical voice. Our savior takes the form of a group of edgy teens who question the attraction’s homophobia and the concept of someone being damned to eternal torment essentially for having depression. They display the eloquence groups of angry teens are famed for, but the operators can’t really muster a proper response to the idea that, y’know, maybe reality has “nuance”.

Hell houses are far from beloved by the bulk of American Christians, especially mainstream Protestants, who object to conversion by fear. After all, someone who believes exclusively because they’re afraid doesn’t really believe. But the make-your-own-emotionally-manipulative-fake-haunted-house kits still sell, and the Hell house in Cedar Hills is still kicking, even if it doesn’t make headlines anymore.

The conservative culture warriors of the 1980s through 2000s, though, have mostly vanished or pivoted to more overtly political tactics. The Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage didn’t seem like an ending at the time, but the way that – a homophobic city hall clerk or two aside – Republicans basically conceded the victory dropped the curtain on purely cultural or religious rage. It took a few years for the old homophobic, “they’re coming for your children” arguments to resurface, now targeted at trans people, but there’s a distinct directness in their rage. People attack trans folk many ways, but they don’t often say they’re going to Hell.

Part of this is flirtation with an alt-right that’s largely atheistic and more openly hateful, and abiding by the harassment tactics of GamerGate. Dogwhistles are so 1999. Part of this is an openly not-especially-religious President. Part of it just secrecy: Republicans still believe the world is ending soon, they still support Israel primarily due to Biblical prophecies about its existence being a precondition for Jesus’ return, but as long as they don’t say it, anyone that does accuse them of believing what they believe looks like a nutter, don’t they?

Ratliff once said that the people in Hell House do it because they don’t have therapy; that this is how they process and purge their feelings. Within the walls of a hell house, we see the unfiltered id of the right-wing evangelical vomited out for all to see, with no regard for decorum or smarm, and wholly dedicated to saving souls through fraud and trauma.

Therianthropy’s Rarer, Fuzzier Shifts

Yes, here’s yet another dive into therianthropy/Otherkin history.

Therianthropes and Otherkin claim to experience “shifts”, episodes where their purported non-human true identity asserts itself. Commonly reported types of shifts include the mental shift, a change in behavior resembling the animal’s mindset; the sensory shift, where their perception mimics the animal’s; and the phantom shift, where a therian feels the animal’s body as phantom limbs. Other types include dream shifts (guess) and cameo shifts, where therians/Otherkin experience a new identity temporarily. Contherianthropes believe they’re always halfway between human and animal, and suntherianthropes are similar, but do experience variances in the human-animal ratio.

One type of shift that’s widely regarded as impossible by therians is the physical shift. P-shifters, as they’re called, are a subject of mockery and scorn in the community, especially when they try to start a cult.

But once upon a time, a wider world of shifters existed, buoyed by, if not acceptance, a casual flirtation with p-shifting as a hypothetical. This culture likely died out with the switch from Usenet to forums, and with the rise of “grilling”, extensive questioning meant to gatekeep therian communities from…I don’t know, silly people? Kids? Whoever they felt wasn’t taking it seriously enough?

I will be drawing principally from the Shifters.Org definitions, which hail from 2001 but were first created in 1999, and an expanded encyclopedia of the same on Therianthropy.org circa 2006.

ASTRAL SHIFT: You astrally leave your body and become that of another form, either by shifting the appearance of the spirit, or entering the body of another being on this plane (this too is included in the Walk-In section, and overlaps with that of the shapestealer definition below).
AURAL SHIFT: The aura (if you can see them) takes on the shape of the animal/wereside. In addition AS, the person can take on some characteristics of that animal, mentally, but not a total mental shift.

These two are a bit of a cheat: both are still part of therianthropy, and more serious lists of shifts list them neutrally. But they show off early therianthropy’s links to other branches of new age culture. Not only was astral projection part of therian culture, but so were walk-ins, the classic New Age concept of enigmatic astral spirits with nothing better to do than step into your body & attempt to unfuck your life. Auras, too, make an appearance.

Bilocation Shift: In this shift, the “spirit body” of the were in question leaves the “physical form” and reforms itself outside of the human body.  The “new form” the spirit takes is a physical form (ass opposed to the Relocation Shift)

Here we reach the casual flirtation with p-shifting (and with the parapsychological). A modern, more serious therianthropy site describes bilocation shifts more cautiously:

“Bi-location Shifting is when the body supposedly makes a carbon copy of the animal inside the body and travels the lands…not likely.”

But in the therian culture of the late 90s – early 00s, the idea that perhaps someone’s theriotype could physically assert itself was at least entertained.

Therian Nation dates the bilocation shift to a Usenet discussion from 1993 where one member reported a out-of-body experience.

And yes, it says “ass opposed”. You may laugh now.

The relocation shift, meanwhile, is a bilocation shift, but the theriotype emerges from the body as a spiritual entity instead of a physical one; it’s helpfully noted that “the shifter can be both awake or completely oblivious to what is occurring during this shift”.

Shadow Shift: This usually takes place when there is little available light, a sort of mass hallucination if you will, but whatever the case, the object being focused upon, appears to be something else. Unlike the PS, this type of shifting is “looks only,” you wouldn’t gain any extra senses, or characteristics from this… it is, in fact, very similar to just putting on a fursuit (but without the suit).

https://web.archive.org/web/20010424145805/http://www.were.net/WAG/You might think this sounds like pareidolia. A contemporary satire agrees:

“Shadows will sometimes play on a therians features giving them an intimidating and animalistic looking figure. I’ve noticed this occurs more or less in dim and dark rooms, with not very much light. A bright and full moon, insomnia, and/or a bottle of Jack Daniel can also aid in creating a shadow shift.”

(I recommend that piece highly for its early-00s internet edgy humor, by the way.)

But shadow shifting is a nice entryway to the kingpin of the fuzzy end of therianthropy: the p-shifter.

PHYSICAL SHIFTING: The stuff dreams are made of… This shift alone, for those who believe, is a goal for the majority of “Weres” want to experience. This is indeed going from form A to form B with the body as the artistic media. A shift in body, many weres feel with the PS, they can become what they truly are on the inside, now reflecting on the outside.
Also termed the “Holy Grail” of  Awereness.

 

The physical shift is sometimes called the “Holy Grail of Shifting.” But much like the Holy Grail, the actual idea has never come to fruition. Many Therians do not believe the physical shift exists. Of the countless many that have claimed the ability, none have given proof. Anyone that claims the ability to PS shouldn’t be taken seriously until tangible and irrefutable proof is given.

Our satirical friend notes that it’s strangely the “biggest, loudest, and most annoying a$$holes” in the community who are blessed with p-shifting; truly mysterious. But while older sources are willing to entertain it as at least a hypothetical, modern sources are not:

“Widely belived to be impossible, to the point of the concept being considered complete nonsense both by psychological and spiritual therians/otherkin…In no way, shape, or form will you be able to physically shape shift…I personally find that these communities are dangerous especially for younger individuals…If this idea of physically shifting spreads, we will become even less acknowledged and respected…”

I said most of what I had to say about p-shifting in my post on the Therian Temple; so let’s explore the other fuzzy parts of early therianthropy.

SHAPESTEALERS: Also known as ‘Skinwalkers’ and ‘FleshDancers,’ this is a type of shifting feared the world over.

An enigmatic force out to steal people’s shapes, I can’t find a single reference to this not taken word-for-word from the Shifting FAQ. But the idea of an “enemy” out to destroy a tiny subculture of people identifying as nonhuman persisted, up to AWTOK, a bizarre conspiracy theory about a group hunting down Otherkin…but that’s a story for another time.

SHIFTER’S DISEASE

A moment of skepticism, Shifter’s Disease refers to newbie therians attributing everything to shifts.

What’s the ultimate point here? Nothing, except to note the evolution of a subculture from its origin as a bunch of posts on a Usenet for werewolf movies, to a collection of personal websites, to forums and finally to the endless array of personal, yet faceless, Tumblr blogs and Amino boards that form it today; to flashback to a time where some therians could entertain the idea that they could change their shadows, their soul, and even their very bodies, and who’s to say otherwise? After all, people found images of Mary in their toast, and the nascent paranormal web didn’t yet aspire to the extremes of science or outright comedy it does today. And now let’s bilocate my theriotype outta here.