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.