Over ten years ago, Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas (outside of Dallas) started a Halloween haunted house that was designed to literally scare the fear of Hell into you. It was in 1999 though, that their Hell House (as the haunted house was dubbed) made the news with one themed room that re-enacted the Columbine High School massacre (with the assassins getting sent to you-know-where for their deeds). Controversy erupted, Hell House was decried as tasteless, and attendance (of course) skyrocketed. Now apparently over 500 “Hell House starter kits” have been sold to churches all across the country by an entrepreneur in Colorado.
Filmmaker George Ratliff picks up the story in 2000, and documents the months of planning that go into Trinity Church’s Hell House, from initial brainstorming ideas (the pastor shoots down a story pitch about a gay male couple going to Hell for their sins by dismissing it with a “don’t wanna go there”; but then gets all excited about the annually popular Suicide Girl storyline). We see the tryouts by mostly teen church members (who, surprisingly, are all effective actors in their scenes), the script rewrites and rehersals, and finally the month long design and construction of the building that is used every year specifically for Hell House.
When Hell House opens, we get to see the final product of all the preparation. There’s the drunk-driving scene, with the carnage of a smashed automobile against a tree, and bodies lying strewn about. There’s the domestic violence scene, involving spousal abuse, marital cheating, and ultimately murder. There is the “rave slash suicide” scene (one of the more baffling), where one girl’s night out, leads to a dosing of a date rape drug (the organizers never quite verify what drug this is—but they’ve heard about it!), the subsequent gang rape, and the girl killing herself afterwards—for not only being the victim of these raver boys, but because of her suddenly unearthed memories of sexual abuse by her father. And there’s the abortion scene, with a shrieking girl wearing blood-soaked white pants, being wheeled into a hospital room—which she happens to share with a young gay man dying of AIDS. This is just a sampling of the themes—most of them surprisingly graphic. When the visitors are shepherded out of the last room, they have the option to speak and pray with religious counselors, or leave and face the possibility that they’ve just missed their last chance at Heaven.
The film Hell House is mostly a portrait of the good Pentecostal church-going folks who put the show on every year. They are earnest in their quest to save souls (they claim of the over 75,000 people who have gone through Hell House over the years, that 15,000 have converted or recommitted to the church), and the film never mocks them. If anything, that is the flaw of the documentary… that it barely touches upon the controversy surrounding this church’s methods. There is a small segment where a of couple teenage visitors start a debate with one of the adult organizers, about how offensive many of the stereotypes are. One girl’s complaint is that the portrayals are simply black and white—good and evil. “You don’t have that gray area,” she complains, “which is what life IS!”
But offering a “gray area” would bring up too many questions. It takes the simple mapping out of good and evil to illustrate for people what is supposedly right and wrong. Regardless, the scenarios in Trinity Church’s Hell House certainly succeed in one thing: provoking a very strong response in the viewers.