George Ratliff’s documentary, HELL HOUSE, chronicles the building of a Halloween house that doesn’t purvey ghouls, werewolves, or vampires. Instead, this brainchild of the sincere folks of Trinity Church in Texas use the concept of a Halloween fright fest to convert the unsaved to their brand of fundamentalism. A fundamentalism in which abortion, raves, and Harry Potter are presented as sure roads to Hell.
I spoke with Ratliff on April 29, 2002 at the San Francisco International Film Festival where HELL HOUSE, as at many other festivals around the world, was an audience favorite. The conversation turned to musings on the origin of Hell and the allure of fundamentalism, but started with an overview of the concept of Hell House.
HELL HOUSE is a disturbing, fascinating documentary about the non-traditional house of horrors dreamed up by Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. Over a decade old, the Halloween attraction doesn’t have vampires and ghosts, instead vivid scenes of people committing sins and being dragged to Hell by demons are played out for paying patrons who receive the message that AIDS is a punishment for homosexuality, and that rape victims bring it on themselves. Trinity Churchs Pentecostal god of love, it seems, is not necessarily one of compassion. Yet Ratliff himself shows a good deal of compassion for his subjects who use their religion as a crutch through hard times, and wield it like a sword with a sweet sincerity that belies its rampant homophobia and misogyny. This is Torequemada’s brand of Christianity alive and well in 21st century America.
Ratliff doesn’t honey-coat the fundamentalist views expressed. By focusing on the basic decency of these people and what their church offers them that the secular world can’t, he exquisitely captures the irony of a community at odds with its god’s message of unconditional love. Ultimately, though, the message of HELL HOUSE is not the one that its organizers might have hoped it would be. Presented as we are with people who are preaching intolerance in the name of the Prince of Peace, it offers much to ponder in these days of holy war in the name of a deity.