George Ratliffs HELL HOUSE is a disturbing, fascinating documentary about the non-traditional house of horrors dreamed up by TrinityChurch in Cedar Hill, Texas. Over a decade old, the Halloween attraction doesnt 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. TrinityChurch’s 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 doesnt 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 cant, he exquisitely captures the irony of a community at odds with its gods message of unconditional love. There is not better example than John Cassar, a single father coping gamely, and with the patience of Job, with a teenage daughter who hogs the bathroom and a toddler son suffering seizures as a result of cerebral palsy. He’s a sweet man to whom life has dealt bad cards. In this church he has found refuge in the community spirit that the church gives him and the caring support system that comes with it. Something the secular world hasn’t given him. The theology it teaches, and which he espouses with all his heart, might lead others to gay bashing or the murder of doctors who provide abortions, but it’s inconceivable that he himself would take such actions. For him Trinity is a place that has taken him and his family to its collective heart; a place that offers absolute answers for everything, including the meaning of life. For us, it’s a lesson in the power of group dynamics.
We see Hell House from conception in August to performance in October and each stage of the process packs its own surprises. The script refinement points up how little the producers know about what they are condemning, as they struggle, for example, over exactly what the deal is with role-playing games and magic cards. There’s also what the good people of this church focus on, sex, drugs, more sex, alcohol, and even more sex, much of it incest, though that most modern of transgressions, cybersex, also comes in for a drubbing. When tryouts come for the scenarios, we learn that abortion girl is the most coveted part because of its melodrama. The next most popular is the rave scene that leads to, what else, sex and suicide. These are kids, after all, and this is the closest any of them will ever come to actual teenage rebellion.
During construction, there is telling minutiae as workers argue over what color, red or white, to paint the pentagram in the occult room (where Harry Potter is presented as a direct road to Hell). After workers learn that a Satanist visiting the house last year had complained about the use of white, we see the finished symbol done in red and sporting six, not five points, making it a Star of David. The performance itself rivals an upscale community theater in technical complexity, except that in this case the stage managers instructions as he watches a bank of monitors to keep tabs on each scene include such gems as telling people to take a hammer to the crucifixion.
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.