Monday, January 19, 2009

What the Hell?

On the eve of a (hopefully) new era in American politics, it's important to remember a certain element from the previous era. Important, because this era is not going to close; it's going to go into hibernation and reconstitute over the next 4-8 years.

The documentary "Hell House" by George Ratliff is terrifying for all the wrong reasons. It's about Trinity Church in suburban Dallas, whose leaders hatched an innovative idea in the early '90s: Around Halloween, instead of opening a traditional haunted house, create an experience that gives people a taste of what hell is like. Then, after audience members are traumatized by the experience, ask them to accept Jesus and join their Assembly of God church.

The Hell House experience they have created includes live-action depictions of date rape, abortion, someone dying of AIDS, a drunk driving fatality, suicide, family violence, and in one famous case nine years ago, a recreation of the Columbine massacre. In each case, the character who has made the wrong choice is escorted to hell by a demon. The good person, such as a devout Christian victim in Columbine, goes to heaven. (Notably absent are depictions of the hell that is wrought upon those who don't help the poor and powerless, those who do cast the first stone, and basically anyone who ignores Jesus's tenets from the Sermon on the Mount.)

The Trinity Church Hell House is witnessed annually by some 15,000 people, about 20 percent of whom then convert or "recommit." It has inspired dozens of copycat Hell Houses across the country, and one plucky entrepreneur has even created a "Hell House Starter Kit." Students at Trinity School compete to land parts such as "Abortion Girl" and "Suicide Girl." And when the production is over, the church holds an Oscars-like ceremony to hand out awards for "Best Rape Girl."

The documentary itself is surprisingly hands-off. Unlike a Michael Moore film, the author's voice and point of view are almost completely absent. No voiceover. No introduction. No cuts to interviews with liberal academics and psychologists about why this is absolutely wrong. Not even any terribly obvious edits meant to enhance the characters' comic lack of self-awareness (as in "American Movie"). It's executed completely at face value. In fact, Ratliff even includes a truly terrifying episode in which one of the church members sees his infant son go into a seizure at the breakfast table. (The father is a sympathetic character, forced into single parenthood with four kids because his wife had an Internet affair.) I imagine the Trinity Church members who see the film would find it to be an accurate depiction.

The film's ironies are too numerous to mention, but one in particular deserves serious and sober comment. The Hell House creators have, in their mind, a simple purpose and point of view. There is a heaven. There is a hell. If you make the right choices, you go to heaven. If you make the wrong choices, you go to hell. Absolutely flabbergasting are the choices made by the HH creators themselves. In one episode, a girl goes to a rave. There, she is approached by two boys who push drugs on her. She takes the drugs and gets gang raped. And then, when she realizes what has just happened, she kills herself. As a demon goads her to take her own life, we learn that she was previously raped by her father.

So you have a father somewhere in the background who has raped his daughter. You have people somewhere in the past who have purposely created a drug meant to make it easier to rape women. You have two boys who push this drug on a girl who has been raped by her father. And then you have two or more boys who then rape the girl. And the person who made the wrong choices according to the morals of Hell House, the person who is going to hell because of all of this?

The girl.

I don't believe in hell. But if there is one, there's a special place in it for the person who made THAT choice.

1 comment:

Kevin Sawyer said...

"The Hell House experience they have created includes live-action depictions of date rape, abortion, someone dying of AIDS, a drunk driving fatality, suicide, family violence,"

When did Todd Solondz join a church?