There are no Hell Houses that I could find near Austin. There is one in Temple, TX, a place I'm unfortunately familiar with thanks to an extremely unpleasant six month software contract job (in a company where all workers are contractually obligated to adhere to "high Christian principles"). However, we're now in South Austin, and Temple is more than an hour's drive north of us.
Fate intervened though... Ben's best friend had a birthday party at his grandma's house near Temple, and we decided that the two events together were enough reason to make the trip.
We got there pretty early, soon enough to see the first group of people go in. The line this time was not five hours -- it was two. We chatted up a pleasant fellow behind us, who had two kids in tow. He turned out to be an Iraq veteran who had a law degree and was going after a sociology Ph.D. He had a lot of funny things to say about being always surrounded by morons, by which I think he meant both in the army, and in Temple in general. I didn't have the nerve to ask his religious position. I did make some wisecracks about the Hell House theme, and he laughed about it but said that supernatural stuff does scare him.
We wound up going through in a group with that guy and his kids, and about fifteen high school kids, mostly African-American and fairly loud and boisterous. I'm not going to completely rehash the experience inside, which was pretty similar to the one we went to in 2008. "Demons" -- kids wearing black capes and various skull masks -- pranced around various scripted scenes of "sin" and death, giggling gleefully and egging the participants on. Among the highlights:
- A husband had an affair, and he and his mistress were shot in a bar by his betrayed wife. This struck me as an insanely stupid and random way for the wife to handle it, openly shooting two people in full view of half a dozen witnesses. Why not get a divorce and soak him for everything he's got, instead of getting a "go directly to jail" card and leaving the kids with neither parent?
- Our group got "kidnapped" by a black soldier with PTSD. One teenager with us, obviously a plant, was yelled at to shut up, then dragged behind a dumpster and shot. This was actually the most fun part of the experience, as we got herded into the back of a windowless van at gunpoint and driven wildly around a field, with lots of swerving. I likes me some showmanship. Despite the amateur acting, it seemed like some of the high school girls were actually fooled, as I heard many of them screaming and crying a lot. I should also mention that one of them had approached us with a worried look on her face before we went in, and asked if we had seen anyone come OUT of the Hell House. I thought that was hilarious.
- In a scene nearly identical to my last trip, a girl met a guy on the internet, agreed to meet him at his house, and got drugged and then violently raped. (Question: why drug the girl at all if you are just going to violently force yourself on her before the drug has any time to take effect? Huh? Isn't the point of the drug... oh, never mind.) Anyway, then in the next scene, she's already discovered she's pregnant, gotten an abortion, felt guilty about it, and then -- with demonic encouragement, of course -- she slits her wrists. The end. The moral, of course, is that she should have gone ahead and borne her rapist's baby.
- A kid gets picked on in school, and then shoots people in the cafeteria. Then himself.
- We go to hell (dark room where demons gesticulate at people in the foreground, while the Devil gives us a Hannibal Lecture about how we'll never escape). Then we go to heaven (cottony room where the torture porn scenes from Passion of the Christ play, because that's what's ALWAYS playing in heaven).
- And then we get preached at, by a woman who first apologizes for scaring us so much, then talks about how Jesus changed her life, and finally she invites us to go to the prayer room and get saved. Out of our group of twenty, only one or two went to the other room. Can we call this progress? I'm thinking that at this point, far more people attend Hell House for the camp value than to actually take the message seriously.
As you can tell if you read my previous report, not a lot changes from city to city, or from year to year. They change the themes, just barely; this year's excursion was called "Beneath the Skin," and also featured the Devil at the beginning of the tour comparing life to a game of chess, where we mortals are all pawns waiting to be captured one by one. But really, it's mostly like a well worn stand-up comedy set that gets polished a bit between performances but mostly stays the same.
To drive this point home, we watched the movie Hell House on Netflix instant queue the next night. The documentary was released in 2000, and it still looked like they could have been filming the stuff we just saw. I watched about an hour of it and it was interesting for a while, but I got bored of it as it was mostly just following the lives of a bunch of misguided evangelicals who really think their messages make sense.
Now that I've been to two Hell Houses and Lynnea's already seen it, I think I can do without any more. In any case, here are a few stray observations from our trip.
Hell House is based on something I've come to recognize as one of the most standard evangelical ploys. Basically you spend an hour shouting the message "Life sucks! Life is miserable! Everything sucks! You suck!" And then in the last five minutes, you switch to: "...Unless you have Jesus."
As a lifelong atheist, I don't identify with it. At all. But I do see the effects of this type of thinking on people all the time. You know, it's the people who ask "You're an atheist? Why go on living?" Or "You believe in NOTHING?" I know exactly where this is coming from. People listen to the message "There is absolutely nothing in this life worth living for, except for Jesus." Then, never having taken the time to look for something worth living for, they're baffled by an atheist who doesn't appear to be an emotional basket case.
If you take everything that is good in life and focus on aspects of it that are bad, then you can easily wind up with an attitude where perpetual misery is unavoidable. Take food, for instance. Most people enjoy the act of sitting down to a meal. But if you went to a church every week where they preached an anti-food message, they could probably make you hate it. They'd show you pictures of morbidly obese families. They'd show people with horrible table manners, shoveling in some kind of completely unappetizing food, like watery porridge and square colorless lumps of something. They'd describe the terrible food being prepared in the most graphical detail, with lard being dumped on a grill and grease dripping everywhere and burned bits flaking off, and pretty soon the very prospect of eating food could make you sick.
But this is unfair, because it doesn't capture the experience of a delicious steak off the grill, or a fresh salad, or the way your taste buds feel when something is just pushing the limits of how much spiciness you can handle. It doesn't mention what it's like when you haven't eaten for hours, all you can think about is a good meal, and then you eat a feast of something you love until you're satisfied.
Or take sex. In the world of evangelicals, sex is a filthy, nasty, disgusting business. Until, of course, you get a priest to say a few stock phrases, and hand you a piece of paper to sign. Then it's magically transformed from an unspeakable sin to a beautiful act AS LONG AS YOU'RE NOT SUBVERTING GOD'S INTENTION FOR YOU TO GET PREGNANT, YOU PERVERT.
In Hell House (not to mention the universe of horror movie rules), all mention of sex is in the context where it is shameful, or sneaky, or dangerous, or violent. People act stupidly, and are punished and probably dead at the end of it.
The Hell House's abortion sequence is a great case study. In the scene, the abortion has already happened, and the only question up in the air is what's going to be done about it. And in the scene, the demon yells at her "YOU'RE A MURDERER! YOU KILLED YOUR BABY! HA HA HA!" And the girl kills herself because she can't take it anymore. But, who told her that abortion was murder in the first place? The church, that's who. They're the ones showing tiny like slimy things in the shape of hands and feet, and telling her, "This was a person, with a soul." For someone who doesn't believe that souls exist, or that removing tissue without a fully formed brain or nervous system is the moral equivalent of being Hitler, there's no reason to kill yourself. They're trying to offer a solution to a problem they created.
In the scenes they created, there were a lot of opportunities for positive social messages. Like, for instance, "If you meet a dude on the internet, maybe your first visit should be in a well lit public place." That seems like an adequate precaution, especially given that most men aren't rapists. Or how about: "When you cheat on your wife, your lies are hurtful and the resulting bad feelings can put your family in jeopardy, which isn't good for the kids." That seems like a really sound, rational approach even without tacking on the whole "AND THEN SHE'LL SHOOT YOU AND YOU'LL GO TO HELL" angle. And perhaps: "Be nice to the other kids in school, even weird nerdy kids, because they have feelings too and maybe they're worth getting to know."
But that's not the primary interest of Hell House. The message is that this world is a cesspool, and you're not getting out alive, so you might as well prep for the next one.
And they say atheism is a negative philosophy.
Update: Lynnea has now written her own account of the trip.