Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Another year, another Hell House

Lynnea's still relatively new to Texas, with just over a year clocked here, and she told me she really wanted to visit a Hell House this Halloween. Long time readers may recall that I had a terrible experience with a Hell House a couple of years ago -- seven of us stood in line for about 4-5 hours, for an attraction that was generally not worth it. I didn't want to go back to THAT one.

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.


  1. Forgive my naivete, but for a Brit, this is so bizarre... Do those who stage these events expect that it will be taken seriously? You mean this is NOT intended as a bit of Hallowe'en camp?

  2. Vilges,

    Lots of "haunted houses" are staged around town, intending just to scare people and not to be taken seriously.

    Hell Houses are different. They originated here in Texas. They are put on by churches, and they ape the methods of more secular haunted houses but then add an evangelical twist and they take their message very seriously.

    You can find out more here.

  3. "They're trying to offer a solution to a problem they created."

    I think this is an important point that isn't made often enough. It's a trick you see alot in politics where you are framing the debate. If you get the other side to just talk about the issue in the same way that you do then you've all but won because your side is offering solutions to the 'problem' while the other side doesn't really think there is a problem to begin with but is still using language that implies that there is.

    Sexuality is a good example, and one you mentioned. When the debate is defined by a mentality that sexuality is a depravity then they have already won. There is a habit of combating those sentiments with ideas of "well people should be free to do what they want", which is true of course, but doesn't address the root issue. Instead we should attack the idea that there is anything wrong with sexuality to begin with.

    You see this tactic used a lot on a number of topics and I think it is very important we keep with the message that on some things we don't have a problem to be solved, we have a mistaken idea that we have a problem to begin with.

  4. It always amused me greatly that after columbine the message became "be nice to people, don't bully anyone, because if you don't one of those nerds are going to snap and kill us all OH DEAR GOD IT LOOKED AT ME AND IT HAS A DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!"

    Sort of undermines the anti-bullying idea

  5. Hell House sounds like a bad episode of "Supernatural."

    Without the halfway decent acting or glossy special effects.

    Also, just an observation as an ex-Christian turned atheist, Hell House doesn't seem overly healthy--or Christian.

    Just saying, if you fill your head with that junk... then how can you claim your ideology is morally superior? It seems to be a violence, guilt ridden, sin obsessed, psychological roller-coaster designed to freak you out, and make you lose your mind.

    I think it's called brainwashing.

  6. It's beena while since my fundajelical days, and I thought I was familiar with most of the themes, but what's with getting kidnapped by a black guy with PTSD? I'm stretching, but I don't see the christian moral lesson.

  7. @Jeremiah

    I agree. Our enrire culture seems to have had this assumption slipped by us unnoticed. Even I took a while before I caught on. I had been an atheist for seven years before it occurred to me that sex isn't magic.

  8. The Hell House movie is fun to watch. I recommend it. As far as I know, there aren't any Hell Houses in western Washington. Then again, I don't go looking for them.

    My favorite scene in the film is definitely when they're painting the red pentagram that turned out to be a Star of David (yes, it had 6 points).

  9. Mastema: For me, it was between that and when they were trying to figure out what the name of "Magic: The Gathering" was.

  10. Yup. We have one here in Tulsa called The Nightmare. Thematically it's almost identical to what you described. I haven't been in years, but with my own blog picking up I plan on going and documenting my experience.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head though – it's a message that I just don't identify with. Although I was a Christian for much of my life, I've been an atheist for many years and I've never been happier.

  11. @skepticmatt
    I am also curious about the PTSD angle. I could see it as a message that, the suffering of others can have unintended consequences for all of society...

    But I have trouble imagining they would say something that sensible.

  12. I read about these Hell Houses something like ten years ago. And they are still going on? Like Vilges, I find this beyond bizarre. Might be a mildly entertaining Halloween experience, but I prefer reading M.R. James (a devout Christian, but who could actually write good chilling ghost stories).

    And is it me or there is some envy there? The Christians who do these Hell Houses seem to revel in displaying behaviors that they oppose. The Hell House is a Christian's sadistic wet dream.

  13. Tom, I can't believe I forgot that scene. I remember watching it and thinking that these people have absolutely no idea what it is that they are demonizing. It's not just the "occult" stuff, but they're so obviously ignorant of everything. I guess it's easy to demonize something you both don't understand and make no attempt whatsoever to understand in the slightest.

  14. The Hell House phenomenon illustrates better than anything I can think of the old adage that Christianity simply has nothing to offer a happy and contented human being, if it must rely so heavily on the sales pitch that your life sucks so badly that it is the only hope you have.

    The fact that so many people do have unhappiness in their lives, to one degree or another, that religion maintains such a strong hold on people. Religion is like an emotional predator lurking in the bushes, waiting for that moment you are most vulnerable to strike.

  15. I don't know if we still have any around this area, but we used to. In fact, my mom almost took me to one when I was a young teen. The funny part is that my mom hates regular haunted houses with a passion (I love them, btw) but was more than happy to try and take me to one of these bizarre guilt-ridden stage shows.

    Of course, at the time I was more than happy to go. We backed out when we saw how long the line was. My only question now is if the long line was the actual reason for leaving, or if my mom was afraid she'd actually be frightened once inside. She actually has a physical reaction to the regular haunted houses.

    Anyway, looking back on these things it's ridiculous. It's the same tired old garbage that I used to get on a weekly basis at my private Christian school (guilt trips, threats, warnings, etc.) only amped up to fit in to Halloween time. Not to mention I'm sure they think it takes some of the kids out of those "terrible and blasphemous" haunted attractions.

  16. I really liked your analogy to food, what a great way to put that! The Hell Houses are so ridiculous, and the only people that 'get' them are the kids in them and people already in that mentality anyways. I'd be very surprised if an atheist ever actually 'converted' because of that vitriol.

    My favorite part of this post is where you say "They're trying to offer a solution to a problem they created." I frequently have sparring arguments with fundamentalists, and this is something I shall be pointing out to them. Very well put!

    Anyways, great post ~R.A.

  17. Mastema, I'm not surprised to find that the pentagram had 6 points. I mean, if you think that pentagrams are REAL can actually summon demons and the devil, then you wouldn't want to draw a real one.

    And I think that the PTSD scene was to emphasize that these demons are real, they are always trying to fuck you up, and if you listen to them, they will ruin your life (When the army guy refused to kill all of us, the demons lamented he only listened half the time). I'm not certain, but it might have just been a transition method to get us to the rest of the church.

  18. I have to give them credit, as much as it pains me: the 'kidnapping' sounded like it would have been fun.

    Even more so if someone taking it seriously called the cops ;)

  19. I live a few miles away from that Hell House. I was wanting to go this year, but ended up under the weather and didn't really feel like it. :( I'll go next year.


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