For those not living in America, a Hell House is a Christian haunted house attraction that promotes the message of God through a series of themed rooms each portraying a particular sin. They’re as expected on Halloween as pumpkins and kids dressed as their favorite member of One Direction.
The Trinity Assembly of God Church in Dallas Texas has been performing Hell Houses for a number of years and filmmaker George Ratliff follows them through the creative process of putting one together. We witness the scriptwriting, the auditions (a young woman has her fingers crossed to play an abortion victim), the traumas and, eventually, the reaction of those not part of the Church. A rabid Fear Factory (remember them!) fan deduces that deciding who is a sinner is some real ‘Christian faggot shit’ that would upset his gay friends.
Sometimes, though, it’s what they try to hide that’s most interesting. These are not foolish people scared of the sun and Miley Cyrus. Their Hell House has an image to maintain after all. When one of their number adopts a limp wrist and affects a lisp whilst playing a gay man, although there’s laughter, he’s immediately told to try something else. Equally, a rave scene is said to be about ‘the date rape drug’, but their naivety is somewhat exposed when it becomes apparent that no one really knows what that actually is or how it works. ‘But we can assure you, it is the modern drug,’ you’ll be comforted to know.
Whilst it would be easy to line the congregation up and take potshots like Richard Dawkins at Sunday Mass, Ratliff wisely rejects the idea; Allowing the camera roll and his subjects to decide what they want to put on display. Arguably there is something quite brave about putting yourself in front of a camera and declaring, ‘This is what I believe in.’ Hell House is an absorbing portrait of people doing something which feels instinctively right and is the word of God.