This Shocking Doc in the Vein of ‘Jesus Camp’ is a Horrifying Look at Religious Extremism
Well, hello there. I am back with another dark doc recommendation for you. And I think this one is likely to appeal to those of you that were fascinated by Jesus Camp. Though it isn’t quite as heavy as that harrowing tale of juvenile indoctrination, Hell House is still a lot to take in. The doc profiles an extreme haunt in Cedar Hill, Texas that uses religious lore to try and scare patrons into accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.
This 2001 documentary chronicles the Trinity Church of the Assemblies of God’s preparation for the haunt (which always transpires during the Halloween season). Throughout that process, we get to know some of the participants that work both behind-the-scenes and in the heart of the action.
We see the organizers talking about competing for lost souls and conducting spiritual warfare. I dare say that these people are every bit as radicalized as those featured in Jesus Camp. The blind devotion is very similar. The folks profiled here fully believe in what they are doing. And it really seems like they find fulfillment and purpose in this.
I never want to stand in the way of what makes someone happy. But I can’t help but get the impression that Trinity Church may be blurring the line between religion and cult. There’s tongue speaking and accounts of being possessed by the Holy Spirit. Not to mention the way their congregation is indoctrinated with antiquated views on social issues. It’s hard to watch.
Understanding that these people probably think they are helping makes it a little easier to digest. I think they truly believe that the promise of salvation is the greatest gift they can give. But the way they go about it still rubs me the wrong way.
You will have to see the doc for yourself to understand just how depraved it gets. But I will give you a bit of a primer on some of the most horrifying details about Trinity Church’s annual Halloween outreach efforts.
One mortifying skit put on by the Hell House crew is a loose reenactment of the Columbine massacre. In spite of the backlash they received, the congregants don’t seem to understand the numerous reasons something like that is in poor taste. The people behind Hell House think they’re bringing people to God. But in reality, it seems they are giving people leery of religion one more reason to run the other way.
Another reprehensible skit sees a young woman going to a rave where a guy gives her a roofie, telling her “It’ll kinda relax ya a little bit.” Cut to the next scene, the girl is back at home and a demon is taunting her about not even knowing how many men raped her at the rave. The demon goes on to say that she should be used to it by now because her father used to abuse her when she was a child. Then, the demon pushes her to slit her wrists. And it doesn’t get any better from there.
In another skit, we see a man in a hospital bed. The narrator says: “This is Steve. He thought his homosexual lifestyle was everything a real man could want.” Continuing In singsong voice: “But now, he’s dying of A.I.D.S.” Then, Steve starts convulsing in his death bed, saying he keeps having nightmares of burning in Hell. This is offensive on so many levels. But rather than despise them for it, I try to remember that these people are probably under the misguided impression they are helping. And they are too narrowminded to understand anything outside the context of literal interpretations of biblical scripture. Because of that, I can’t find it in my heart to hate them. But it makes me sad. Sad that these people are spending their lives trying to fix what isn’t even broken.
I must admit that my favorite part of the doc is when director George Ratliff captures a heckler standing up to the proprietors of the attraction for their explicit condemnation of homosexuality and for their holier than thou attitude. It’s nice to see people advocating for common sense and calling out the scare tactics and judgmental nature of the attraction. After listening to all these indoctrinated people reciting rhetoric that makes them seem like they have been brainwashed, it’s refreshing to see people saying everything I had been thinking.
The doc was released in 2001. But a Google search suggests the haunt is still around but lists the status at ‘Temporarily Closed’ but not ‘Permanently Closed’. It’s a shock that they are still (presumably) operational, seeing how much social progress has been made in the years since the doc was first released. But I suppose progress usually results in backlash. And people that are displeased by the pursuit of social justice will likely find plenty to enjoy about the attractions put on by Trinity Church.
A part of me almost wanted to attend the attraction once to satisfy a morbid curiosity. But I lost all interest when I realized that the organizers assault people with attempts to save their eternal souls at the end of the event. Worse yet, it’s a high-pressure sales pitch, like sitting through a timeshare presentation in exchange for theatre tickets.
All in all, Hell House serves as a fascinating portrait of religious extremism. It hit a little close to home for me, having grown up in a holy rolling church. But that also gives me a greater understanding of those profiled. If you’d like to check the film out for yourself, you can catch it streaming on YouTube.