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September 21, 2003

Hell House

Hell House (IMDB) is a documentary about an annual haunted house sponsored by Trinity Assembly of God Church near Dallas, Texas, designed quite literally "to scare the hell out of you." At the time of filming, the church was working on its tenth annual Hell House and an estimated 75,000 people had passed through the gates. As someone who grew up in a Pentecostal church (and attended an evangelical college), I've been curious to see this film for some time.

The film documents, in verite style, the entire process of conducting a Hell House, from the initial planning stages to the main event. Also included are brief interviews, against a pure white backdrop, with several of the actors or participants in Hell House who reflect on what they imagine hell to be like or relate their observations that we are living in the end times (another set of interviews on the existence of demons was deleted). These scenes are particularly jarring, especially when middle-class teenagers describe hell as a place of "everlasting torment" or point to symptoms such as abortion as a sign that the world is in the worst state it has ever been.

The hell houses themselves are divided into various rooms that portray various crises such as an abortion that goes wrong, a homosexual man dying of AIDS, a teenager who commits suicide after being date-raped at a rave (apparently the contemporary equivalent of a den of iniquity), and an abusive husband who assaults his wife after discovering her Internet affair. These segments play more like stereotypical self-help concepts than actual life horrors. As J. Hoberman reminded me, one volunteer cautions that he wishes we "didn't have to see" what he's about to show us. And yet the people who are participating seem to enjoy it so much--the teenage girls compete for the opportunity to play "suicide girl" and others look forward to playing in the rave scene because they like to dance. The characters seem to enjoy the roleplaying deeply. Hoberman's comparison to a Judy Garland musical captures the mood in these scenes quite nicely, and it struck me that their performance, rather than identifying the fundamental rift between God and Satan, seemed to more powerfully underline their complicity, the conspiarcy bewteen good and evil in which good needs evil in order to exist in the first place.

There is a significant moment of criticism when a few locals criticize Hell House for perpetuating "Christian faggot shit," contentiously asking on what authority the Hell House crew determines what's a sin, but the filmmaker treats his subjects with some compassion and avoids overtly making fun of them, although their lack of awareness comes through on a couple of occasions, especially when they can't remember the name of "the date rape drug."

I have to admit it was strange to revisit that part of my past, but there was also a strange distance, like hearing a language I once knew and sopke fluently but have long forgotten, and while the film has its nuances, I'm not sure that it completely captures all of the tensions and contradictions that I encountered during that time of my lfe (or if that's even possible). The film's comic detachment seems to preclude that kind of analysis, but on second thought, the filmmaker's coyness may be just the right touch. And now it's time for me to get some sleep: grading marathon tomorrow.

Posted by chuck at September 21, 2003 1:42 AM

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My name is James Michael Turner. My brother Pastor Gary Turner started hell house in Garland, Texas in the late 80’s
I am getting sick and tired of these other churches claiming to have started hell house. As a matter of FACT the Dallas morning news did a story about Gary and Hell house way be fore these other churches claim to have started it. There was a couple of different newspapers that did stories on hell house a long time before Mr. Roberts claims to have started it. I have these articles in boxes in storage
If you want some news here it is. Gary Turner Invented Hell House.
As far as Hollywood hell house is concerned I just may get a Lawyer and put an end to all this crap.
I may sue everybody for the rights of Hell House for my Brothers namesake. God rests his soul.
This is not the end to this but just the beginning. I am Hurt that my dead brother Gary who loved the lord so much, and did so much that nobody recognizes him as the founder and inventor of Hell House
Why don’t you print this in your newspapers.

James Turner

Posted by: James Turner at September 6, 2004 10:17 AM

I don't think my review of Hell House says anything about who "invented" the hell house concept, but I'm happy to allow you to register this comment here.

Posted by: chuck at September 6, 2004 10:40 AM

That's hilarious, all these "Christian" churches backstabbing and threatening to sue one another to claim right to what? A gross, disgusting propaganda smear. Good grief.

Posted by: Maezeppa at October 31, 2005 3:42 PM

i am a cristian u do not make fun of me go suck jesuses white harry cock u back stabber

Posted by: jhon turner at December 8, 2005 6:22 PM

I grew up during the creation of Hell House. Though I was probably around 6 years old when it all began, I am now 24, and though I can't recall much in my life, I will never forget Hell House, or the way it has shaped my life, but most importantly I will never forget Pastor Gary Turner, the creator of Hell House. For I never knew a Heart so deep. And Mr. John Turner you probably remember my mother Lilli Charlene Ellison. I hope you & your family are doing well, I will never forget your family or the times surrounding when I knew you all. Those times could never, and will never be replaced. I will never forget your brother. And it's because of, and through him, that I'm able to recall what God's Love is truely supposed to be like. I'll especially never forget his rendition of Amazing Grace. And I honestly don't know what my life would be like without all of these memories. He was an example to me of how a man should be in every way. And since I didn't have a father, that was priceless to me...

Posted by: Thomas Ellison at May 21, 2006 2:08 AM

hi am going too go with my church (the lords church) to hell house october 13 i did not know what to expect now i know thanks

Posted by: christy at October 2, 2006 8:51 PM

Spoken like a true well read Christian. It is very heartening to see the church is still keeping to their rigorous recruitment campaign.

Posted by: Amos V. at January 26, 2007 9:41 AM

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