A film along the same lines as Jesus Camp (2006), Hell House (2001, dir. George Ratliff) is quite horrifying, but not for the reasons you would expect. A documentary based in Cedar Hill, Texas, Hell House tells us all about the people behind the Cedar Hill Trinity Church youth group and the construction of its annual event – an entire haunted house dedicated to scaring everyday people out of committing ‘sins’ such as abortion, pre-marital sex, and taking party drugs. We see the planning before the event, and have the opportunity to go through the House along with its unwitting guests, with the organisers of the event sincerely hoping that some people will be saved after exiting the House.
I had a lot of trouble writing about Jesus Camp, and hence was only able to write a ‘Thoughts on Film‘ post about it, because it was so disturbing that my thoughts became incredibly disorganised. Hell House is still pretty crazy and weird, but not in the same profoundly depressing manner as Jesus Camp. I think it may be because we don’t see the traumatic process of children being indoctrinated into their faith – mostly people who have clearly gone through a process of indoctrination before the events of the documentary. If you’re not a fan of religion, then both films will probably be just as scary as one another. I, for one, found the intentions behind the eponymous Hell House way more scary than the House itself.
The documentary is shot on what appears to be some kind of VHS tape arrangement, with very poor quality visuals, and it feels like the people have leapt out of the early nineties rather than the early two-thousands. The whole documentary has a ‘delayed’ quality which makes it feel like a piece of outsider art or alternatively like a time capsule from some gated community that is allergic to progress. But it is clear that filmmaker George Ratliff is presenting this group of people as they actually are – people from a small town who are really involved with their church, perhaps to the detriment of their understanding of the outside world. For example, during one moment we watch a young man describe the ‘rave scene’ that he apparently used to be a part of before he saw the error of his ways, haphazardly shoving words together, clearly never having been a part of it but having heard about all of its ‘evils’. This young man presents as if he had been told all about raves and drug culture by a Hell House itself or even by a religious elder, and hence, the cycle of misinformation and scare tactics continues chugging along.
And that’s exactly what a Hell House is all about – the process of scaring people away from sin and bad things, showing and telling people that they are headed straight for hell if they don’t repent their bad behaviours. For someone who does not align with the beliefs of the Cedar Hill Trinity Church, watching this film was also a pretty funny experience. Hell House begins with a fairly serious tone as we are given a highly religious speech, but it evolves into something that is completely unintentionally hilarious. Each person in this documentary is so sincere and genuine about their extreme black and white beliefs, that some of the ridiculousness that they spout goes unacknowledged; apart from the audience who is able to sit and laugh whilst watching. Although that laughter often evolves into a strange kind of pondering as we realise that these are real people scaring other real people into aligning with their beliefs, through the use of a constructed house filled to the brim with bad acting, fake blood, and dangerous ignorance.
I don’t know whether to say that I enjoyed this film or not, because the experience of it was a balance between being unintentionally hilarious and frustratingly scary. We also see insights into some of the church-goers’ lives, where we learn that some of the youth group have experienced hardships such as extreme family conflict and sexual assault. But the highlight is the blood and gore and general exaggerated nature of the House, and the ways that the church-goers’ lives seem to also strangely mirror the content of the performances within. Hell House is a very effective documentary in that it provides a remarkably neutral portrayal of an extremely divisive subject.
Watch the trailer here.