In the documentary Hell House (2001), director George Ratliff has made a film about religion that is not preachy, presents its subjects with fairness, and gives the viewer an opportunity to make up their own mind about what they are seeing. And the situation is so compelling, that it really is difficult to avoid taking a position.
The film spends its first half introducing not only the concept behind Hell House, but also the people involved with it. Some of the people we meet through more extended interviews. Others get snippets here and there in front of a glaring white background. It then takes us chronologically through the preparation, rehearsals, construction, and final touches of Hell House. The last half of the film allows us to experience much of what one might encounter going through it as a paying customer. We are first taken into a school classroom scene, where a young man named Jeremy shoots himself (using a real gun with blanks, mind you) in front of his class (a pretty obvious allusion to the Pearl Jam song of the same name). Having killed himself, Jeremy is quickly dragged from the room by a demon, taken to Hell because of his suicide.
Onlookers are also treated to scenes of a father beating up and killing members of his family, a young girl raped at a rave, who then goes on to explicitly reject Christ and kill herself, and a drunk driving incident where the driver is taken to hell. Most extreme for many is a hospital scene in which a young girl has just aborted her baby, and before dying, cries out for God to save her (which He does). In the bed next to her, a homosexual man dying of AIDS rejects God, blaming Him for his pain, and as he dies, is taken to Hell. All of this leads to a scene in Hell, where those same people are being tormented, with the few who called upon God being taken to a bright and shining Heaven.
All of this leads up to a presentation of the Gospel in a plain room by a tough, straight talking man. He gives people a few seconds to make a decision for Christ by walking through a door off to the side. The rest wait a few moments more, and are then taken out through that same door, walking by all the people who have just made some kind of decision. Reactions from people leaving are varied, with some people in the final room shaking their heads in approval. Others who leave voice their discontent.
In the note included with the DVD, Ratliff describes his film as “even-handed” and I absolutely agree. It would be so easy for many people to hear about this event and immediately conclude that the people putting it on must be kooky and back woods freaks. Ratliff doesn’t make it so easy for us who’ve seen the film to draw that conclusion. He presents the people who put on Hell House with fairness, talking about things that are important to them, and involving themselves in an event that they believe in. And he draws us into their world by showing us things about them that connect with the common, human experience. I think of the daughter taking forever to blow dry her hair. Or the boy who’s come to pick up his girl, and even though it’s raining, he hasn’t thought to bring an umbrella and seems unable or unwilling to figure something else out. Or even a guy like Thad, who seems really concerned with finding out the name of the date rape drug for the filmmakers, wanting everything to be official. We can relate to these people because we’ve had these sort of common, everyday experiences. I also think of the damage done these people in their past – rapes, adultery, drugs. They have suffered, and have found something at this church that is helping them connect to God. This is handled in compelling fashion, and I’m glad to know they have found something that is helping them.
And yet these are all people doing something most of us have never even considered: putting on a haunted house with its purpose being not simply to scare people, but to scare the Hell out of them – literally. They take to their task with such vigor, and Ratliff’s presentation of them as funny, driven, and sometimes damaged people adds a dimension to this film that takes it out of an “issue” documentary, and into something much more interesting: an exploration of human behavior, and how this group of people chooses to articulate the answers to the big questions in their lives. We begin to get a sense not only of what they think about God and the world, but also of how they have dealt with their own painful and/or sinful experiences. And all of this brings me back to those intermittent scenes with members of the church in front of the bright white background. It’s as if Ratliff by default identifies them as people of the light, because that is how they identify themselves. He refuses to judge, merely attempting to best present them as they are, and letting the viewer make the judgment. The more I think on it, and the more I see it, the more I am convinced this is truly a great film.
Having said all of that, the film’s portrayal of the Hell House itself is akin to a punch in the gut. People are dying throughout. The guns are real, and the gunshots are piercing. Demons float in and out of scenes, with an angel entering only when someone has cried out to God for help. The world of Hell House is decidedly dark. The light only breaks in after someone asks for aid. Otherwise, God is absent from the world. He has turned it over to Satan and his minions, and everyone is out of luck unless they take the initiative and make the move toward God. The Pelagian roots of this kind of theology are plain, but I frankly find that to be less problematic than the larger issue (in my mind) of presenting a world in which God is absent. I’m not sure these well-meaning folks have any idea what that kind of world would look like. I’m not sure I do either, but I have to believe it is far worse than anything they are presenting.
But the problems do not end there. In coming to issues more closely and explicitly associated with the Christian gospel, historically, Christianity has always confessed that one’s salvation is based solely on the work of Christ. Yet, when in several of the scenes, people are taken to Hell for their poor choices, the implication is clear – make good choices and go to Heaven; make bad ones, and you can go to Hell. This places the work of salvation into the hands of the individual. And because of the way they sometimes show the negative choices as being determinative of one’s salvation, the way to God becomes more about avoiding “The Big List of Bad Things Christians Shouldn’t Do” and less about responding to the invitation the Christ makes through the cross.
Finally, in writing scenes with questionable conclusions, in portraying demons as in control of the earth, and in a world where a single poor choice leads to eternal damnation, the creators of Hell House set themselves up in opposition to the world. There are no Christians in the world of Hell House, because all the Christians have huddled up together away from the world and created their own group of people that avoid “The Big List of Bad Things Christians Shouldn’t Do.” They occasionally break their huddle to try and get others to come be a part of it. But they really want nothing to do with the world.
The film ends with two young ladies vocalizing what has been implicit throughout. They say: “With rape, with suicide, with abortion, with homosexuality, with school shootings, with all these things…The world is the worst that it’s ever been; it’s an ugly, evil world. And that’s a scary thing, but at the same time, it’s a good thing because that means that Jesus is close to coming and he’s about to come back for his bride.” Certainly they are right to note the heinous evils of the world, but there are two root problems here. One, evil and sin are something other people do (by and large, these are not people who shoot up their school or commit rapes). Where are the more pervasive evils of our world – pride, avarice, envy, and lust? They do not exist in the world of Hell House. Second (and this is crucial to the problematic theology behind Hell House), the perspective of these folks, is that there is nothing good about the world. It is simply evil and ugly and fallen. Yet this forgets the notion that God created the world good. According to Christians throughout history, the world does not become evil as a result of sin. It is instead tainted by it. This is where theological problems really overwhelm Hell House. This kind of “spirit is good,” “world is bad” kind of theology falls into Gnosticism, a set of beliefs from which historic Christianity separates itself. And because Hell House presents such a distorted view of reality, it seems to me they also present a distorted gospel message, one I think much of Christendom would want to distance itself from.
I have no doubt that Hell House is run by well-meaning people who have great intentions. I also would be willing to bet that in the many years they have been doing this, quite a number of genuine decisions have been made. But is this a results at any cost kind of thing? Do Christians really want to go down that path – achieving results at the expense of truth? I would think not. Hell House remains a tremendous film for portraying these people and issues with such heart. The kinds of conversations it spurs are worth having, and for a film to be able to encourage something like that is really heartening.