Thursday, November 4, 2010

Halloween and the Hell House

So Russell and I went to a Hell House on the night before Halloween. After I'd moved to Texas was the first time I'd ever heard of a Hell House, and the idea was equal parts ridiculous, mystifying and horrible. I wanted to go last year, but Russell was still burned out from 5 hour wait and 4 hour drive the year before, but this year I was able to finagle ourselves into a local haunt with a shorter wait. The tactics of the Hell House were under-handed and overdone, and it really worked on some of the more impressionable there. It was a pretty disgusting display of brainwashing, but I'm glad I went. I really had a sense of being some sort of historian blessed with the ability to go back in time and witness primitive beliefs in action, where to these people the world actually is demon-haunted. I'm going to give a chronological breakdown of the event.

Russell and I were in front of this very nice gentleman and his two sons. He looked pretty Texan, being the only one wearing a cowboy hat, and we found out he was in the military, stationed here temporarily. We chatted him up, and he was a nice fellow. He was quite intelligent, and Russell and I both later speculated about him perhaps being a fellow atheist. I suspect he's at least some sort of wishy-washy Christian-Deist hybrid. I wonder if his kids' mother (or whoever raises his sons while he's in Iraq) was any sort of influence for them coming out to this event, but I digress.

Russell and I were also next to a rowdy-enough group of teen friends, about 15 or so (this meant that Russell and I got put into a group that was several people too big, which made some of the tighter situations uncomfortable). The number of teens was actually the first thing that struck me about the Hell House - the primary audience was for teens and young adults, which was something I hadn't really thought about before. This is an event aimed as guilting and scaring and manipulating a vulnerable and uncertain group of people, and indeed many of the scenarios revolved around teens.

The first room was forgettable enough, it was just a video of a guy explaining that we would be experiencing scary stuff that was representations of what could be lurking Just Beneath the Skin. The only thing notable about this, was that the guy was wearing a police uniform, an obvious ploy at lending the establishment credibility - this message is 'endorsed' by law enforcement.

Scene 1: The Devil and a demon were in a drawing room, and the Devil was explaining to the demon the rules of Chess - you have to knock out a few pawns (us people) so that you can eventually get to the King (GOD!). It is supposed to answer the question of why demons would care about people, but all it does to me is raise more questions. Is the all-powerful god actually in danger of being checkmated by the Devil? Do they have equal arsenals in their holy war? Many believers would say no, of course not. The more apt analogy is portraying the demon and a few devils as … 1 bishop and let's say 6 pawns. And on God's side… we have 1 king (with the powers of a queen), 2 rows of rooks and a few pawns. Oh, and God gets to arrange where every piece is to begin with. And God gets to make as many moves in one turn as possible. There is no game. There's no reason why any of God's pawns should be exposed to any danger. It makes no sense.

Scene 2: A heterosexual couple meets in a bar, the man fidgeting over the woman being late. First we learn that the man has an anger problem, he gets mad at his girlfriend for being late. Then we learn, from a snickering demon, that he actually has a wife and is seeing this girlfriend on the side (for some reason they call it a girlfriend instead of a lover, or mistress; an attempt to make it less exciting?). This situation is resolved when his angry pregnant wife shows up and shoots them both, all at the goading of some nearby demons. Suffice it to say, this was a bit of an overreaction, and acted out more like a telenovela or a local play. The most horrifying part was that the bar had un-racked, and yet vaguely triangularly-arranged billiard balls.

The Christian Message: They make it clear with his fancy phone that he has plenty of money too, he's the man who has it all - sex and money, but he's still angry because his live is obviously missing GOD. The girl has her own vice too, aside from being a covetous homewrecker, she's tardy and doesn't call to let him know. It's also hinted that she might have "who knows what", a reference to STD's so veiled, that if you didn't already know what they meant, you'd miss it.

What should have been the message: Relationships should have good communication skills and should always be striving to maintain a spark. Discuss and be open to the possibility of extra-marital relationships and be respectful of your spouse's opinions. Divorce and breaking up with your lover is always an option. Empathize with others - call if you're going to be late. Use protection against STD's and pregnancy (condoms). Do not frequent a bar that doesn't even bother to re-rack their pool balls.

Scene 3: A soldier came running into the bar yelling at us all to move out. Since usually the demons were the ones prodding us on, this was a surprising change. We got herded into a metal shipping container, where the walls got banged on, then into the back of a blacked-out van (all 20 of us). Our van drove us in a reckless fashion to another part of the church. This answered the questions I had about how the Hell House could have possibly been hosted in something so small as the garage. We got shepherded out and yelled at. The demons explained that this man had PTSD, and the demons kept whispering evil things that he should be killing us. The soldier fought back against the demons, and they taunted him that he could get out of this by telling authorities that "the voices made me do it." The guy killed a girl who was earlier revealed to be a plant, got surrounded by S.W.A.T. members and then shot himself. The demons lamented that he only listened half the time and didn't kill us all when we had the chance. This part really scared some of the girls in our group, and they were crying and screaming and writing away from masked demons.

First, a story from my past. My private flute teacher in high school was the best in town, and had recently been taken in by Scientology. I was a hippie Christian at the time, so I really didn't care. One day, she told me that she had learned that all the suffering on the earth was caused by the tortured spirits of another race invading our bodies (legit Scientology dogma) and wasn't that cool? I shrugged it off as silly back then, but that is how I categorically envision these demons. As the volcano-trapped spirits of an alien race interfering with humans in non-specific and unidentifiable ways.

The Christian Message: I had to wrap my brain around what the message here was supposed to be, but I think I have an answer. It is asserting that the demonic influence to ruin lives is constant threat, and requires constant vigilance, not just vigilance half the time. That demons are always trying to fuck up your life and cause pain and torment.

What should have been the message: PTSD is a serious matter, and requires adequate treatment and understanding. Killing people is something that should be highly discouraged and disdained. Wars are serious business and should not be started on a whim.

Scene 4: A monitor shows two people greeting each other with smilies and winkies in a chat room, overlaid with Matrix-style scrolling green code. I think this must have been the same tape from the nineties. We then go into a room where the heterosexual couple meet each other for the first time in the guy's living room. He makes several advances at kissing, she rebuffs them. She goes to the bathroom, the demons taunt the man that all the other girls would have sex with him, and was he going to take being rejected? He spikes her drink, she feels a bit woozy, then a few seconds later he forces her into the bathroom bedroom, and we watch a slow-mo and fuzzy video of her being forced onto a bed. Then I think she runs out crying, and the man swaggers back to the couch with a grin.

The Christian Message: Dating is bad because it can lead to sex. If you don't offer that sex, you will likely be raped. If you meet someone independently, on the internet, (as opposed to say, in your church, with the guidance of your parents and your pastor), they will rape you. Men will stoop to any level to have sex. Women are unable to defend themselves or practice basic safety.

What should have been the message: Dating can lead to all sorts of relationships, and sex is often a wonderful part of that. Bring protection to a date, just in case. When meeting someone off the internet, meet them in a neutral location like a coffee shop or restaurant or out bowling. Do not leave your drink around uncovered. Do not rape people. If someone says no, they mean no: just go masturbate or whatever. If you are raped, and you can handle it, report it, see a doctor. Likely the rapist will strike again, and you could be saving several future potential victims. If you're a raped female, take some Plan B to prevent a pregnancy from even happening, which leads into…

Scene 5: The raped woman, 5 months later, deeply regrets having that abortion. A roommate tries to comfort her, and offers to bring her to church. The raped woman denounces any help, saying that she doesn't need a god that abandoned her and let [the rape] happen. A fair point. The demons continue to haunt her about the baby she murdered, she's a murderer, she murdered her baby. They show a video of tiny bloody hands and bloody aborted fetuses. The woman, who had taken to cutting herself, finally cut herself deeply enough to kill herself and end the pain.

The Christian Message: Do not have abortions, they are murder. If you are raped, carry the baby. Do not report the rape (technically this is never addressed). If you are suffering, turn to your friends in the church who care about you. If you are in trouble, you should go to church.

A note about the video: The video was pretty gross, but I have to say, I was just as nauseated by a video of knee arthritis surgery, and I squirm in disgust right now just remembering that video where chunks of cartilage were removed. The implication that removing an unthinking brain-dead bit of flesh is somehow worse than removing an unthinking brain-dead bit of cartilage just floors me. What grosses me out more is watching conditions of say, pig farms and slaughters, because as fond as I am of humans, I believe that right-to-life-and-well-being should be based on cognitive abilities, not the shape of your body.

What should have been the message: Use contraceptives for sex. This sex turned out to be non-consensual, but since the Hell House offered no examples of consensual sex, it's always a good message. If you have unexpected sex, there is Plan B, which can be taken within 5 days (2 days optimally). In fact, you can always ask for a prescription preemptively and just pick it up if you ever need it (if you live in a state where it's not over-the-counter). Abortions provide a useful service that allow women to get on with their lives, continue their college educations, and get a shot at a meaningful life where they can have a planned conception (if they want to) and offer the child a life worth living. If you are having trouble, or you see a friend in trouble, go to a professional, not to a community group that vilifies you and says they have a miracle answer to everything. A loving God would not allow rapes to happen.

Scene 6: Inside a high school cafeteria, a loner kid is eating lunch. A snotty popular girl comes up to him and offers him a piece of pie. I didn't catch quite what happened, but it seemed he was too shy to accept this offer. Either that or she snottily retracts the offer and then chides him for believing it. He bows his head in shame, runs into the bathroom and runs back out with a gun. After waving the thing at a teacher and fellow students, he shoots a girl. I think it's the girl who offered him the pie, so maybe she was being mean to him. The demons cackle and urge him to take his own life for being so evil, and he complies.

The Christian message: Reach out to others so that they won't go on a rampage and shoot you up. That pretty much parallels the central christian dogma: be a Christian so god won't torture you forever.

What should have been the message: It gets better! High school might seem like a sucky time, but just tough it out. Try to seek out hobbies and friends, be positive and creative whenever you can, and maybe you can meet people with similar interests. If you have negative parents, or family, or classmates or teachers, just remember that one day you can never see any of them again, if you so choose. Never go out of your way to harass or bully people. Always put yourself in their shoes, and show empathy and compassion. Even if you don't have common interests, you should say hi and be friendly.

Scene 7: A drug pusher for some vague narcotic attempts to skim a little off the top. The dealer notices, and tells the pusher he can make it up by "going to a joint where they like 'em chubby". (This brings up an interesting observation, for me. Most of the actors were the stereotypical svelte and pretty. Many of the demons were overweight. I can't help but think about the discrimination that went on in the casting call.) The pusher starts to walk away, dejected, then whips out a gun on the dealer. The dealer is a true gunslinger and pulls out his piece first. The cackling demon is this scene is wearing a bandana to symbolize his gang relation. The demons assert that this could be something that happens to anyone, and pointed out Russell. To his credit, Russell gave a fake gasp and threw his hands back in a surrender. I think they were trying to scare him into taking this seriously, but the idea of Russell pushing drugs on the street is just laughable.

The Christian message: Don't get involved with drugs, pushing or dealing or taking. Drugs are markedly for recreation, and recreation is bad. It will lead to a bad lifestyle where you are eventually expected to be a gay prostitute, and that is icky! Also, don't steal.

What should have been the message: Drug trade causes a lot of violence because they are black market. If these things were legalized, they'd be cheaper, well-controlled, and we wouldn't have these gun-toting gangsters shooting each other up. When was the last time your coffee dealer, or any coffee dealer for that matter, shot up a local barrista? How about a wine shop? Or a cigar shop? The truth is that there will always be recreational things you find unsavory that others want to do, but as long as it's consensual and nonviolent, it should be a-okay. Being gay is just something some people are, like being brunette or blonde. Sex is something you should always do consensually, not because someone forces you to.

Scene 8: The car crash. There was a crashed car with blood outside, and a vague emotional movie about accepting Jesus before you die. The movie was so wishy-washy that I really can't remember any details.

The Christian message: Accept Jesus and ask for forgiveness, before you die. It could be at any moment, so always be prepared!

What should have been the message: Live your life as healthily as possible, while enjoying it to the fullest. You don't have much time, so make the most of it.

Scene 9: Death, and Hell. We got crammed into tiny coffin-shaped doorways. A woman next to me was freaking out, and grabbed onto me in terror. I tried to comfort her by saying "It's not real," which I meant in more ways than one. She continued to clutch onto me down a long passageway, and I told her it was quite alright and that I didn't mind. I felt horribly that anything in this could actually be scaring her, could be making her afraid of eternal torment. We stood in hell where demons writhed in front of us, reaching out… grahhhh! I think the Devil cackled about having knocked out so many pawns that night and that he was closer to his true goals.

The Christian Message: You don't want to end up in hell, it sucks. Be a Christian.

What should have been the message: To quote Russell's son, Ben, "God's not real! The Devil's not real!"

Scene 10: Heaven. The (apparently bumbling) demons ushered us into heaven. That sure was easy! One seems to ad-lib, "Don't let them tell you about that Jesus guy!" How comically inept. I feel like I am watching a nineties action cartoon where the villain's side kick messes things up royally. In heaven, a segment of Passion of the Christ was looping, and I got to see Jesus flogged by a roman about 5 times. Another TV was looping a picture of Jesus happy and anglo-saxon and smiling. A huge cross was on the wall. A woman apologizes for scaring us, and tells us that if we've been in similar situations, that we're not damned to hell because we can just ask for forgiveness. She then tells a story about how she was abused as a child, grew up and started hitting her own kids, but then stopped when the pastor confronted her and made her into a real christian. She invites people to come into a separate room and accept Jesus as their savior. Only two or three people went in, and one was definitely the girl who had grabbed me in fear. I knew they had just reached out and created this fear in her, they broke her down and made her cry and now she was just turning to them. It was disgusting. I was delighted at the look of surprise on the woman's face when so few people went to the next room to pray.

So now, let me sum up the experience. First, I would like to say that I was glad same-sex relationships were pretty much completely ignored. I really get heated about gay rights, and I would have been pissed if that had been included. With all the recent suicides, and the it gets better campaign, I would like to think that the church had the good graces and sense to avoid guilting teens into feeling bad about same-sex feelings. I wanted to email ask if this was the case, or if it was just normally a topic they ignored, but I didn't want to really put that thought into their heads. Second, the experience was a lot longer than I anticipated, and I feel like for the amount of work and the number of scenes, the $16 for the two of us was well-spent.

The biggest thing that struck me, was the absolutely over-dramatic ridiculousness of the whole thing. The theme of the year was "Beneath the Skin", although I suspect that they just pick a name that sounds cool, and do not actually change the themes year-to-year to fit exactly. But the implication was that in every one of us, just beneath the skin lies an angry, self-centered, cheating, raping, baby-killing, murderous, drug-dealing psychopath, and without god those demon-implanted desires will take control of our lives. It was like Heart of Darkness meets The Twilight Zone, times 10. It was that ridiculous. Very few, if any people are so evil as made out in these "typical" scenarios, and yet these people have spent about thirty minutes telling us that. And of course, they don't just do it at Hell House, but every day of every week. You aren't enough, you are evil, you're doing all you can to just barely contain your disgusting demon-tainted soul. They do a fantastic job of creating these fears, these problems, condemning us for the fears, and then letting us know that they thankfully have the solution. It's such a great self-perpetuating meme, that they don't have to be aware of it.

And of course, most of the things that the demons were whispering only exist because of extremest Christianity. Preventing divorce and encouraging the death sentence for adultery? Pretty sure that's Christian and in the bible. Sex is evil and only causes hurt and pain? Yep, that's Christianity. Haunting a woman by calling her a baby-killer? You don't need demons for that, just look for the picketers by a health clinic. Encouraging cafeteria teens to exclude a loner? Nothing quite encourages divisions like religion. Drugs cause violence? Why do we have these crazy blue laws in the first place? Christianity has invented many of these moral problems itself and has the nerve to claim it's the solution. I remember once, one of my family members confided in me that eating shellfish always made her uneasy, because the bible says it's an abomination. That's what I feel like this Hell House was, a long infomercial about invented moral problems.

The Christianity being preached there and all over is just hateful and divisive, except for those shining few moments when you feel warm and happy because you're out of that hate. I have to ask, while all these demon-whisperings were going on, where was God, where were the Angels? For someone all-powerful and all-loving, no angels were sent out to pluck bullets from the air, to whisper words of encouragement, or to vanquish the demons. It's as if God just didn't care. And really, that's the point.


  1. Great report. One way to think of it, Hell House is a microcosm of christian-haunted america.

    Keep up the outstanding reportage.

  2. "The demons continue to haunt her about the baby she murdered, she's a murderer, she murdered her baby. They show a video of tiny bloody hands and bloody aborted fetuses. The woman, who had taken to cutting herself, finally cut herself deeply enough to kill herself and end the pain."

    Amazingly hypocritical, innit? The "demons" in the hell house behave exactly like evangelical Christians, who have the additional power of being REAL. It's not "demons" telling people that abortion is murder and showing bereft, suffering people pictures of abortions - it's Christians.

    Great reporting, great article.

  3. NPR had an episode of "This American Life" which talked about Hell Houses and this --- ---- a documentary that reflects a lot of the same disturbing activities and "lessons" that you observed.
    Thanks for the well-written post!

    Also, for more horrifying brainwashing schemes from those scary evangelicals, see the documentary "Jesus Camp".

  4. Thanks for the great post! Found your blog from a reddit link.

  5. "Do not frequent a bar that doesn't even bother to re-rack their pool balls."

    Hah! Well written. I laughed pretty hard. Insightful stuff

  6. Fantastic read. Keep subverting the dominant paradigm! ;)

  7. Thanks for a great, in-depth analysis! My girlfriend and I watched the "Hell House" documentary over the weekend. The fear-mongering is sad and disgusting. You're right -- the way they portray "typical" people and scenarios, you'd think Christians are barely able to keep it together without stumbling into the Depths of Doom. But that's how they enslave people -- create a devastating problem and then offer the only solution. A tried and true marketing scheme. :(

  8. Thanks for a nice Anthropological reportage.

    This whole experience made as much sense to me as reading about Spirt rituals of PNG Savages.

    It kinda puts into perspective Americans hatered of Muslims. The last two nutty religions battling it out for the 'Crazy of the millenium' cup.

  9. I would hardly call those things demons.. seriously, these guys need to stop advertising this false info. Voices in the head are not demons... they are a medical condition that can be treated... with science.

    Regardless, that was a good article and well... I don't know what's scarier.. demons or brainwashers.

  10. I've lived in Texas pretty much my entire life and had never even heard of these things, granted I'm in Austin which is a completely separate entity from the rest of the state, but I digress.. Thanks for the article. It saddens me that people resort to these "praying on the weak" fear tactics still but I suppose that is to be expected from a religion which recruits.

  11. Thanks for the report. Good info & interesting insights.
    - - -
    I'm pretty picky about language in general. A typo here & there, especially in "on the fly" communications (like blog comments) is no biggy, so not worth pointing out.

    But Anonymous (the one just above this comment; not those other...anonimi?) talks of believers "praying" (as opposed to preying) on the weak. Now THAT's a typo that still works.

    (via link from AE blog)

  12. Very informative and veracious article. I'd sell my "soul" to meet a woman like you :)

  13. I'm also surprised they didn't play up the gay fear more. They could've had a scene of me and my partner of 30 years sitting on the couch watching an NCIS marathon on Friday night. That would have scared the hell out of them to see just how normal gay couples are.

  14. "They could've had a scene of me and my partner of 30 years sitting on the couch watching an NCIS marathon on Friday night."

    You're doing it wrong. You're supposed to be deconstructing the "nuclear" familial paradigm, not being normal!

  15. Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

  16. But what if its real?....


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