Film Depicts a Church That Wants to Scare the Hell out of You
Listen to Steve Inskeep's interview with Hell House director George Ratliff.
Watch a scene from the film: the crew rallies on opening day.
Watch the rave scene.
From the film: Satan encourages a young girl to kill herself.
Aug. 17, 2002 -- Each Halloween, members of the Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, put on a haunted house. But instead of ghostly howls and skeletons in coffins, "Hell House" depicts what the Pentecostal church considers to be sins: a girl having an abortion... another taking drugs at a rave, getting raped, then killing herself... a boy committing suicide in a classroom. In each elaborately staged scene, Satan taunts the sinner, and then drags him or her off to hell. The aim is to save souls through fear.
About 40 people at a time are shepherded through a dozen such scenes. At the end, the sinners are shown suffering their eternal damnation. Then visitors are asked if they want to accept Jesus and join the church. About one in five do.
A documentary -- simply called Hell House -- depicts all this, and the people behind it. "The Pentecostals have always been good at putting on a show," director George Ratliff tells Steve Inskeep for Weekend Edition Saturday.
Hell House might seem like an easy target for ridicule, but Ratliff plays it straight: There's no voiceover narration, and the film is purely expository. He just shows the church members preparing Hell House, and then he shows the often-shocking scenes of the event itself. He says he made the film this way because "I don't think there's ever been a truly accurate documentary about the Christian right."
The film also depicts the personal lives of some of the people behind Hell House, such as the father of four whose wife has run off with a man she met over the Internet (a similar situation is played out in Hell House).
According to Ratliff, the church members enjoyed the film. And they laughed even more than did a different audience in New York, though at different parts.
"Despite our guffawing," he says, "these are very nice people. The people at this church needed this church, and they needed this community. If they were in New York, they would need therapy. But they don't have therapy."
Hell House will open soon in 15 cities.
The official movie site
The Web site of Mixed Greens, the producer
A review of Hell House from the Austin Chronicle