Putting the fear of God into nonbelievers, one performance at a time

Putting the fear of God into nonbelievers, one performance at a time

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the release of Son Of God—re-cut from the History Channel’s Bible miniseries—we’re singling out some of our favorite films about religion, spirituality, or the afterlife.

Hell House (2001)

Proactively attempting to save the faithless through over-the-top scare tactics, Cedar Hills, Texas’ Trinity Church stages an annual haunted house full of horrific staged scenes of rape, drug abuse, suicide, abortion, and homosexual-sinfulness. George Ratliff’s sterling 2001 documentary Hell House charts the creation of this popular attraction’s 10th iteration—dubbed “The Walking Dead”—with clear-sighted impartiality, avoiding any direct authorial comment so that the material can speak for itself. And speak it does, most specifically about the lengths to which some true believers will go to offer salvation to the world’s lost souls. That’s quite a large group, according to the Trinity Church’s leadership and congregation, which believes Satan’s eternal hellfire is the ultimate destination for people who are gay (which leads to AIDS), take their own lives, engage in premarital sex or incest, attend raves (where drugs lead to date rape and slitting one’s own wrists), or partake in “the occult” (which includes Harry Potter books and games like Magic: The Gathering).

As Hell House exposes through off-the-cuff footage of script preparations and rehearsals, as well as interviews with teenage and adult staffers, the house’s principal architects barely know anything about the very topics they’re addressing. (A long debate ensues about what Magic: The Gathering is actually called, and the name of the “date-rape drug” escapes the kid who came up with the idea to include it in a signature scene.) While the event itself comes across as woefully over the top, Ratliff’s lucid depiction of his subject makes clear that it’s part and parcel of a community that excitedly views the present as the “end times,” and routinely engages in prayer sessions that encourage speaking in tongues (a practice referred to as the “love language”). Either chilling or heartening depending on viewers’ own perspectives on Christian salvation and damnation, it’s a mesmerizing portrait of faith being encouraged, and reinforced, through aggressive, explicit fear mongering.

Availability: Hell House is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.