Dallas Morning News

'Hellhouse!' pokes fun at fundamentalists' horror shows

09:52 PM CDT on Saturday, September 4, 2004
By JEFFREY WEISS / The Dallas Morning News

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- "I've got your homosexual lifestyle!"
the demon cackles.
"In hell! AHAHAHA!!!"
He laughs as the AIDS patient in the hospital bed is
dragged from view by devilish hands.
High comedy? Some California entertainers think so. That's
a scene from their
new live show Hollywood Hellhouse! -- a self-styled spoof
of Christian fundamentalism.
But is the damnation line simple satire, or does it really
reflect God's will? The answer depends on your theology.
The demon's line is taken directly from a "hell house," a
Christian haunted house where ghosts and goblins are
replaced by abortions and drug overdoses. The deliberately
-- and seriously -- scary message the houses convey to
children: Screw up in this life and you'll burn in the
next. But Hollywood Hellhouse! plays the same theme for
adult laughs.
Real Halloween hell houses, staged across the country,
include a famous example at a Cedar Hill church. The
Hollywood parody, featuring Bill Maher as Satan and Andy
Richter as Jesus, premiered in Los Angeles last weekend.
Gruesome scenes in real hell houses are intended to shock
adolescents into believing that Jesus is their only escape
from the fiery wages of sin. The folks in Hollywood say
they're using the drama to scoff at a literal hell and at
ministers who try to scare the hell out of children.
"The material parodies itself so well," said Maggie Rowe,
the 30-year-old Los
Angeles writer and actress who is the driving force behind
Similar scripts
It says something about a chasm in American culture that
two groups that deride each other's core beliefs use the
same text to promote their own views. Even so, some of the
Hollywood cast members admit to a smidgen of doubt. "Ninety-
nine percent of me is sure we're doing OK here," said
Friedman, 35, an aspiring screenwriter. "One percent of me
is worried we're all going to hell."
The Rev. Keenan Roberts is a conservative Colorado pastor
whose Hell House Outreach kit was used for part of the
Hollywood script. Despite a theological divide, he was a
warmly welcomed and friendly opening-night VIP. God's
message, he said, would survive satire.
"I've told them this is really an honor," he said before
the show. "Whatever they're doing with it ... is something
of a tribute."
Ms. Rowe's show is staged by a small army of LA
entertainment pros. Many are almost-famous faces from
commercials, movies and TV guest spots. Some have written
for shows such as Six Feet Under, The Simpsons and South
Park. A day before the premiere, the crew finished
recasting a two-story office building on Hollywood
Boulevard as a chamber of horrors.
"There's one small change in the human sacrifice scene," Ms.
Rowe said. Nearby, the tech crew was adding the grinding
roar of a garbage disposal to an abortion scene.
Ms. Rowe, a close friend of just about everyone in the cast
and many in the first-night audience, said that she was
raised in a conservative Christian household -- and that it
warped her.
"The biggest fear of my entire life was going to hell," she
Now she attends a Zen Buddhist center, where eternal
damnation isn't in the big picture.
Christian-themed haunted houses have been around since the
1970s as an alternative to Halloween. Some conservative
Christians believe the season's witches and ghouls are an
unholy window into the occult.
Mr. Roberts, 39, was an assistant pastor at an Assemblies
of God church near Denver when he created his Hell House
Outreach in 1995. He said his kit -- including a detailed
script, staging directions and other material -- has been
sold to 555 churches in 46 states and 13 countries. (It
sells on his Destiny Church Web site for $299, plus
shipping and handling.)
'Awful, dark' humor
Last year, Ms. Rowe saw a documentary about the hell house
that is produced each year by Trinity Church, a Pentecostal
church in Cedar Hill.
"It just struck me as funny in an awful, dark, way," she
She decided that the same script could be used to laugh at
the beliefs behind
the real productions.
"Religion needs to be rescued from fundamentalism," she
gross-out humor of movies like Scream. If you believe that
conservative theology is ridiculous, so is the show.
Ms. Rowe called some friends who called some friends. They
rented an
appropriate venue: the building owned by the Center for
Inquiry-West, an organization that investigates reports of
the paranormal and supernatural. Offices and hallways were
draped with curtains and festooned with lights.
The show's setup is like many Christian versions: People
enter in small groups and are led from room to room by a
"demon tour guide." The Hollywood script uses scenes from
Mr. Robert's kit and the Trinity Church version: * A girl's
throat is sliced in a satanic ritual after she was led to
the occult by Goosebumps and Harry Potter books.
* A fetus ripped from a pregnant young mother -- part by
recognizable part --
by a verbally abusive "abortion doctor."
* A girl shoots herself after being gang-raped when her
drink is spiked at a rave.
* A teen shoots his classmates, his teacher and himself in a
"Columbine-style" attack.
* A hugely pregnant woman bleeds to death after taking the
abortion drug RU486. (She goes to heaven after calling on
Jesus for help.) And a gay man dies of AIDS.
* Hell and Satan are depicted. (A horned, cloven-footed Mr.
Maher delivered profanity-laced ad-libs on opening night.)
* A portrayal of Heaven includes a silent Jesus (Mr.
* In a "fellowship room," "youth group" members encourage
people to "pin their sins" on a painting of Jesus.
Funny? You had to be there. But many were laughing on
opening night, even though some had to wait more than two
hours for their 30-minute tour.
The abortion scene, among others, drew audible gasps and
laughter -- both nervous and heartfelt.
For that scene, Mr. Roberts' kit -- the one intended for
straight-faced presentation -- suggests raw meat to
represent the fetus. Ms. Rowe opted for realistic latex
body parts that a demon dangles in the faces of the
audience. "I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry," said
Jen Mayer, 26, a development
executive for Comedy Central in the first-night audience.
"But I'm glad somebody did it."
The stocky, baby-faced, blond Mr. Richter -- the original
sidekick on Late Night with Conan O'Brian -- made for an
incongruous savior in a cheesy fake beard, toga and white T-
"Rarely do I do comedy that's pointed," said Mr. Richter, a
member of the United Church of Christ. "But this was a
chance to make fun of a creepy, weird show that somebody
puts on to scare kids into accepting the God of love."
Producers of real hell houses say they're only using what
works in secular culture. Says Mr. Roberts' church Web site:
"Shake your city with the most 'in-your-face, high-flyin',
no denyin', death-defyin', Satan-be-cryin', keep-ya-from-
fryin', theatrical stylin', no holds barred, cutting-edge'
evangelism tool of the new millennium!"
Hell house supporters say their reading of the Bible is
clear: Homosexuality is a sin, the occult is dangerous, and
Jesus is the way out of eternal torment. The multifaith
cast and crew of Hollywood Hellhouse! have no such unity of
But in many ways, creators of the real and Hollywood hell
houses occupy mirror universes: Both aspire to entertain.
Both say it's important to get their message out -- even as
they acknowledge that they won't change many minds. Both
sides also say they know -- and don't much care -- that
they offend some
people. Even many conservative Christians don't approve of
shock-style evangelism. And some on the other end of the
religious spectrum aren't comfortable with guerilla-theater
satire as the best response.
Viewers' opinions
Elisabeth Nixon is a graduate student in anthropology at
Ohio State
University who figures she's been to hundreds of hell
houses, hallelujah houses and tribulation trails in her
study of American culture and folklore.
After watching Hollywood's opening night, she said the
actors delivered the same lines but missed the intensity of
true believers.
"It may be real, but it's not authentic," she said. "It
just comes across as lacking something."
The Hollywood version was real enough for Padraic Duffy, 29,
a playwright. He
said he knew little about conservative Christianity and
welcomed the chance to hear what evangelicals preach -- in
a nonthreatening setting.
"It was like a zoo of conservative thinking," he said. "And
they were safely behind bars."
Mr. Roberts held his temper after his trip through
Hollywood Hellhouse! He clearly wasn't impressed.
"My expectations are met entirely," the pastor said. "Our
hell house is not like turning on Comedy Central."
Hollywood Hellhouse! is scheduled to run every Saturday
through Halloween. Other actors will cycle through the
There's no plan to take it on the road. But some of Ms.
Rowe's filmmaker buddies are shooting a documentary.
Backers and opponents say they think Hollywood Hellhouse!
will prompt discussions about American religious culture
far from LA.
"I can't think of a better way to start a conversation," Ms.
Rowe said. Mr. Roberts figures he wins, no matter who sees
the Hollywood spoof. His own annual Hell House opens in
Denver on Oct. 14. And he says the publicity generated in
LA will pay off for him.
"I will be answering my phones and my e-mails for the next
five years," he said, "equipping churches because of
Hollywood Hellhouse!"