Septemer 17, 2004
THEATER: Putting the Fun in FundamentalismBorn-again Christian youth pastor Shari Putney is standing at the top of a stairway outside a theater in Hollywood, Calif., presiding over a group of young adults, decked out in a sequined, pale-blue mother-of-the-bride dress and a huge diamond cross. Clearly subscribing to the theory that the higher the hair, the closer to God, Putney pats her silver bouffant wig and sings a hymn about loving Jesus. A voice from the crowd waiting on the stairs calls out: "Very funny, Jill." Putney stops and turns on her heel. "I am not Jill!" she announces. "Jill Soloway is a Jew!"
Actually, Putney is Soloway, a writer on the HBO show "Six Feet Under" and one of the creative forces behind a biting new parody of evangelical Christianity called "Hollywood Hell House," which will be playing in Los Angeles at the Steve Allen Theater through October 31.
You may be feeling guilty contemplating your bad deeds from the past year as Yom Kippur approaches, but things could be worse. You could be an evangelical Christian teen who's taught about the horrors of sin through what's known as a Hell House. Finding traditional Halloween ghosts and goblins too satanic, thousands of Christian teens and young adults participate in a haunted house that, instead of featuring witches and zombies, depicts the horrors of living a sinful life and not accepting Jesus as your savior.
Begun in the 1970s by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, there are now some 3,000 Hell Houses across the country every year. Visitors are led through a series of rooms where skits are performed about school shootings, people dying of AIDS, the horrors of abortion and performing human sacrifices, among other topics. They are then lead into hell, where they find the tormented souls of suicide victims, Satan worshippers, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and other nonbelievers of Christ. Visitors are then asked if they accept Jesus. If they do, they are let into a party. If not, they are booted out into the street.
With the help of Jewish actors and comedians like Richard Belzer, Sarah Silverman and David Cross, Soloway and her co-director, Maggie Rowe, are parodying the phenomenon, using the actual scripts provided in Hell House how-to kits created by Pastor Keenan Roberts of the Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God, located in Broomfield, Colo. In using evangelicals' own words to lampoon the evangelical Christians, Soloway and Rowe hope to give a much-needed kick in the tuchis to a phenomenon they see as narrow minded and moralistic.
To procure the scripts, Rowe called Roberts directly and told him she was using them for a teen ministry in Los Angeles. "I had heard about Hell Houses for years, and then I saw a documentary about them," Rowe said, referring to the 2001 film "Hell House," which was released by 7th Art Releasing. "I felt Hell Houses crystallized in such a theatric, visceral way what is wrong with fundamentalism, and I thought the scenes were just so damn funny in their awful absurdity."
Some Jewish cast members were reticent to poke fun at a religion not their own, Rowe said, but her response always was that the parody was aimed "not at Christianity, but at fundamentalism of all stripes."
Soloway also felt the skits including one in which an abortion is being performed on a fully conscious woman who is nine months' pregnant while the doctor screams at her: "Shut up, Christy! You pay the money. I do the killing and the talking!" were so outrageous they begged to be mocked.
"You would never think you could watch a rape scene or an abortion scene and laugh, but when you realize you're watching the creative output of some very closed-minded people, it becomes funny," Soloway said.
And, Soloway argued, the plays border on the antisemitic. "When you get down to hell, there is a Jew [saying], 'I was stupid enough to wait for my messiah. I wish I had known. Get me out of here!'"
While crowds eager to join in the parody of evangelical morality will no doubt flock to the play, Soloway hopes it does inspire something other than laughs. "I would at the very least love for it to open a conversation about religion," she said. "Some of the lapsed born-again Christians in our production tell me that as children, at 6 or 7 years old, they were told in Bible class to imagine the very worst thing they could think of perhaps their parents dying and to imagine that over and over again with it never ending, and that is what hell feels like. And that's what's in store for them if they don't 'love God enough.' This seems pretty cruel to me, so I would be happy if even within the Christian community, some started to question the concept of presenting hell as a literal reality instead of a metaphor."
The threat of a literal hell was one that actor and writer Andy Corren, who plays a demonic tour guide in the spoof, said he had to face growing up gay and Jewish in a small North Carolina town.
"It was the age of Jesse Helms, and we were a Jewish family surrounded by extremely fundamentalist Christians," Corren told the Forward. "As a child I was kidnapped by my neighbors and sent to Bible camp and told if I didn't repent for being a Jew, and accept Jesus as my savior, I was damned for all eternity. Participating in this parody is my personal act of revenge."
Ruth Andrew Ellenson is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" (Dutton, September 2005).