A gay AIDS patient gets sucked through his bed into hell; a baby is ripped from between the legs of a very pregnant woman during an abortion--piece by piece; and a young girl shoots herself in the head after being gang-raped at a rave party. And all of this comes amid hoots of laughter.
Welcome to Hollywood Hellhouse--a semi-interactive theatrical production where people are led by one of Satan’s helpers through a maze of scenes depicting hell and sin, and ending up at a silent, smiling Jesus hanging on a fuzzy cross.
Produced and directed by actress and comedy writer Maggie Rowe and director/writer Jill Soloway, the production is a satirical take on the evangelical “Hell House” plays. The purpose of the original Hell House is analogous to a “scared straight” approach to preventing sin, according to its creator, Pastor Keenan Roberts of the Assemblies of God Church near Denver, Colo.
Roberts sells “Hell House Outreach Kits” over the Internet to churches and groups that want to put on his play. It includes all of the details, instructions, and scripts on how exactly to produce the show within the given restrictions of a specific building.
“It draws people to the truth,” said Roberts. “It exposes sin. It lays bare the destruction of sinful choices. We packaged it in very much a twenty-first century kind of vehicle. It’s not church as usual. It’s a Bible message.”
When Rowe called him to order the kit, she told Roberts that she directed a youth group in Hollywood. What she failed to mention was “The Youth Group” was the name of her production company. “I was very careful not to lie when I spoke to him.” said Rowe. “I said I had a youth group. I never said a Christian youth group.”
Rowe is intimately familiar with biblical literalists. A Zen Buddhist now, she is the daughter of Christian fundamentalists. She was so enraged by the real Hell House, that she decided to make it herself to show people the absurdity of a literal interpretation of the Bible.
“I grew up terrified of hell,” Rowe said. “I developed severe anxiety. The idea that many people I knew were going to be tortured forever and ever was horrifying to me--unspeakably horrifying.”
Rowe has maintained that she stuck religiously to the script of the original show. But Roberts attended the opening night of the show and he disagrees. “As far as what they’re saying about holding to our script according to our production cues--that’s nothing but a boldfaced lie,” he said. “They went off the script by several galaxies. The only place where the lines are anywhere close to what I wrote, is the abortion scene.”
As far as copyright issues are concerned, Roberts does not plan to take any legal action. The Hollywood version of his production has brought attention and demands for the kit from people interested in promoting his particular brand of religious interpretation, he said. Rowe lamented that consequence of her efforts.
“I hate that his show has grown due to us,” she said. “I’m hoping that because of our show, however, people see his show and it just seems silly. What they are doing is spiritual terrorism and I hope to take away some of the terror.”
Cast member Jimmy Doyle is a practicing Catholic who eagerly took a part in Hollywood Hellhouse. Openly gay, Doyle hated the Catholic Church for years for its hypocrisy until he met a priest who actively welcomed homosexuals to worship at the alter.
“I never confuse fundamentalism with real Christianity,” he said. “What ‘taking God’s name in vain’ means is not to do rotten things in his name, like what the real Hell House does.”Although Roberts bemoaned the immoral nature of Hollywood and promised that Hollywood Hellhouse would run out of steam because “their motive is not rooted in love,” the show has sold out all of its slots through to its finale on Halloween.