Hollywood Hellhouse: The Devil's in the Details
Center for Inquiry, 9.25.04
Less a performance than a case study with costumes, Hollywood
Hellhouse is an entertaining yet disturbing look into community
theatre for Bible-believers.
According to HHH literature, the "Hell House" was created by the Reverend
Jerry Falwell in the late '70s; a fundamentalist haunted house with grisly
scenes of what happens when one goes afoul of the Lord. The concept took
flight in 1992, when Keenan Roberts, now Pastor of the Abundant Life Church in
Arvada, CO, began scripting and marketing Hell House Outreach Kits to church groups
Scenes of botched abortions, AIDS deaths, and the consequences
of reading Harry Potter populate Hell Houses from coast to coast. A church
will purchase the outreach kit for a little more than 200 bucks and cast
the show's angels and sinners from its willing teenage congregants.
A recent profile of
the Hell House phenomenon on NPR's This American Life illustrated the earnestness with
which Bible-Belt youngsters inhabit their rave-attending, rufie-taking, homosexual
sex-having characters. Hollywood's version, which the producers note takes
the script and stage directions verbatim from original Hell House productions,
almost lets the ideology speak for itself, but can't quite help winking
at the audience.
A revolving cast of 70 runs eight tours of Hollywood Hellhouse every Saturday
night until Halloween. Los Feliz' Center for Inquiry has devoted nine rooms
to the production, which has already sold out much of the run. A group of
15 audience members is corralled in the parking lot by a warmup comedian (the
kind familiar to anyone who has attended a sitcom taping), then handed off
to Satan's Emissary, who ushers it through seven scenes of ungodly behavior.
The cast does a good job, for the most part, of not commenting
on the script. Jessica, at her first rave, is slipped a date-rape drug,
gang-raped right there on the dance floor, and then, tormented by the dancing
figure of Suicide in a room decorated with teen-mag pinups, shoots herself.
Our tour group was highly entertained as the lights
went out, a shot was fired, and we were sprayed with Jessica's brains.
Other scenes of AIDS victims going to Hell ("I told him he was born gay ," Satan's minion laughs), an abortion-gone-awry
(the blood-spattered doctor's office displays a framed diploma from the
New York University School of Abortion), and a view of Hell in which a
turban-topped Muslim is eviscerated and an Oy !-shouting rabbi is fed through
a meat grinder were all unsubtle reminders that there are fellow citizens
who don't play this material for laughs.
Hollywood Hellhouse is a hipster-syntonic way to upend our
insular blue-state sensibilities; the sale of over 3,000 Hell House Outreach
Kits is a good indicator, along with increased Hummer purchases, that a
second W. administration shouldn't be a surprise.
Produced and directed by (among others) by Six Feet Under writer Jill
Soloway, Hollywood Hellhouse features cameos by alterna-comics like
David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Bill Maher, appropriately, has
guested as The Devil Himself, and on the night I attended, Satan was played by
Dave Thomas. Most of the little roles are juicy, and are played to good, chilling
effect by lesser-known actors. Particularly credible was the Lead Rave
Rapist, whose "Hey, let's rape her" was delivered with perfect Young Hollywood indifference
and vocal fry. The kid in Hell whose body became a pot plant also had an
appropriate look of "whatever" on his face.
The set pieces get a little meta,
which is fun. Club Rave, for instance, has Day-Glo slogans on the wall,
like "Chillin'". Is that part of the Outreach Kit's stage direction, or
is that the producers' interpretation of what non-E-taking oakie kids think
might be written on a rave club's wall?
The audience gets to meet Jesus in the last scene of HHH .
(In some traditional Hell Houses, they are given a choice to meet Him or
not.) This is where Hollywood Hellhouse lost its guts. Jesus is played by a more-or-less
Jesus-lookin' dude, appearing just beatific enough, but when a sinner repents
and kneels before him, this Jesus bends her head to his crotch.
The thrilling thing about Hollywood Hellhouse is its adherence to the
original script. That's what makes it scary and entertaining. The Messiah getting
a blowjob is a local touch, which dilutes the real horror of the production.
Newly saved, the audience is invited to a "youth group" meeting
where it can dine on doughnut holes and punch, play "Pin the Sin on Jesus", and
buy t-shirts. The earnest-seeming youngsters (who maybe didn't get to be in the "real" production)
staffing the tables offer a realistic ending: only the cool kids get to play