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 nationwide.

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 the Devil.

Frank  Martin