A Pastor-Inspired Project That's Anything but Evangelical

Rehearsing a human sacrifice scene for the Hollywood Hell House, from left Bill Rutkoski, Jeannie Cole, Amit Itelman and Jaclyn La Fer.


MAGGIE ROWE is blocking the abortion scene. Lying on the operating table, the comedian Sarah Silverman, in the role of the Abortion Girl, props herself up to receive notes. "When they hold the fetus up," Ms. Rowe instructs, "you really need to look at it and then scream, "That's my baby!1"

For Ms. Rowe, 30, a Los Angeles actress, comedy writer and Zen Buddhist who fled her Illinois fundamentalist Christian roots, a graphic anti-abortion drama is the last thing she pictured herself staging in Hollywood. But beginning last night and running every Saturday night through Halloween, Ms. Rowe and her band of comedians, actors, special-effects artists and sound engineers - including Ms. Silverman, the comedian David Cross, the actor Richard Belzer, the television host Bill Maher and the former pornography actress Traci Lords - are taking over the Steve Alien Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and converting it, and the two-story office building around it, into a "Hell House."

Or a parody of one. An evangelical Christian take on walk-through haunted houses, Hell Houses replace ghosts and goblins with graphic depictions of young people surrendering to sin and then being tortured in hell for their transgressions. Audiences, led by a demonlike guide, witness scenes played out in unrelenting Grand Guignol fashion, depicting homosexuality, drunken driving and teenage suicide. According to a Hell House "outreach kit" compiled by Keenan Roberts, an Assembly of God minister in Broomfield, Colo., the scenes demonstrate: "The hell and destruction that Satan can bestow upon those who choose not to serve Jesus Christ. Literally, Hell House depicts choices that have the end result of ushering people into hell."

Ms. Rowe got the idea of spoofing Hell Houses after she saw a documentary about them. The 2001 film "Hell House," directed by George Ratliff, is about the annual production in Cedar Hills, Tex., one of the country's largest. She was captivated by what seemed to her the outlandish dramatic extremes of the tableaus, and she recalls telling a friend, Jill Soloway, who is now producing the Hell House in Hollywood with her: "We have to do this. This is the best crystallization of the evils of fundamentalism. We couldn't parody them any better." If protesters descend on the theater, Ms. Rowe said: "My answer to them will be: 'We are doing your own script exactly. To the letter.'"

Rehearsing a human sacrifice scene for the Hollywood Hell House, from left Bill Rutkoski, Jeannie Cole, Amit Itelman and Jaclyn La Fer.

Hell Houses have become popular seasonal displays in recent years mainly because of the kits that Mr. Roberts writes and sells for $200 each. Detailing everything from media relations to the construction of Satan's cape, the kits provide scripts for the seven basic scenes that make up the Hell House repertory. Mr. Roberts says he has sold more than 500 kits since 1995, the year after he began making them. Perhaps the earliest notable Hell House was the one created in 1972 in Lynchburg, Va. Known as the ScareMare, it is sponsored by the local Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, its chancellor and the founder of the Moral Majority.

Mr. Roberts, 39, the pastor of the currently homeless Destiny Church of Assemblies of God in Broomfield, which he started, created his own "spiritually flammable" Hell House program. His scene of a funeral for an AIDS victim in which the tour guide mocks the deceased, and the graphic and bloody abortion scenario, have drawn protests and media attention in the past. In 1999, Mr. Roberts canceled a "school shooting" scene after the Columbine High School shootings took place not far from his Denver-area church. Ms. Rowe, however, has used a portion of the script from the documentary, which did depict a school shooting scene.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Roberts explained the heightened rhetoric of his creation: "If your house was on fire, you would not want me to walk very casually up to the front door and ring the doorbell. You would want me running in there, sounding every alarm I can possibly sound."

In order to buy a copy of Mr. Roberts's kit, Ms. Rowe posed as the director of a West Hollywood youth group. "I never lied," she said. "But I had to carefully choose my words."

Mr. Roberts takes a more stringent view of the conversation: "If you don't tell me the whole truth, you haven't told me the truth. I feel like it's a shame that there wasn't integrity and character involved in the beginning of my connection with equipping these people with the ability to do Hell House."

Ms. Rowe was able to persuade Mr. Roberts that she was a kindred spirit, she said, through her facility with the language of evangelical Christianity, something she learned as a child in evangelical schools and Christian youth groups. The experiences, she added, left her embittered enough to feel compelled to mock the belief system on a grand scale.

"One of the biggest problems of my life is my fear of hell," she said, recalling the adolescent nightmares that she said had alienated her from evangelical teachings. Asked how she felt about making light of issues that for many are crucial to their faith, she replied: "If you really believe that all this is true, I don't know how you function as a human being. If thaf s really the way the world is, really so abysmal and disgusting, I can't understand who could believe that and still function."

Mistrust of conservative evangelical teachings seems to be a unifier among those associated with Ms. Rowe's project. The theater's building on Hollywood Boulevard also serves as the headquarters for the Center for Inquiry-West, a secular-humanist "community organization for free thinkers and skeptics," according to Jim Underdown, its executive director, who rented his facility to Ms. Rowe's group. "We're critical of the religious right," he said. "And a lot of people don't know what they're really up to. This is a great way to show people how far from the mainstream is what the religious right is doing."

A recent rehearsal of Hollywood Hell House opened with a group seated on the floor in a circle, recounting their religious backgrounds. While several people acknowledged being actively religious - two were churchgoing Roman Catholics and several were practicing Jews - almost all spoke of their hostility to what they see as extreme forms of faith, particularly of the American Protestant variety.

Mr. Maher, who identified himself through a spokesman as a lapsed Catholic, will appear in the role of Satan. In a telephone interview he described his reasons for signing on to the production: "I'm excited that they're doing the show just like they really do it. Where in many parts of the country it's greeted with reverence, here it will be greeted as it should be, with derision and laughter. Especially during this election season, when we are so divided.

"I don't agree with these columns that say, 'Oh, pooh-pooh, only the pundits are divided.' No, the country is divided. People do think very differently, and this is a good example of exactly how differently people think."

Ms. Rowe's vision of a deadpan staging of an evangelical Christian spectacle has caught fire in the Hollywood comedy community. The cast and crew now number more than 200 and the performers will appear as Satanic priestesses, rapists, drug addicts and Jesus himself (to be played by the actor Andy Richter). Special-effects experts have transformed the Center for Inquiry into a hellscape that includes "flesh-colored stalagmites, an evil dentist and dental assistant torturing a patient, a lot of dry ice, fog machines and a rock 'n' roll demon bursting people's eardrums," said Amit Itelman, one of the producers. Win Meyerson, the music coordinator, said he had recorded a soundtrack of "sounds that are tuned down many octaves below their natural level, crackling fire, backward voices, backward drum loop - a lot of backwards."

Despite the anti-fundamentalist perspective the Hollywood actors bring to the production, it is critical to Ms. Rowe's vision that the scenes stay faithful to the original scripts, compiled from Mr. Roberts's kit and the Ratliff documentary. Ms. Rowe recalled an early quarrel when the special-effects crew wanted to construct "a penis monster" to torment the gay sinners in the hell scene. "We felt as soon as we do that, we're doing a whole other thing," she said. "They would never show a fake penis. All of a sudden, we'd be on a whole different track."

For Ms. Soloway, a writer on HBO's "Six Feet Under" who won acclaim with a 1993 dramatic restaging of episodes of "The Brady Bunch," an entirely faithful reproduction was, in itself, the dramatic exercise. "My interest was in the formalism of the concept," she said, "taking something and putting it in a different context, changing its meaning." The team's quest for fidelity to the original includes instructions to cast members to spend the day of each performance in character as Christian youth group members who have been cast in their local Hell House. "Think about who that person is," Ms. Soloway told the cast at a rehearsal. "Internalize someone who doesn't have their lines memorized, is nervous to be onstage. Come in character. Stay in character."

Although he said he felt he was deceived, Mr. Roberts described himself as optimistic about the project: "If they present the homosexual AIDS funeral the way it was written, they're going to present the message that homosexuality is a sin."

He cited "an old joke, about a Christian who doesn't have any food for his family and he prays to God to send him food."

"His neighbor hates Christians," he went on, "and hears him praying and says, "I'll show him,' and goes to the store to buy some groceries. Bringing them to the Christian he says,' See, God didn't bring you this, I did.' 'No,' says the Christian, "God did send them, he just had the devil deliver them.'"

While Mr. Roberts said he was optimistic that the production could win converts in Hollywood, Mr. Maher called that hope "wishful thinking."

"Has he been to Hollywood lately?" Mr. Maher asked.

Richard Rushfield is the editor ofL.A. Innuendo, a satirical quarterly about local culture.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company