|If you've spent much time in the Bible belt, you're probably familiar with something called a judgement house. A judgement house is something that Christians do every year to evangelise wayward Halloween-loving teenagers. They don't seem to be as popular as they were back when I was in high school, but I'm also not living in the South at the moment, so I might just be out of the loop.|
At any rate, a few years back a documentary film called Hell House did a great job of exploring the creation of one of these judgement houses. I reviewed the film back when it came out on DVD, so I thought I'd reprint that review here. I don't think you'll find this at your local Blockbuster, but you should be using Netflix anyways. After you've gorged yourself on scary movies, be sure to screen this:
In 1740, Puritan evangelist Jonathan Edwards preached his famous (or perhaps infamous) sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In it, Edwards presented a spiritually wayward New England congregation with a choice: repent from their sinful ways, or reap fiery torment in hell for eternity.
Twelve years ago an Assembly of God church just outside Dallas put a new twist on the theme. Instead of scaring the hell out of sinners with words, they used a melodramatic haunted house.
In this Hell House, the sinner pays seven bucks to tour graphic scenes of school shootings, botched abortions, suicides and domestic assaults. Each scene results in bloody death. And each scene ends with angels saving the faithful, and demons dragging the unrepentant to eternal torment.
At the end of the horror, each tour member is given to the count of six to make his or her own decision for or against Christ.
Director George Ratliff captures all this on film. His Hell House is a documentary following the Trinity Church’s youth group from planning meetings to set construction to the event itself.
The results are captivating. Instead of judging or taking sides in the matter, Ratliff simply lets his cameras roll. What they see is an honest, thought-provoking portrait of a branch of Christianity intent on saving the world from itself.
At times it’s a disturbing portrait. The guns the youth use as props are real ones, after all. And the church’s legalistic codes of morality condemn sins like homosexuality and drug use to the pit, while more common sins like pride, jealousy, and greed are ignored.
But you’ll also find sympathy for the “characters.” There’s Alex Cassar, a single father whose wife left him for an Internet relationship, and who patiently cares for his cerebral palsy stricken son as he lapses into a seizure. Then there’s the real life rape victim acting in Hell House, who once spotted her attacker in the crowd.
Hell House is scary, though not always for the reasons the evangelists intend. But it’s also an even-handed, intimate look at an oft-ridiculed segment of American culture. Let’s see Michael Moore try that.