I'm not sure what I expected when I drove to Temple, Texas in search of a local Pentecostal Hell House, but I certainly wasn't prepared to watch a teenage girl commit suicide with a shard of glass.
Nor did I anticipate witnessing an Internet predator strangling a girl and snuggling with her corpse. If I had known that a six-and-a-half foot "prayer warrior" would blockade the exit when I tried to leave, I may not have gone at all.
On Sunday evening, I bought a $10 ticket and waited in line with a dozen pubescent kids for Bethel Church Hell House, a disturbing tour through scandalous reenactments of sin, concluding with a visit to Hell.
"What you are about to experience is a representation of a disturbing reality," a church member warned us before we entered the building.
"Keep your hands to yourself," he said. "If you don't touch us, we won't touch you."
Typical Hell Houses are located at Evangelical churches in the South, staffed with young adults who wear promise rings, and composed of scenes illustrating the scandalous consequences of alcohol, drug use, homosexuality, the occult, suicide, and premarital sex.
Hell Houses aren't a new phenomenon, but they are growing in popularity. In 2001, George Ratliff released a documentary
on the making of a Hell House in a Dallas, Texas suburb. Teenagers vied for the enviable roles of Abortion Girl or AIDS Boy, and when the performances ended, the church held a Hell House Oscar Night to award "Best Suicide" and "Best Rape."
Recently, one of the most famous Hell Houses in the nation has begun selling Hell House starter kits to churches that wish to be a part of the magic — all for the low price of $299! According to the website, "Hundreds of kits are equipping churches and ministries on the front lines of spiritual battle," both in America and abroad.
But wait — there's more! Customers can even order additional scenes, some of which are so absurd that they could pass as satire. In one script supplement
, described as "tasteful, yet sizzling," two youth display their "out-of-control sexual appetite" by feigning foreplay while demons leer at them. In another
, the tour guide leads visitors into a room decorated as the inside of a woman's uterus to watch an abortion take place.
The presentations vary from year to year, church to church, but they are almost always preoccupied with sex.
This year's Hell House event focuses on one young woman in high school, Lindsay, the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a physically abusive father. Lindsay decides to have sex with her boyfriend Chandler, oblivious to the tragic, fatal consequences of her seemingly harmless transgression.
Our tour group, which included a giggly, obnoxious handful of 14-year-olds, first met Chandler and Lindsay in the cafeteria of their high school. Lindsay coyly discussed doing the nasty with Chandler, and her friend offered to loan her vibrator — weird but considerate, I guess.
Across the room, Chandler and his hormonal, halfwit buddies had an exchange about the upcoming lake party.
"Lindsay's bringing her friends," Chandler mentioned. "If they get drunk, y'all can get in on the action."
I waited for a bolt of lightning to rain down from heaven, killing Chandler and his date rapist friends, but no such luck. Instead, our satanic tour guide cackled from behind his mask.
"See?" he taunted. "Chandler's just like the rest of them. They say they love you, but they're just using you!"
For the first of many times that night, I wondered what the teenage boys in our tour group were thinking.
Shortly after we met the couple, we saw Chandler again at the lake party, where a group of kids pretended to chug beers and talk about naked girls. Before long, a fight broke out. Chandler, intoxicated with rage and alcohol and his uncontrollable libido, shot and killed a fellow high school student who had been flirting with Lindsay. With a gun. The group of teen actors made plans to ditch the body, and our demon guide led our startled group to the next scene.
We found ourselves in Lindsay's living room where her parents were drinking in silence when Lindsay came home. As soon as she walked into the room, her father began screaming at her for breaking curfew and accusing her of having sex.
"Your sister can't even look up to you anymore. You're a hooker!" he yelled. "I have a whore daughter!"
When Lindsay's mother tried to intervene, he threw both of them against the wall. He stormed out of the scene, and a few of the teenagers in our group recoiled out of instinct as he passed them.
Soon after, we were led into an abortion clinic, where Lindsay and her mother sat in the waiting room before a nurse ushered Lindsay into a back room.
The lights dimmed, and we heard Lindsay screaming from behind a closed door. "My baby!" she shrieked.
"Kill the baby! It's the only way!" a voice, presumably a medical professional, responded coldly.
"I'm a murderer!" Lindsay cried as the lights came back on.
"Unless you have an appointment, follow me," our tour guide snarled and walked out the door.
Next scene: We watched as Lindsay's younger sister met a man named Serge online. When she went to his house, he asked to take sexy pictures of her on his couch while a demon told him he "can't let her get away this time."
She tried to leave, so he tackled her and throttled her neck. After photographing her dead body, he curled up with her on the couch, stroking her hair and grinning at his audience. Whatever fourth wall existed between those young actors and the tour group was broken in that moment: I felt uneasy and vulnerable, and my gut told me to leave.
But I stayed for the next scene: A wrecked car surrounded by shattered glass and two bodies, Lindsay and her mother, who tried to drive home drunk from the abortion clinic. Lindsay woke up to find her mother dead, and she wept while trying to resuscitate her. She failed. A demon stood over her, provoking her to find her mother's gun. She rummaged around the glove box for it and held it to her head — but there were no bullets.
"You deserve to die slowly anyway," the demon chuckled as Lindsay found a piece of glass from the shattered windshield. She wailed as she pretended to drive the shard into her belly. I cringed and looked away, but the kids around me stared speechlessly.
Our guide led us to the final scene, Hell. Along the way, we passed a doorway covered by a sheet, where we saw the silhouette of Lindsay's father was hanging from a noose, his feet dangling.
We were herded through a door shaped like a coffin, then a series of narrow hallways, then to a room where Lindsay and her family were screaming and chained to the floor. Satan stood on a platform and bellowed, "Look at what Lindsay did! If only she had made different decisions," while eighth graders dressed as evil spirits hissed at us.
The exit door was through the prayer room on the other side of Hell, but I was not released until I reassured the man guarding it that I did not want to pray for my eternal soul. Walking through the parking lot to my car, I still felt unsettled. The acting was mostly terrible, and the script was clearly written by a middle-aged pastor. But certain scenes and the rhetoric of the actors struck me as uncannily familiar.
Despite the date rape, the domestic violence, and the murders -- all serious crimes committed by male characters -- it was the young woman who shouldered the blame for her family's eternal punishment in Hell. Her sexual immorality set off the string of lethal sins that destroyed the lives of her loved ones and herself.
It was Lindsay who screamed, "I'm a murderer!" at the clinic, tormented by her actions, rather than the men who literally murdered people.
Fresh on the heels of the renewed Maryville rape case
and the Steubenville trials
, the victim-blaming and slut-shaming and complete disregard of the male characters' sins didn't seem as campy or preposterous as the rest of the production.
The Hell House men were not sympathetic characters: They were abusive, violent, and cruel. But they were also not the targets of God's wrath. Somehow, their behavior was excusable when Lindsay's wrongdoing was not. Violence, especially violence against women, was portrayed as an inevitable outgrowth of a secular culture obsessed with sex and filled with sluts.
It's not just in Protestant churches and conservative politics. It's everywhere. Women are told
that if they don't want to be raped, they should dress more modestly or stop drinking or just stay home. The responsibility for sexual violence is displaced, and men are told that they can't -- or shouldn't -- control themselves.
And when survivors of sexual violence do speak up, time after time they are ridiculed and shamed. Rahtaeh Parsons
, Amanda Todd
, Daisy Coleman
-- they are all Lindsays who are condemned for others' crimes.
Sometimes, we women can withstand and break free from the sexual shame with which the church, the government, and the media have burdened us. Sometimes, we cannot. I worry about how Hell House will affect the girl who plays Lindsay, acting as the sexual scapegoat for her aggressive male counterparts night after night.
More than that, I worry about it will affect the boys.