Another year, another Hell House

Lynnea‘s still relatively new to Texas, with just over a year clocked here, and she told me she really wanted to visit a Hell House this Halloween. Long time readers may recall that I had a terrible experience with a Hell House a couple of years ago — seven of us stood in line for about 4-5 hours, for an attraction that was generally not worth it. I didn’t want to go back to THAT one.

There are no Hell Houses that I could find near Austin. There is one in Temple, TX, a place I’m unfortunately familiar with thanks to an extremely unpleasant six month software contract job (in a company where all workers are contractually obligated to adhere to “high Christian principles”). However, we’re now in South Austin, and Temple is more than an hour’s drive north of us.

Fate intervened though… Ben’s best friend had a birthday party at his grandma’s house near Temple, and we decided that the two events together were enough reason to make the trip.

We got there pretty early, soon enough to see the first group of people go in. The line this time was not five hours — it was two. We chatted up a pleasant fellow behind us, who had two kids in tow. He turned out to be an Iraq veteran who had a law degree and was going after a sociology Ph.D. He had a lot of funny things to say about being always surrounded by morons, by which I think he meant both in the army, and in Temple in general. I didn’t have the nerve to ask his religious position. I did make some wisecracks about the Hell House theme, and he laughed about it but said that supernatural stuff does scare him.

We wound up going through in a group with that guy and his kids, and about fifteen high school kids, mostly African-American and fairly loud and boisterous. I’m not going to completely rehash the experience inside, which was pretty similar to the one we went to in 2008. “Demons” — kids wearing black capes and various skull masks — pranced around various scripted scenes of “sin” and death, giggling gleefully and egging the participants on. Among the highlights:

  • A husband had an affair, and he and his mistress were shot in a bar by his betrayed wife. This struck me as an insanely stupid and random way for the wife to handle it, openly shooting two people in full view of half a dozen witnesses. Why not get a divorce and soak him for everything he’s got, instead of getting a “go directly to jail” card and leaving the kids with neither parent?
  • Our group got “kidnapped” by a black soldier with PTSD. One teenager with us, obviously a plant, was yelled at to shut up, then dragged behind a dumpster and shot. This was actually the most fun part of the experience, as we got herded into the back of a windowless van at gunpoint and driven wildly around a field, with lots of swerving. I likes me some showmanship. Despite the amateur acting, it seemed like some of the high school girls were actually fooled, as I heard many of them screaming and crying a lot. I should also mention that one of them had approached us with a worried look on her face before we went in, and asked if we had seen anyone come OUT of the Hell House. I thought that was hilarious.
  • In a scene nearly identical to my last trip, a girl met a guy on the internet, agreed to meet him at his house, and got drugged and then violently raped. (Question: why drug the girl at all if you are just going to violently force yourself on her before the drug has any time to take effect? Huh? Isn’t the point of the drug… oh, never mind.) Anyway, then in the next scene, she’s already discovered she’s pregnant, gotten an abortion, felt guilty about it, and then — with demonic encouragement, of course — she slits her wrists. The end. The moral, of course, is that she should have gone ahead and borne her rapist’s baby.
  • A kid gets picked on in school, and then shoots people in the cafeteria. Then himself.
  • We go to hell (dark room where demons gesticulate at people in the foreground, while the Devil gives us a Hannibal Lecture about how we’ll never escape). Then we go to heaven (cottony room where the torture porn scenes from Passion of the Christ play, because that’s what’s ALWAYS playing in heaven).
  • And then we get preached at, by a woman who first apologizes for scaring us so much, then talks about how Jesus changed her life, and finally she invites us to go to the prayer room and get saved. Out of our group of twenty, only one or two went to the other room. Can we call this progress? I’m thinking that at this point, far more people attend Hell House for the camp value than to actually take the message seriously.

As you can tell if you read my previous report, not a lot changes from city to city, or from year to year. They change the themes, just barely; this year’s excursion was called “Beneath the Skin,” and also featured the Devil at the beginning of the tour comparing life to a game of chess, where we mortals are all pawns waiting to be captured one by one. But really, it’s mostly like a well worn stand-up comedy set that gets polished a bit between performances but mostly stays the same.

To drive this point home, we watched the movie Hell House on Netflix instant queue the next night. The documentary was released in 2000, and it still looked like they could have been filming the stuff we just saw. I watched about an hour of it and it was interesting for a while, but I got bored of it as it was mostly just following the lives of a bunch of misguided evangelicals who really think their messages make sense.

Now that I’ve been to two Hell Houses and Lynnea’s already seen it, I think I can do without any more. In any case, here are a few stray observations from our trip.

Hell House is based on something I’ve come to recognize as one of the most standard evangelical ploys. Basically you spend an hour shouting the message “Life sucks! Life is miserable! Everything sucks! You suck!” And then in the last five minutes, you switch to: “…Unless you have Jesus.”

As a lifelong atheist, I don’t identify with it. At all. But I do see the effects of this type of thinking on people all the time. You know, it’s the people who ask “You’re an atheist? Why go on living?” Or “You believe in NOTHING?” I know exactly where this is coming from. People listen to the message “There is absolutely nothing in this life worth living for, except for Jesus.” Then, never having taken the time to look for something worth living for, they’re baffled by an atheist who doesn’t appear to be an emotional basket case.

If you take everything that is good in life and focus on aspects of it that are bad, then you can easily wind up with an attitude where perpetual misery is unavoidable. Take food, for instance. Most people enjoy the act of sitting down to a meal. But if you went to a church every week where they preached an anti-food message, they could probably make you hate it. They’d show you pictures of morbidly obese families. They’d show people with horrible table manners, shoveling in some kind of completely unappetizing food, like watery porridge and square colorless lumps of something. They’d describe the terrible food being prepared in the most graphical detail, with lard being dumped on a grill and grease dripping everywhere and burned bits flaking off, and pretty soon the very prospect of eating food could make you sick.

But this is unfair, because it doesn’t capture the experience of a delicious steak off the grill, or a fresh salad, or the way your taste buds feel when something is just pushing the limits of how much spiciness you can handle. It doesn’t mention what it’s like when you haven’t eaten for hours, all you can thin
k about is a good meal, and then you eat a feast of something you love until you’re satisfied.

Or take sex. In the world of evangelicals, sex is a filthy, nasty, disgusting business. Until, of course, you get a priest to say a few stock phrases, and hand you a piece of paper to sign. Then it’s magically transformed from an unspeakable sin to a beautiful act AS LONG AS YOU’RE NOT SUBVERTING GOD’S INTENTION FOR YOU TO GET PREGNANT, YOU PERVERT.

In Hell House (not to mention the universe of horror movie rules), all mention of sex is in the context where it is shameful, or sneaky, or dangerous, or violent. People act stupidly, and are punished and probably dead at the end of it.

The Hell House’s abortion sequence is a great case study. In the scene, the abortion has already happened, and the only question up in the air is what’s going to be done about it. And in the scene, the demon yells at her “YOU’RE A MURDERER! YOU KILLED YOUR BABY! HA HA HA!” And the girl kills herself because she can’t take it anymore. But, who told her that abortion was murder in the first place? The church, that’s who. They’re the ones showing tiny like slimy things in the shape of hands and feet, and telling her, “This was a person, with a soul.” For someone who doesn’t believe that souls exist, or that removing tissue without a fully formed brain or nervous system is the moral equivalent of being Hitler, there’s no reason to kill yourself. They’re trying to offer a solution to a problem they created.

In the scenes they created, there were a lot of opportunities for positive social messages. Like, for instance, “If you meet a dude on the internet, maybe your first visit should be in a well lit public place.” That seems like an adequate precaution, especially given that most men aren’t rapists. Or how about: “When you cheat on your wife, your lies are hurtful and the resulting bad feelings can put your family in jeopardy, which isn’t good for the kids.” That seems like a really sound, rational approach even without tacking on the whole “AND THEN SHE’LL SHOOT YOU AND YOU’LL GO TO HELL” angle. And perhaps: “Be nice to the other kids in school, even weird nerdy kids, because they have feelings too and maybe they’re worth getting to know.”

But that’s not the primary interest of Hell House. The message is that this world is a cesspool, and you’re not getting out alive, so you might as well prep for the next one.

And they say atheism is a negative philosophy.

Update: Lynnea has now written her own account of the trip.

Last weekend and this weekend

I was saddened that I had to miss hosting the show this weekend due to another Mormon invasion. I always hate to miss a chance to be on with Jeff Dee. Also, my fiancee and I actually went to church on Easter Sunday for fun, and we got a lot of interesting discussion material out of it.

In point of fact, we went to Great Hills Baptist Church, home base for Kyle Miller, who was on the show with us several months ago. I made my presence known to him, and he graciously asked to treat us to lunch the next day. (I just started a new job in Austin, and I wasn’t working yet on Monday.)

In some respects we managed to get more argumentative than we were on the actual show together, but it was all kept on a friendly basis and I believe that a good time was had by all. As I said previously, Kyle is a fun guy, and there are a lot of non-God topics we agree on, but I also really enjoy it when we get down to discussing the evidence (or lack of it) for God. I probably won’t detail our private conversation, though, but just the church experience.

Matt and I will be en route to Peoria early tomorrow morning, where we will be speaking at Bradley University at around 5:30 PM. Again, get there early in case it fills up. I’ll have my laptop on the plane, so I might take the time to turn my church notes into a blog post that I can put up after we land.

I’ve got, I think, about twenty minutes of material and I need to put the finishing touches on my slides when I get home tonight. Matt will present a similar length of material, and then we’ll take questions. There are other events afterward which you can check out at the Bradley Skeptics page, and we’ll take more questions on Saturday.

The TV show will be in excellent hands with Jeff Dee and Don Baker, and I know I’m looking forward to catching the replay when I get back.

Hell House trip, continued

Continued from the previous post

Room 3
Synopsis: Perils of drunk driving. Two cars are smashed up in an obvious wreck. Very happy demon hops around on both cars like a monkey. Paramedics remove one person from one car, who is horribly disfigured, while the passenger is dead. The driver stumbles out of the other car, obviously dead drunk and ranting about how unfair it is. He stumbles away. Demon continues to feel gleeful.
Most disturbing moment: Actually I thought it was a little weird that the car driven by the drunk was the one that got HIT, rather than the one doing the hitting. But it was plausibly pointed out that he could have run a red light and been at fault. Still, I find it hard to believe that he is the only one completely unscathed.
Ambiguous moral message: God will sort out the bodies, but most people are hell-bound anyway, so the guy in the passenger seat probably belongs to the demons now. Police are pretty useless, though, as they didn’t make any effort to stop the idiot driver.

Room 4
Synopsis: Part 1 of the abortion drama. Girl and boy love each other very much, but the idiots do it without protection. Boy assumed girl was using birth control; girl of course was not. Girl announces that she’s pregnant, and also that she will have an abortion. Boy is distraught, not wanting her to kill his baby. Girl browbeats boy into going along with her to the abortion clinic for moral support.
Most disturbing moment: Actually this one wasn’t particularly disturbing to many of us, as none of us heathens are particularly opposed to a little good old-fashioned lust. I’d assume that these kids are victims of an abstinence-only curriculum, although that’s not they angle the actors put on it. Their message is that no amount of precaution can save you if you decide to have sex.
Ambiguous moral message: Women are bitches. Not all that ambiguous, actually.

Room 5
Synopsis: The abortion drama continues, as the hapless boy attempts to sit with his girlfriend in the operating room waiting to kill their baby. The boy freaks out and runs from the room, unable to live with himself. The girl, realizing that she’s all alone, has second thoughts about this. However, the doctors won’t let her leave, and forcibly perform and botch an abortion on her, causing her to bleed to death. The everpresent demons, of course, enjoy this immensely. Throughout the scene, a tape loops on some overhead monitors, showing some of those scary post-abortion videos with little fetus arms and legs.
Most disturbing moment: Obviously I was most bothered by the portrayal of how abortion doctors act. Because, you know, they’re not there to satisfy their customers or anything… you came in for an abortion, and damn it, YOU. WILL. GET ONE. Oh, and as the patient dies the doctors say “Oh well, we lost another one. We’ve got lots more to get to today!” Too bad there’s no such thing as malpractice in the Christian universe, or they could stop abortions easily!
Ambiguous moral message: In case the idea of killing your baby doesn’t put you off abortion, we now guarantee that you’ll be dead too. Abortion is almost certainly riskier than child birth in that regard.

Room 6
Synopsis: I may have forgotten some by now, but for my recollection the next one is a two part molestation drama. One girl is distraught that her sister died. A friend is trying to console the survivor. The girl reads a suicide note stating that her sister was molested to death by their creepy uncle. It is implied that the mother was never present because she’s always spending time with her lesbian lover, so we get a twofer here. At that moment, the creepy uncle himself walks in. The fair-weather friend immediately leaves, despite the next potential victim begging her to stay. The creepy uncle begins making advances. Then the boyfriend barges in on them, and in a fit of rage, shoots the uncle. Fade to black.
Most disturbing moment: Did I mention that the other girl just decided to walk out, leaving her so-called friend alone with a known molester? Who the hell DOES that? She wasn’t acting scared or anything, just a fairly cold “I’m uncomfortable with this situation, I have to go.”
Ambiguous moral message: So wait a minute, a molesting uncle is a bad thing, that’s not much of a stretch. What’s up with the boyfriend? Are they applauding his actions? Or is he dancing to the demons’ tune too? I don’t get it.

Room 7
Synopsis: In part 2, the girl goes to her sister’s funeral. She’s distraught, so another friend (not from the last scene) offers her sleeping pills to help her relax. Next, dear old lesbo mom shows up, and the girl tries to embrace her mother, only to be snapped at for telling lies about her brother and trying to break up the family. Mom leaves, girl cries. She takes some sleeping pills… AND THEN DIES. (Well, I assume.)
Most disturbing moment: Um, well, dear old mom was kind of a ringer for Hillary Clinton, I guess.
Ambiguous moral message: It doesn’t matter how much pain you are in… if you attempt to seek help through medical prescription, YOU WILL DIE.

Room 8
Synopsis: We got herded into “coffins”: little narrow rooms in a line of four each. They locked the doors and told us what happens when you die.
Most disturbing moment: Some of our members are particularly uncomfortable with small spaces, and others are averse to being touched much. I didn’t have much of a problem.
Ambiguous moral message: None yet, but it’s obvious where this is going.

Room 9
Synopsis: It’s heaven! Yay! We made it! The room is brightly lit and covered in cotton. TV monitors play happy messages interspersed with graphic scenes from “The Passion of the Christ” to show who made it possible for us to get here.
Most disturbing moment: Well, it’s the Passion of the Christ. I mean, seriously.
Ambiguous moral message: Heaven is kind of boring and plays bad movies.

Room 10
Synopsis: Hell! Oh noez! A very dark dungeon with demons banging on bars! One of them freaked out some kids by coming out of the dungeon and getting up in their face.
Most disturbing moment: The message is, of course, that all the dea
d people from the previous scenes ought to be here. That includes the girl who got shot by the rampaging kid, and the one who was molested by her uncle, and the victim of the car crash.
Ambiguous moral message: In case you haven’t noticed by now, Christianity is all about buying the religion and has nothing to do with whether you’re innocent or guilty of anything in particular. In fact, the molested girl deserves hell no less than the creepy uncle.

The final room

Okay, so finally we get to The Conversion Room™ so we can all make “The Choice.” A spunky twenty-something woman was on hand to tell us all about the opportunity of Christianity. There were two doors, one unmarked door on the left, and one in front of us that said EXIT. Spunky McCurlyhair told us that if we wanted to accept Christ as our savior now, we could go through the door on our left and sign pledges.

Unfortunately, Spunky didn’t have very good crowd control skills. For starters, there were seven very rude people in the back who kept on quietly cracking jokes. Be quiet, you people! I’m trying to learn about Jesus! But never mind about us, few people were paying very close attention, which prompted Spunky to tell us all, “Ok, it’s really important to focus, people!” IMHO, when you get to that point you’ve already lost the battle. I felt kind of bad for her.

We were, of course, really hoping that we seven would be the only ones standing on our own. Sadly, though, fewer than half of our group of fifty went in the door on the left. Undaunted, Spunky said, “Okay, now you people are still left here for one of two reasons. Maybe you’re already secure in your faith in Christ and don’t think you need another affirmation. But let me tell you, it’s important to go out and spread the gospel…” She droned on like this, and by the time she was finished explaining possibility A, she either forgot or was too rushed to acknowledge possibility B: “Or you’re all hellbound heretics! What is WRONG with you people?” That remained unsaid.

I had heard that in previous years, ACA members have wound up getting in arguments with members of the cast after the show, and I for one was really looking forward to that… only it never happened either. With the ginormous crowd, the girl was forced to keep herding us along after our time was up. As a result, we wound up having to go through the door on the left anyway, rather than approaching the one marked EXIT. It made no sense to me… surely it would be symbolically powerful if us heretics got unceremoniously dumped outside and separated from everyone else. But no, there was a big guy standing right in front of the exit, and we just decided to leave quietly on the left. Mustn’t slow down the conveyer belt.

As we went out, we of course got to march right past all the deer-eyed people who were busy signing commitments to Christ. (“By accepting this agreement, you are explicitly granting the right to 10% of your lifelong income… offer not valid in California and Norway.”) It was kind of goofy, really… they’re sitting there trying to recommit to their god, and all the rest of us are filing past staring at them, as if they were the last skit for the evening.

Final ambiguous moral message, which sums up Hell House neatly:

No matter how much you might be terrified of hell, no matter what they may have in store for you, just rest assured that being there can’t be nearly as bad as the long wait to get there.

Hell House XVIII, The Revenge: Welcome to Eternity

With the very best of intentions, seven intrepid atheists took a trip yesterday to Cedar Hill, TX last night, to attend the Hell House made famous by a 2000 documentary from George Ratliff. Despite flawless planning and good attitudes all around, this excursion was a strong candidate to be the very worst ACA event ever. Be warned, mortals, for the tale which follows is not for the faint of heart, and shall surely imprint terror and foreboding in the minds of all who may dare to attend this piece of unredeemable crap in any future year.

Five people met near the Lake Creek Alamo Drafthouse at 2:00 on a Saturday: John, Tammy, Arran, Shilling, and Russell (that’s me). We knew we had a three hour drive ahead of us, but we feared not the trip, for all had heard the tales of amusement from previous attendees. We figured we’d get there around 6:00 after stopping for food, then wait for maybe an hour in line, be out of there by 8, and get home by 10.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…

In fact we arrived closer to 6:30, and took a while to get everyone ticketed ($10) and initial bathroom breaks taken care of, but in reality there is no amount of fortitude that could have prepared us for the bone-chilling terror that was…

THE LINE

Yes, THE LINE was enough to reduce any strong man or woman to a quivering mass of leg-cramping, soul-crushing madness. It lasted four and a half hours from the time we entered to the time that we finally set foot inside of Hell House to lean gratefully against the wall and watch… a cheesy movie trailer.

The event took place at an ultra-maxi-megachurch, the kind where you see it over the horizon and you expect John Williams’ “Imperial March” to start playing. I was more than a little intimidated by the place at first, and nervous about getting singled out. Shilling was wearing his Godless Pub Crawl shirt. Arran wore some rather obvious liberal political statements. I wore a fairly garish Spider-Man shirt — I like Spider-Man, okay, and the fact that New York exists proves that Spidey exists. :) In fairness, I should say that no one ever hassled us in the 6 or so hours we were present.

Anyway, within the confines of THE LINE were thousands of people, the vast majority of them being teenagers. And not just any teenagers. There’s no way to put this delicately… they were teenagers from deep in the heart of Texas. Redneck kids. Dumb jocks who went around aggressively slapping each other in the ass. (Several of us discussed how much homoeroticism there was for such a Christian group, particularly when we some some teenager massaging another one.) Then there were peroxide blondes with way too much makeup, girls having conversations at 150 decibels right near our ears, large bearded men joking loudly about shooting cutters in line.

Meanwhile, Shilling was doing his best to make sure that everyone around us was offended by reminiscing about blasphemous stand-up routines by Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais. After an hour, we were joined by Brian and Amy, the last two members of our party, who were coming from somewhere local.

THE LINE did not appear to be as long initially, because although it stretched out a pretty long way, it also weaved back and forth… conveniently making the most twists right near the overpriced concession stand. For bathrooms, there were three port-a-potties that were lacking toilet paper for the majority of the night. Once we got up to the front of the line the people started to be divided up into large groups to go on a hay ride together in order to reach the site where the actual house was. Little did we know that THE LINE would continued for over an hour once we reached the house.

The exterior of hell house was extremely cheap and not at all interesting. It looked like a temporary building in some places, and others had black fabric for a wall, so we could periodically see people walking behind it when they lit up. Also, every once in a while there would be a loud “bang” sounding like a fairly unconvincing prop gun. After about 60 seconds, a second shot always followed the first. A few of us started trying to time the second shot by singing the “Jeopardy” theme song… much to Shilling’s consternation.

So we finally made it inside. We were herded in a group of 50, whereas I’m told that last year it was only 35. In keeping with the expansion that caused much longer lines, they are cramming people more tightly on the conveyer belt. Each room after the preview screens contained some sort of poorly acted skit that seemed to have an oddly twisted moral message. Most skits involve demons — guys in dark robes and skull masks — who both comment on the scene as a Greek Chorus, and serve to herd the audience through to the next room when the performance is over. I’ll try to remember the rooms more or less in order.

Room 1
Synopsis: Girl goes on MySpace. Girl meets boy. Girl invites boy over to her place. Boy rapes girl. Invisible demons in the room laugh. The end.
Most disturbing moment: The rapist was black. That didn’t necessarily appear to be a racist message, until the girl went out of her way to draw attention to his race: “Hey, you don’t look like the way you described yourself! I thought you were blonde and blue eyed!”
Ambiguous moral message: If you meet people on the internet, you deserve to be raped. It’s not like the girl actually did anything particularly forward or sinful, other than letting him come inside.

Room 2
Synopsis: Angry loner in high school holds his “friends” hostage at gunpoint. Tells them that he’s mad for they way they bullied or ignored him. “Friends” are very sorry. Demons whisper mean things in the boy’s ear. He shoots one of them, and then after some more threatening, shoots himself. Demons laugh. The end.
Most disturbing moment: The boy asked each one of the friends if they were Christians, so this was clearly an angle on the Cassie Bernall myth. Unlike the story of Cassie, he shot the one who claimed not to be a Christian. Then when somebody DID claim to be a Christian, the demons told him to leave her alone because they still have work to do on her. So here’s a guy who shoots atheists and doesn’t shoot Christians. And that says WHAT about the shooter, exactly?
Ambiguous moral message: If you pick on your friends in school, you’re bad. If you get picked on in school, you’re probably bad too.

This story is continued in part 2.