Hell House / Haunted House
A twitter post from an NYC friend reminded me of my long ago visit to a local Denver "Hell House". It was over 10 years ago, and my recollection is a bit fuzzy. But some of the memorable facts are these:
- I think this was one of the early versions of the original Hell House concept, where a church would stage a reasonably gruesome haunted house desgned to show you what happens when you ally with the devil.
- Some of the rooms in the house included a patient dying of AIDS, a couple of kids mangled in a drunk driving accident and, the classic abortion scene, where a doctor pulls a bloody, pulstating baby (doll) from a hysterically overacting teenager.
- The climax of the piece was a decent to hell which I recall smelled sort of annoyingly of rotten eggs (sulpher, maybe?) and populated by a screaming souls writhing about on the church cafeteria floor begging for mercy while the devil, who looked suspiciously like John Lovitz, cackled and invited us to join them.
- My friend Bruce and I had spent the hour or so waiting in line drinking Jack and Coke out of Arby's cups. So, we politely laughed our way through all the "horror". But the worse was yet to come.
- Before you could leave, an earnest white haired gentleman huddled our group–which consisted of a bunch of teenagers and us–and asked us to pray. Abortions and dying AIDS patients played played by goofy Christian teenagers was easy to laugh at. But this was uncomfortable. While everyone bowed their head and prayed, Bruce and I looked at each other and wondered what would be more discourteous, just wait it out or bolt. I don't remember what we did because I turned my brain off.
These anecdotes seems worth remembering as I spend time researching the idea of the fun house, the haunted house and the house turned into a play house by its occupants. In this case, the house of worship becomes a play house in the sense of hosting a inverted passion play, meant to turn the sinner onto the right road with a bit of camp and some earnest (if badly acted) theater. This is really a lot different than a regular haunted house, which paces its thrills to stimulated waves of excitement and rest for no other purpose that to create a short term drama linked to some pretty tired tropes–guy with chainsaw, vampire on the loose, maniac with a knife, eerie ghost, etc,
So, a quick linage goes in reverse from Hell House, to haunted house, to 1950s television and monster movies and carnival fun houses to Victorian Gothic literature to the endless depths of fear that stalk the civilized mind. Sure, this is a certain kind of historiography of horror with its implied rhetorical point. But it does place the Hell House at the right end of an evolving chain of play spaces where dark themes serve different masters and continue to center the concept of the home–the safe place–as the inside-out dangerous place.
And maybe that's why the Hollywood Hell House–a later version of the same concept–has managed to attracte so many wry celebs to play everything from the devil to Jesus. The Haunted House is a simulacra of our fears.