Sure, most people have been to a Halloween haunted house attraction, but have you ever been to a Hell House? Join us as we dig into the darkest depths of these weird little Evangelical haunted house knock-offs. We even have some dramatic readings for your listening pleasure. It's about to get spooky, y'all!
Hell House by George Ratliff (Documentary)
Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism by Jason C Bivins
Hell House (Documentary): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNFGjQ_QydA
Full Frontal's (Hot As) Hell House: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFjV8hZR4uM
What is Judgement House: Our mission and testimonies: https://vimeo.com/83170119
Hell House: Funeral: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0elhq58abvI
Jey: For Halloween, I have been trying for three years to get that Home Depot skeleton, but I don't need to spend $300 on a skeleton.
Clint: You tweet about that 12 foot skeleton probably more than any other single topic.
Jey: It's literally like my obsession.
Clint: And throughout the year too. It’s not just a Halloween thing.
Jey: So many people send me links like, “Hey, it's going on sale.” And I literally live in an apartment with eight foot tall ceilings.
Clint: Why don’t you just have him sitting down in the corner or something? It doesn’t have to be standing necessarily.
Jey: You're right. People have actually given me money on Twitter, like they crowdfunded this. People sent me about $75, but it was when I didn't have a job.
Clint: Ah, probably needed to spend that on ramen or something.
Jey: Yeah, but this skeleton will be mine. Like I will move to a city. And you know how adults, like, they get a yard for their dog nowadays instead of their children? Well, I would get a yard for this skeleton.
Clint: I have a yard so I could accommodate the skeleton.
Jey: Clint, if you get this, can you like - oh, my god - whenever it's, like, snowing out, you could make it into a snowman. And, like-
Clint: You could do it for all the holidays - Santa, leprechaun, Cupid.
Jey: For Reformation Day, you could dress them up in a little monk robe. Don’t we have a podcast to record?
Clint: Yeah, we're recording it right now and all this spooky skeleton talk is the perfect set-up for today’s topic - the annual Evangelical Halloween attractions known as Hell Houses.
Jey: I cannot wait to learn about this rite of passage that I just fucking missed out on. I would have been so baller at a hell house.
Clint: Which is wild because the Hell Houses in Texas are poppin’.
Jey: I should have gone, I know. Like my friends, you know, the people that would burn the My Chemical Romance CDs, but like, put a few Jesus songs on like the first few tracks so that you can tell your mom.
Clint: Did they do their own CD artwork too?
Jey: Yeah, I would say like, “MCR and more heart, heart, heart.” It would just be like, completely girly, but it was just, you know, like, “Dead! We've heard the news that you’re dead,” you know.
Clint: You could position that as a Christian song.
Jey: That song is about Jesus. We've heard the news like he's dead, you know? And now we need to be sanctified in Christ. “Teenagers scare the living shit out of me” - it's because teenagers are going to take over the world, right?
Clint: Well teenagers actually do scare the shit out of Evangelicals.
Clint: And Hell Houses are designed to scare the shit out of teenagers so it’s just one big circle-scare. OK let’s start the show.
Clint: Hello everyone and welcome to How Gay Thou Art, a comedy podcast about growing up queer, Christian, and hella confused. My name is Clint Keller, he/him.
Jey: I’m Jey Austen, they/them.
Clint: And today we are talking about Hell Houses but before we creep too far in, I want to know what Halloween was like for you growing up, Jey.
Jey: So my parents were divorced.
Clint: Did that mean you got two Halloweens?
Jey: No. It meant that I ate too much sugar and was sick every single year, for some reason, mysteriously, on Halloween. So some years I would go with my dad on Halloween, and then some years I was with my mom. And on mom years, I went to church fall festivals and on Dad years, I got to like - we basically lived in a trailer park. It wasn't exactly a trailer park. It was technically an Air Force base that had been converted into-
Clint: But it was trailer park vibes.
Jey: It was trailer park vibes for sure. And I went to a party there and it was like apple bobbing and shit like that. And every year I would dress up as a witch and my mom would find out about it and oh man, she was not happy. She's like, “You can't be celebrating witchcraft.” But then there was also the Church Fall Festival. And since it was a megachurch, there would be - and when I say megachurch, it was only like 2000 people. It wasn't that big.
Clint: It was a Waco-mega though.
Jey: Waco - the buckle of the Bible Belt where it's a church if it’s in the city limits and a cult if it's outside.
Clint: They should put that on the welcome sign on the way into town.
Jey: So we did Church Fall Festival and then some of my friends, they would just get really, really into Reformation Day, which is the day after Halloween. And so they would dress up like monks and watch the Luther movie instead of-
Clint: But isn't that All Saints Day?
Jey: Yeah, it's All Saints Day. But because they're Protestant, they don't worship the Saints. So they call it Reformation Day and talk about the people who were reformed. So they would watch the movie Luther every year and dress up like monks.
Clint: That is completely insane and also something I absolutely plan to incorporate into my yearly Halloween activities.
Jey: I can't wait to see your Luther costume.
Clint: So you had relatively normal Halloweens with your dad and churchy fall festival Halloweens with your mom. What were those like?
Jey: The church was like, two or three stories, and so where they would have Awanas would be like, moon bounces. And then every single Sunday school and nursery room would have a different activity. There was also another church that I went to that did trunk or treating and like pumpkin carving contests. And then one church I went to, they didn't celebrate Halloween at all, but my art teacher went there and using Photoshop and stuff, carved the head pastor's face onto a pumpkin and left it on his doorstep, like ding-dong-ditched him. But their family didn't celebrate Halloween. They go out and street preach on Halloween.
Clint: That is very creepy. If I came outside on Halloween and there was a pumpkin on my porch with my own face carved into it, I may never leave the house again.
Jey: I might do that for you this year.
Clint: Please do. Halloween was pretty normal for me growing up. We were pretty into it - dressed up every year, went trick-or-treating. But we lived in a really rural area so trick-or-treating meant driving to specific people’s houses or going to a neighborhood somewhere else and walking around there. It wasn’t your classic image of trick-or-treating but that was all geography, not religion. But we were definitely outliers on this. Most of my friends weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween at all.
Jey: Yo, we went to the rich neighborhood one year and did trick or treat. That was wild. I didn't get a full candy bar like people said, but I still did it.
Clint: I’m sure you got quality name brand candy though, right?
Jey: Yeah. I got Twix. I fucking love Twix.
Clint: Yeah, Twix is probably my favorite. But for us, there were definitely some aspects of Halloween we weren’t allowed to engage with. My mom loves Halloween and horror movies, but she draws a line that I used to think was arbitrary but now I think comes from the Satanic Panic of the 80’s. Anything witchcraft related was off the table. So no Ouija board, no Harry Potter, no Dungeons & Dragons, basically anything that was seen as promoting the occult. Because in the Evangelical world, this is not all make-believe, right? There are fictional movie monsters like vampires and werewolves and Freddy Krueger. Those were fine in my family. But then there are “real” monsters like witches and demons that have to be avoided not just on Halloween, but year-round.
When I was like 12 or 13, I started giving out candy instead of trick-or-treating. My parents ran a convenience store at the time so mom and I would post up there and hand out candy to the kids. But things got a little weird when we shifted to that because mom started making kids take Chick Tracts with their candy. We’re going to do a whole episode on Chick Tracts one of these days but for anyone who may not know, Chick Tracts are little religious comic books. They make a few Halloween themed tracts, and I think that’s what mom thought they were, but they aren’t really Halloween themed. They’re actually anti-Halloween propaganda talking about satanic blood rights and all kinds of crazy shit. It paints Halloween as a path straight to hell. I just reread the one we used to give out and woah, they’re inappropriate for children honestly.
So we’re out there celebrating Halloween. The store is decorated. I’m dressed up like Jason Voorhees or whatever. But we’re handing out little comic books that say the very activity we’re engaging in is the epitome of evil. It was just…confusing. But overall, we were cool with Halloween. And now that I’m 30, I even have my own Ouija board.
Jey: I'm still a little weirded out about Ouija boards. I even have planchette earrings and I know you have told me before, like, the fun about it is just fucking with your friends. And I'm like, no, like, that shit, that's.. I don't know.
Clint: Well you're not alone in that and even people who didn't grow up as religious as we did are often very unnerved by the Ouija board. But all that occult sensationalism came from Satanic Panic. It had fallen completely out of popularity before that. The fear mongering around it in the 80’s is what made it notorious and that had a huge impact for literally generations. I don’t think most people would even know what it is had Satanic Panic never happened.
Jey: I don't know. I mean, like, I don't need that in my life. I mean, I don't know.
Clint: But there's another huge part of Halloween that I loved as a kid - haunted house attractions. Did you ever go to any of those?
Jey: No. So I didn't watch any horror movies. I didn't go to any haunted houses.
Clint: But you worked at them as an adult, right?
Jey: Yeah. So as an adult, I love painting fake blood on stuff. And I had a job at a theme park doing scenic stuff. So in haunted houses, you have scents. And we would keep all of these scents stored in a warehouse. So we had, like, chicken poop and burning flesh and dried blood and you know, like rotting flesh.
Clint: So are these like essential oils or what?
Jey: Yeah, an essential oil. Rotting flesh. But it's more like a spray. It's like a room spray. We would keep all of these scents, and we kept them in a box in a warehouse. And when we were opening it up for the next year, they had all spilled over and busted and just all of a sudden, like the actual haunted house smells of decaying flesh and rotting sternum. I don't fucking know.
Clint: Rotting sternum. Yeah, that's a rough one. Did you go through the haunted houses yourself?
Jey: Oh, yeah. So I would walk through all of those and we would make sure that they were just in running order, like every single night.
Clint: Did you think they were scary?
Jey: No, not at all. I thought they were hilarious, actually, though I will say there were scenes, not necessarily the haunted house, but just the park in general.
Clint: Right, right. The scare zones.
Jey: Yeah. So there would be a scare zone and one time at two in the morning, all of the scare actors had left and they're like, “Hey, go turn off the music.” But it was a section of the park that I wasn't used to. This was like five years ago, so I was just getting out of college. I wasn't religious. I was just superstitious, if you will. And yeah, so we go to this scare zone, me and my friend, and there are hanging babies and UV light and there is an empty swing set just swinging back and forth because it's motorized.
Clint: So there weren't even any actors there.
Jey: There were no actors. It's two in the morning and we were supposed to go turn off the lights and turn off the creepy, laughing baby music. And yeah, no, we called, we radioed for help, and we were like, we pulled out Cardi B on our phones. We just turned it up super loud. And we were just like, “I've just got to listen to Bodak Yellow because I can, like, not handle this right now.”
And it was the most terrified I've been. And I know that shit was motorized and I was there to turn it off. But man, that was terrifying because scare actors and stuff, that's just funny to me. It's when no one's there that it's terrifying. My haunted house ghost stories are nowhere near as enticing as learning about hell.
So can you scare the hell out of me?
Clint: First things first - our primary sources for today - the Hell House documentary by George Radcliffe. I highly recommend watching it if this topic interests you at all. Great, great doc. We also referenced The Religion of Fear by Jason Bivins, which is a book about the use of horror in evangelicalism. There is a big chapter on Hell House. Good stuff. So during my research, I came across a term I had never heard before and I think it’s my new favorite Christian word - hallowitnessing.
Jey: Hallowitnessing. Hallowitness to me daddy!
Clint: That's what we're calling it from now on. Much better than Jesus-Ween, which is actually a thing. Oh I also want to say, some of the stuff in Hell House is super fucked up. We won’t be getting too graphic but there will be references to rape, suicide, drugging. Be warned! So Hell Houses. How would you describe them, Jey?
Jey: Hell Houses are just a Christian version of a haunted house. Because when you live in Christian culture, you want something that's Christian, everything is evangelical because you have to be a born again Bible believing, Holy Spirit filled Christian.
Clint: Right. It’s very similar to a classic Halloween haunted house in its structure. In a group of maybe 5-10 people, you follow a winding path and stop in various rooms to watch spooky scenes play out. Usually each room is an independent vignette where characters make “bad” decisions and face immediate consequences. They fuck around and find out in the span of like 5 minutes. Most of the time, each group is led through the Hell House by a demon character who acts as a tour guide/comic relief. Ostensibly, the goal here is to put the fear of god into the audience by showing the most extreme and violent outcomes of any behavior deemed “sinful” by the evangelical church.
Jey: The goal is to literally scare the hell out of you.
Clint: Or scare you straight, as we will see. Examples of scenes would be a botched abortion, a gay wedding scene that leads to death by AIDS, first time drug use leading to psychosis, raves that lead to gang rape. Really brutal stuff. Worse than anything you would ever see in a regular haunted house. You’ll probably see 8-10 of these scenes. Each character is given the opportunity to repent and accept Jesus as their lord and savior. If they do, heaven awaits. But if they reject their singular opportunity at salvation, they’re sent to the deepest depths of Hell. In line with conservative conspiracy theories that have gotten more popular recently, a lot of this is often presented as part of a greater threat from a satanic cabal that’s working in concert to destroy Christian America. But Hell Houses were a bit ahead of the curve on that one.
Jey: Worldwide Satan balls? Does Satan have balls as big as the-
Clint: Cabal. Ya know, like a secret political organization. New World Order. Anti-Christ. All that stuff.
Jey: Oh, like the Freemasons, like secret fraternity shit.
Clint: Exactly. So after your group walks through all of the scenes of people making bad decisions then repenting or not, there is usually a Heaven’s Gate scene. All of the characters we’ve seen so far are lined up there. One by one, they walk up to the gate and talk to the angel who’s guarding it. He reads from a book, presumably the Lamb’s Book of Life, which tells them whether they’re getting into Heaven or not. Spoiler - most of them don’t get in. Those unfortunate souls are seized by demons and dragged away, kicking a screaming, into Hell, which just so happens to be the next stop on our tour.
The Hell scene is pretty much what you would expect. It’s hot, there’s fire, there’s screaming and gnashing of teeth, there’s a Tim Curry-esque Satan delivering one-liners. The character’s we’ve been following are all being brutally punished, not for their sins, mind you, but for not accepting Jesus into their hearts. And that’s an important point because evil deeds are irrelevant here. You might see a gay guy in Hell then see a murderer in Heaven. The only difference is one of them got saved along the way.
Once you’ve seen enough of the eternal torment, your little tour group heads off to the big finale - Heaven. Now, the Heaven scene is usually pretty disappointing to be honest. Hell Houses put a lot of work in the gore and violence and terror but Heaven feels like a bit of an afterthought. It’s bright, white, sterile. You’ve got a guy dressed like Jesus welcoming the repentant into eternal bliss. Some churches do step it up a little. The best ones I’ve seen place the Heaven scene in the church sanctuary and have their choir singing from the choir loft. They give out refreshments and stuff, try to make it a fun reprieve from the onslaught of horror you spent the last hour experiencing.
And you might think this is the end, but there’s one more hoop you have to jump through before you can escape the Hell House for good - and this is the scariest part of all - proselytizers. Most Hell Houses have a mini-sermon at the end. A deacon or other church surrogate will talk to everyone for 5 or 10 minutes and hand out cards for every visitor to fill out. We’ll post a pic of one on Patreon but it’ll have little boxes to check that are like “I accepted Christ for the first time tonight” or “I rededicated myself to Christ tonight” or “I have a prayer request.” This helps the church track their conversion rate, which is notoriously difficult to pin down. But like Jey and I alluded to earlier, almost everyone who goes to these things is already a Christian.
Jey: Yeah, it's the thing to do with your youth group. It's a way to experience Halloween without experiencing Halloween. So really it's for Christian church kids to go see the things that they think are scary without having to see demonic things.
Clint: But it’s full of demonic things! It’s arguably the most demonic and offensive thing you can do in small-town America on Halloween. It’s just an Evangelical version of Halloween put on by church youth groups for church youth groups. And what I find super ironic is how Hell Houses truly embody the transgressive nature of Halloween. Moreso that mainstream Halloween does these days. We’re going to explore this more in-depth when we get into some of the scripts but within Hell House, you’ll see church teens listening to secular music, dancing, making out, even dry-humping and simulating rape. But it’s all permissible one night a year - on Halloween - under the guise of evangelism. I’m sorry - hallowitnessing.
Clint: Now that we’ve explained what Hell Houses are, let’s talk a bit about the history of these bad boys. The first Hell House was launched in 1972 by none other than Mr. Jerry Falwell. Considering how important Falwell was to American politics, I’m going to assume most people know who he is, but one footnote as it relates to this topic is that he co-founded the Moral Majority with Tim LaHaye, who wrote the Left Behind books, which is another popular example of Christian horror.
But anyway, Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in Virginia and in 1972, he started the first Hell House and called it Scaremare. It was operated by Liberty University students and continues to this day. Now Scaremare is a lot more chill than the Hell Houses that became an Evangelical pop culture sensation in the 90’s and 2000’s. It’s very mild. Not much violence or gore, no hot button issues like abortion or homosexuality. It’s still supposed to spook people into getting saved, but it focuses more on the eternal consequences of denying Christ, not sin itself. And it’s more of an all-inclusive Halloween alternative. There are activities for younger kids too. Apple bobbing, a Bible character costume contest-
Jey: See Reformation Day?
Clint: Exactly. So Scaremare ran a few years and then in the 80’s Tom and Karen Hudgins debuted a production called Judgment House. After a few successful runs, they turned into a company that remains highly successful today. They sell kits, scripts, they even have in-person training camps for running Judgment Houses. Similar to Scaremare, they shy away from the more extreme stuff that actually made Hell Houses famous. The vast majority of Evangelical haunted houses you see today are Judgment House productions. They allowed churches to film them and put them online during the pandemic so you can find a lot of these productions online if you care to watch them. We’ll have a few links in the show notes on our website. They’re pretty silly and even quaint compared to the OG Hell House. Starter kits can be purchased on their website for $479.
Jey: Like, like a Christian church choir, like musical is like we had one that was called J Force, which like Jesus spies and stuff like that. So it's just like it's a production.
Clint: Right. It’s like a church cantata or whatever. It’s just a church play for Halloween. Sometimes they’re even performed on stage instead of in a haunted house set-up.
But that brings us to what we’re really talking about today and what made this whole concept a sensation - Hell House. The first production to be called Hell House was launched by Keenan Roberts in 1992 in Roswell, New Mexico. While the basic idea isn’t original to him, he’s the mastermind behind this bat-shit crazy Evangelical horror show as we know it today. The violence, the gore, the homophobia - that all comes from Roberts. It’s also what made Hell Houses famous.
Roberts’ Hell House exploded in popularity almost immediately. The extreme nature of his production got a lot of press and generated a lot of discussion both within the Evangelical community and without. After a few highly successful runs, he started selling Hell House kits in the mid-90’s. They were $300 and came with a 263 page manual, a tape of a performance, and a CD with recordings of god’s voice and various sound effects.
Hell House is the most hardcore Christian haunted house to even be produced. Any Hell House that has gotten press, any parody that has been done, the church in the Hell House documentary - those all come from Keenan Roberts’ Hell House kits.
Jey: So they didn't make it up?
Clint: Not exactly. They started off by doing the Roberts’ Hell House kit, but by the time the documentary was shot, they had been doing it for 10 years so they had come into their own at that point. But Roberts has always encouraged customization and localization to a certain point so that isn’t uncommon. But Trinity church from the documentary continues these productions to this day and even though the Roberts’ Hell House kit is no longer available, they still stick to his format and tone. Since Keenan Roberts launched his Hell House kit in 1995, over 4,100 locations have put it on.
Jey: How many counties are there in the U.S.? Does that mean there's like one per county?
Clint: There are about 3,200 counties in the US so yeah it does actually but that number is across like two decades, not just a single year. But these are regionally concentrated in the Bible belt and rural America so where I grew up, there would be more than one per county. Churches would be in competition every year. It was an all-you-can-eat Hell House buffet.
Jey: Oh, of course. Because you got to have the better Hell House, who has the better ministry, because you're trying to get the youth groups.
Clint: Exactly. You gotta get them numbers.
Jey: If you can get young people, that's a church member for a life. So you got to get them young.
Clint: It's funny you say that because I found a great quote from Roberts to that same effect. He was quoted in an article saying, “Scare children early and they’ll fear it ‘til they die.”
Clint: Childhood trauma - an evangelical tradition! Hell House has definitely waned in popularity in recent years. The less extreme Judgment House is more popular these days. But a handful of the most extreme Hell House productions can still be found every Halloween. In true horror fashion, it’s a monster that just refuses to die.
Clint: Let’s get into the juicy stuff. We’ve been able to collect a huge number of scripts, ads, reviews, and quotes pertaining to years and years of Hell House productions.
Jey: I cannot wait.
Clint: The Hell House experience begins well before you ever step across the threshold. Advertising is a huge part of it. Signs, billboards, churches would shine red lights on their buildings…
Jey: Oh yeah, like, there's a whole thing. There will probably be posters…
Clint: And some of it got very hardcore. One ad I found for a Kentucky Hell House read, “Homosexual lies, violent rape, medical murder - business is booming in southern Kentucky!”
Clint: Of course, there were a lot of more obvious ones as well. Things like “It’ll scare the Hell out of you!” It’s still kind of unbelievable though because the churches doing these productions are hardliners. They present every decision and action within the Hell House as black and white while totally living in a gray area themselves by even doing these productions. But again, it’s under the guise of evangelism so anything goes.
Jey: Anything goes as long as they're saving people's eternal soul. So you can be completely terrible in this life, but if you say that you love Jesus before you die - then I think that mentality is a little bit different too, because I'm so used to religion as a relationship thing. So this hell house thing - hell was never really presented to me growing up.
Clint: Yeah your churches were more into the uplifting, emotional, stage production thing. The churches I went to were very into Hell. Very fire and brimstone.
Jey: Oh man...
Clint: The personal relationship with Christ was definitely part of it - because making it about each person’s individual salvation and nothing else is what alleviates the church from having to take responsibility for the actions of Christianity at large - but fear was always the primary motivating factor for getting saved.
Jey: We love that.
Clint: And that mentality is what drives Hell Houses, obviously. Keenan Roberts hasn’t sold Hell House kits in years, sadly, but I did find an ad for his kits from the 90’s and it may be the best sales pitch of all time. Are you ready?
Clint: Hell House is the most in-your-face, high-flyin’, no-denyin’, death-defyin’, Satan-be-cryin’, keep-you-from-fryin’, theatrical-stylin’, no-holds-barred, cutting-edge evangelism tool of the new millennium.
Jey: I need that as my ringtone. I need it every day. I need that to be our show announcement. I need you to do it in that exact accent. Just death-defying, chicken-fryin’, whatever you said.
Clint: Like we were saying before, Roberts encouraged people to localize the performances to make them relevant for each church’s community, the current local issues or whatever. But he insisted that two topics be included in every single production of Hell House - abortion and homosexuality.
Jey: Why abortion and homosexuality? Because of the religious right?
Clint: There’s definitely some political motivation there. Because in the face of eternity, nothing is more pressing than the political hot topics of the day, am I right? Alright let’s set the scene. It’s time to journey into the Hell House. Let’s do a fun one first. Abortion?
Jey: Oh, yeah. We love killing babies.
Clint: As in any haunted house, sound design is very important. In the Hell House manual, it says you need a loud vacuum to create a jump scare when the fetus is sucked out of the womb.
Jey: Where was this when we did our abortion horror movie?
Clint: Right? We clearly were not as forward thinking as Keenan Roberts. I’ll post a link to that project we did on socials though. The manual also says you should drop pieces of raw meat into a glass bowl to represent the fetus.
Jey: So you're carving a baby out of cow stomach?
Clint: After the abortion scene, guests would sometimes be ushered into a dark, warm room. It's supposed to be like an empty womb. And there would be an audio track of a little kid saying, “Why did you kill me, Mommy?”
Jey: That's just that's so fucked up. That's just so not okay. Because, like, sometimes it's actually people like-
Clint: Some of the productions I’ve seen would project video of an actual fetus in a womb on a wall or a monitor. Then right at the moment they rip it out, the video cuts and dead baby shit splats into a bowl or onto the floor.
Jey: That's like what I expect after Taco Bell, but like-
Clint: Basically like that. Of course, directors have to up the ante every year with productions like this, right? You can’t just do the same shit every year.
Jey: Oh yeah.
Clint: So in later years, Roberts started doing post-birth abortion scenes.
Jey: No, that's not even real. That's not even-
Clint: Of course not, but scenes like this is where the lines start blurring on the intent and audience of these things. This is basically a prophecy of the evil that will overtake America if “liberals” have their way. This is the future liberals want! But it has nothing to do with evangelism, right? It’s clearly aimed at paranoid Evangelicals who already believe this nonsense on some level. Anyway, the post-birth abortion scene is set in the near future, at the inevitable end of a slippery slope. The logline for the scene reads, “Mothers can bring their children to the International Center of Post-Birth Abotions to be shot execution-style.”
Jey: Hold on, hold on. Ya know, not to, hmmm. My mom wrote me a nice letter over Christmas about how I should be, like, proud that I'm not aborted. Anyway…
Clint: Honestly, I'm not convinced it’s better at this point.
Jey: Yeah, I don't know if my presence on the earth was, like, needed, but, like, happy to be here and enjoying it along the way.
Clint: Scenes like that also undercut another thing that Hell House claims to be which is a reflection of reality. You hear it over and over in the documentary and Roberts talked about it all the time too. “This is real.” “Hell House is a mirror of the real world.” But like, that isn’t even remotely true, especially when you start throwing in post-birth abortions.
I have another good one for you here. There is a church in Waco that mixed the ultimate evangelical paranoia cocktail by combining abortion with 9/11.
Clint: Oh yeah. A woman shows up early for her “abortion appointment” because she has to get to work for her first day at the Twin Towers. The date? September 11th, 2001.
Jey: Oh, I thought you were going to say something like, god saved her from, you know, dying in 9/11.
Clint: No no no. She goes through with the abortion then dies in the 9/11 attacks as an immediate consequence.
Jey: Oh, my God. And then she can't go to heaven, right?
Clint: I guess not. But it’s confusing because like, wouldn’t she have died on 9/11 anyway? Wouldn’t the baby also die had it not been aborted? I just don’t know what we’re supposed to take away from it. Like, would 9/11 not have happened had this one woman not gotten an abortion that morning? It kinda reminds me of back when 9/11 actually happened, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said it was god’s judgment on America because of the liberals and the abortionists and the homosexuals.
Jey: You know, just throw them all in there together.
Clint: So are you ready to do a dramatic reading of an abortion scene?
Jey: I would love to do this abortion scene.
Clint: You read for Jan. I’ll be the demon. One note about that - like I was saying before, the demon characters usually guide groups through Hell House. They interact with the audience but the characters within the scenes can’t see them. However, the demons do whisper temptations into the ears of characters and comment on what’s going on. They’re invisible but they have influence, if that makes sense. This is reflective of the evangelical belief that we are literally surrounded by invisible demons who are constantly trying to influence our actions through psychic warfare. I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s a thing.
Jey: Hold on. Hold on. Can I also be the sexy nurse?
Clint: Not sure where the sexy part comes in but sure. You gotta do different voices though.
Jey: I've totally got this. Trust me.
Dramatic music cues
Clint (Narrator): Jan is wheeled into a hospital room. Jan's crotch is covered in blood. A nurse approaches.
Jey (Nurse): Doctor, I need you. We've got an emergency over here. Her name is Jan. She's 17 years old. She took the new abortion pill, RU-486, two days ago. She's been bleeding ever since this morning, complains of severe abdominal cramps.
Jey (Jan): Why won’t the bleeding stop? They said this wouldn't be a big deal. It's just stupid pill. Why can't this be over?
Clint (Demon): It'll never be over, Jan.
Jey (Jan): Please, somebody help me!
Clint (Demon): It’s too late, Jan. You're going to hell. You're mine!
Jey (Jan): God, help me!
Clint (Narrator): Rays of light shine into the room. An angel appears.
Clint (Demon): What are you doing here? She’s mine!
Jey (Jan): Jesus, save me!
Clint (Narrator): The Angel speaks.
Clint (Angel): She's not yours anymore.
Clint (Narrator): Jan dies with the faintest of smiles, knowing she accepted Christ as her savior just in time.
Dramatic music fades
Jey: Your angel is so proper.
Clint: I feel like angels are kinda proper and authoritative, right?
Jey: You know those pictures of, like, angels that they've been doing lately that are like-
Clint: Biblically accurate angels?
Jey: Yeah. Like the hot three rings shit? Mmm.
Clint: Oh you like that? So the second big topic after abortion is homosexuality, because there's no greater threat facing our world today, obviously. The most common setup is a gay wedding scene immediately followed by an AIDS death and/or funeral.
Jey: They don't show any gay sex?
Clint: Oh come on, Jey. They probably don’t even know what gay sex looks like. It is kinda funny though because full-on date rape scenes are not uncommon in Hell House. They have absolutely no qualms about letting their youth group simulate rape but so much as a same-sex kiss is completely out of the question. For the gay wedding scene, the manual instructs to cast a married heterosexual couple. The woman is supposed to tie her hair back and wear a fake beard.
Jey: So we can't even have like fake gays.
Clint: Nope. But we can have the youth group dry-hump each other as long as it's hetero.
Jey: And I love that it says it has to be a married couple because you can't have just a dating-
Clint: The Kirk Cameron rule! Ya know, he won’t kiss anyone but his own wife when he acts in movies, which I think is actually just an excuse to get them both cast in every production.
Jey: Well, yeah, you can't have a dating couple kiss each other. That would be no good.
Clint: Get out of here. Before marriage?!?
Jey: Impure! Oh, my goodness.
Clint: Another thing I found interesting is that in every production I watched, there was far more vocal repulsion from the audience during the gay wedding scene than any other time. Even the grossest, goriest abortion scene didn’t get the visceral reaction that even a fake same-sex kiss did.
Jey: Don't knock it til’ you try it. That's all I'm saying.
Clint: The gay wedding inevitably leads to AIDS literally every time. This is also confusing because like, did one of them have AIDS before they got married? Are they non-monogamous and completely careless? Why does only one of them ever die? I’m convinced the people writing this don’t know how STDs work. Someone did write a hell of a line for the demon in one of these AIDS scenes though - “Out of the closet, straight into the casket!”
Jey: That would be such a great Halloween shirt, you know, “Out of the closet, into the casket.” The only thing is I would like to edit these lines a little bit because “Out of the closet, straight into the casket”, when I die, there is no way that I'm going to be like straight in death, like I am gay as fuck in life and death.
Clint: Yeah, but that's the pun! “Out of the closet, straight into the casket.” It's hilarious. You have to have the straight in there. Your way rolls off the tongue better for sure, but it’s all about the pun for me. Genius comedy writing.
Jey: But the thing is, they're not doing this as a slapstick comedy.
Clint: That’s not necessarily true. The demon tour guides are supposed to be the comic relief throughout Hell House. They do a lot of crowd work, poke fun at the audience and whatnot.
Jey: So you're saying that comedy is satanic?
Clint: I mean, have you been to an improv class? One weird thing is that I’ve not been able to find a lesbian wedding or AIDS scene. Lesbain relationships are almost always portrayed as confused high school girls who usually end up committing suicide.
Jey: That's another thing because AIDS was primarily something that affected gay men.
Clint: True, but I think there is something else going on here with sexism and the male gaze. Within the context of Hell House, the intention is for the gay wedding to be repulsive. They want people to find it disgusting. And frankly, there are few things straight men find hotter than two women making out. It just wouldn’t elicit the reaction they’re looking for.
Jey: There's that element. But there's also this scripture that says, like, man should not lie with another man or something that they quote.
Clint: Yeah, it doesn't talk about lesbians so much.
Jey: Yeah, they don't really care as much about lesbians.
Clint: I think the tomboy effect is also at play here. Evangelical culture has no problem with girls assuming masculine traits to a point. They love it when girls are into hunting or football or trucks or whatever. But it’s completely unacceptable for a boy to play with dolls or wear dresses or do anything perceived as feminine. So it’s not a problem to dress a woman up as a man for a gay wedding scene. But there’s no way in hell they would dress a man as a woman for a lesbain wedding scene because in their mind, that would be asking a man to take a step down in the patriarchal hierarchy or whatever. But that’s a whole rabbit hole we won’t dive into right now. Let’s grab LK and do this AIDS scene, what do you say?
Dramatic music cues
Clint (Narrator): A demon hovers over Sara and her friend Steve, who lays in a hospital bed.
Jey (Demon): Come on in! It's visiting hours. Everybody checks in, but not everybody checks out! This is Steve. He thought his homosexual lifestyle was everything a real man could want, but now he’s dying of AIDS!
LK (Sara): Steve, I'm right here. I'm not going to leave.
Clint (Steve): Why is this happening to me? Why can't it just be over?
LK (Sara): Don't talk like that, Steve.
Clint (Steve): I keep having these nightmares of burning in hell. Why can't I just die in peace?
Jey (Demon): Just a little taste of what's in store for you, Stevie-boy.
LK (Sara): Steve, don't you understand? This is god talking to you. He doesn't want you to burn in Hell. Please, Steve, give your life to Jesus. Don't waste your last chance.
Clint (Steve): I hate you, god! You did this to me!
LK (Sara): Steve! No!
Jey: We've got your alternative lifestyle, all right - in Hell!
Dramatic music fades
Clint: I guess ol’ Steve ain’t gonna make it through the pearly gates. Beyond abortion and homosexuality - the topics that have to be included according to Keenan Roberts - the Hell House format offers a lot of flexibility to comment on a range of topics. One of the most common is date rape. These scenes are the most disturbing of all, I think. They really showcase just how few shits Evangelicals give about women. Within Hell House, women are to blame for any and all sexual sins, even when they are victims.
The logline for one of the scenes I found reads - “A teenage girl is punished for entertaining a brief thought about meeting a guy on spring break, a thought that leads directly to her being viciously gang raped.”
Jey: Why? What porn are they watching?
Clint: Fucked up stuff. And the craziest thing is that the girls who are assaulted are the ones we see being judged and sent to Hell. We never see any repercussions for the rapist.
Jey: Yeah. We don't address the actual people doing the assaulting.
Clint: It’s always something like a girl being raped then killing herself and going to Hell.
Jey: Of course, they got to throw that in there, too, because let's not go get our mental illnesses checked or anything and like it just it's a whole- Go get help, babies. Go get help and also stop projecting your weird fantasies on-
Clint: Onto the youth group!
Jey: Yeah, kids are acting this out. It's just- It's just not okay.
Clint: There’s a lot of crossover between topics too. Dancing leads to drugs which leads to rape. That sort of thing. Ideologically, the implication is that if you engage in “sinful” behavior of any kind, then you’re just asking for horrible shit to happen to you. Dance clubs and raves are portrayed as dens of depravity. An ad for one Hell House billed itself as “featuring a replication of a real-life rave warehouse” because, of course, Evangelicals want to experience what it’s like but not be seen as actually participating.
And they’re just so far removed from reality that their plot points don’t even make sense sometimes, particularly with drugs. My absolute favorite scene I found was about a kid at a frat house who took one hit of a joint and proceeded to murder his entire fraternity.-
Jey: Got it. So instead, smoke those chamomile blunt wraps. Bubblers are really good. Also make sure that it's legal in your state, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Clint: Psht. Fuck the feds. Light that shit up. It’s time to rave. A quick content warning - this next scene we’re about to read is super fucked up. It involves drugging, rape, suicide, and a couple gross sound effects so if you wanna skip ahead a couple minutes, now’s the time.
Club music cues
Clint (Narrator): Jess and Lily meet near the dance floor in a rave warehouse.
LK (Lily): So, Jess, how do you like your first rave?
Jey (Jess): I don't know. I'm not into this scene. It's kind of a little more than I thought it was going to be. I'm thinking about going home in a little bit.
LK (Lily): You cannot leave me. You gotta stay. You promised! And you can’t disappoint those hotties over there. They've been checking you out the whole time.
Jey (Jess): I do not want to meet guys tonight. No.
LK (Lily): Trust me. I'll stay with you.
Clint (Narrator): Jess and Lily approach Chad.
LK (Lily): Hey.
Clint (Chad): What's up? What's your name?
Jey (Jess): I'm Jessica.
Clint (Chad): Jessica, I'm Chad. What's wrong? You don't look like you're having too much fun.
Jey (Jess): This is my first rave, and it's a little bit more than I expected.
Clint (Chad): I understand. Here, try some of this. I took some earlier. It'll kind of relax you a little bit, loosen you up.
Clint (Narrator): Jess takes a pill from Chad and swallows it.
Clint (Chad): How do you like it, huh? Good stuff, isn't it? Yeah. Keep drinking.
Clint (Narrator): Jess gets dizzy and collapses.
Club music stops abruptly
Clint (Chad): She's out! Let's rape her, boys…
Jey: What the fuck? Hold on. What? I don’t. Okay.
Dramatic music cues
Clint (Narrator): Later, a demon watches over Jess in her bedroom.
Clint (Demon): Welcome home, Jessica. Did you have fun tonight?
Jey (Jess): I'm all alone. Oh, God. What am I going to do?
Clint (Demon): Poor Jessica! You could go to the police and tell them you were raped, but then again, you don't know how many guys had you tonight, and you don't remember one of them. But, Jessica, you should be used to it by now. Remember what your daddy used to do when you were a little girl?
Dramatic music stops abruptly
Jey: I just can't. Look, I can't, look-. I just can't live like this. Like, literally. What the fuck.
Clint: There are church kids doing this every Halloween.
Jey: This is so fucked up. I'm leaving this in but, like, Jesus. OK.
Dramatic music cues
Jey (Jess): I just can't live like this.
Clint (Demon): That's right. You're worthless, Jessica. Your life is worthless. What kind of a god would allow this to happen to you, Jessica? Huh?
Jey (Jess): What kind of a god are you, anyway?
Clint (Demon): He wasn't there for you, Jessica. So you're in control of your life now, and you can make the pain go all away.
Clint (Narrator): Jess picks up a razor blade and presses it against her wrist.
Clint (Demon): Do it, Jessica!
Jey (Jess): I want to die.
Clint (Demon): Do it, Jessica.
Jey (Jess): I want to die!
Clint (Demon): Do it now, Jessica!
Clint (Narrator): Jess cuts her wrist and screams.
Clint (Demon): There Jessica. Now, isn't that better? Goodbye, Jessica. We'll see you in Hell!
Dramatic music fades
Jey: What? Okay. Yeah. Uh huh, uh huh.
Clint: What does that do for you?
Jey: It's just so sexual, but it's also- it's just a little bit much for teens to just depict how to do suicide every night. Like what the actual fuck.
Clint: I was reading an interview with one of the girls who acted in a rape scene in one of the Hell Houses. She said, “Even though I was only playing the victim of sexual assault 24 times per night, I eventually felt personally violated, sad, like an outcast and unclean.” So yeah, it definitely takes a toll on the teens who act in these things.
Jey: That's all fucked up. Poor baby angels.
Clint: “Remember what your daddy used to do when you were a little girl” just feels so unnecessary. It does not add anything to the scene. It’s just pure provocation.
Jey: That's just, again, someone projecting. There's just a history of abuse in a lot of these places, but, I don't know, maybe I'm wrong and maybe everything is perfectly fine at the churches that are-
Clint: No, I imagine a lot of these kids are in therapy now. Like the kids in that documentary? Almost certainly.
Before we wrap up, I do want to talk a bit about the Heaven and Hell scenes, which are the big finale to any Hell House. You’ll get a kick out of this - the manual recommends a low-budget version of the olfactory elements you were talking about earlier. You had room spray at the theme park but Roberts recommends putting limburger cheese on a heater and leaving it in the Hell room because it smells like BO.
Jey: That's why it is kind of gross that I'm finding about this. The manual is low budget. I get it. I understand. But leaving out actual food products, like leaving out meat. They can’t just go down to the dollar store and grab some silly string, like, you know, some spray foam?
Clint: But that's not going to smell! They want it to smell.
Jey: No, but they could order like- But they don't want to give money to something supplying something to a horror house. Whorehouse?
Clint: Of course, Satan is always present in Hell. He is, somewhat ironically, one of the most coveted roles. He usually does a lot of crowd work and general grandstanding. There was one performance from outside of Raleigh, North Carolina that I was particularly fond of. The Satan character was talking about world domination, said he planned to kill god. Then he says his real name is Charles Manson. But then he says he’s actually “the little boy next to the statue of Andy Griffith in Pullen Park,” which is, of course, a very specific reference to Ron Howard. I assume they think he’s part of the liberal Hollywood conspiracy or something. There were some other good lines too like “There are no parties in Hell, just one big BBQ!”
Jey: That's kind of a vibe. Like, it's pretty clever. This guy did his research, like the whole Charles Manson thing, like this man was doing a little too much research maybe, but like-
Clint: Satan needs to be more broad I think. He was getting real specific. He had another line that reminded me of something Ken Ham said actually “There’s only 2 gods, baby! There’s him and all the other gods, that’s me!”
Jey: What? The what?
Clint: Basically, there's the true religion - Evangelicalism - and Satan is behind all the other religions in the world, even other Christian denominations that don’t align with Evangelical values.
Jey: Exactly. They're all of the devil. That's why my mom would go into, like, Earthbound Trading Company and proclaim Jesus over everything in there and, like, whisper-
Clint: I guess you guys didn’t burn much incense growing up, huh?
Jey: Look, man, it's a vibe. I just burned some today. Strawberry.
Clint: I mean, I love it. I hadn’t even smelled an incense until I was an adult. I don't think I even knew what it was.
Jey: I went to my cousin's house and she had an incense burner and those things. Mmmmm.
Clint: Of course, they keep it like, a hundred fucking degrees in the Hell room. They bring in space heaters and set the cheese on top of it. Real stinky, real hot. People are screaming everywhere, strobe lights flash. It’s very intense. Satan is cracking jokes. The characters we saw earlier are being tortured.
But like I said before, everyone wants to be in the Hell scene. In the deleted scenes of the Hell House documentary, someone said that no one auditioned for god. They had to talk someone into doing it because everyone tried out for Satan.
Jey: Those are the good parts. Like, yeah, and Jesus and God. Ah, no offense, but overplayed.
Clint: And it's boring. You can't do anything fun with it.
Jey: Yeah, the lines are already there. There's scripture, you know, and you have to have long hair like that's the whole thing.
Clint: Well there are plenty of short haired people playing God, I'll tell you that. Most of them have been real clean cut, crew cut. But yeah, Heaven is the final room. It’s usually quick and boring. It feels like an afterthought compared to the prior horror show.
One of the strangest things I found in all of Hell House history was in the Heaven scene of one production though. One church, inexplicably, had Mel Gibson’s Braveheart projected onto the wall.
Jey: That tracks.
Clint: But why?
Jey: I just remember that like, people would watch Braveheart and like Lord of the Rings and like-
Clint: I know that it's in the culture to love that movie, but like, why are they playing it as part of the Hell House finale?
Jey: Because in Heaven you're going to see Braveheart, because you're going to see your ancestors and they're all white people. So they're going to see Mel Gibson in Heaven.
Clint: Yeah, maybe. Okay. That actually makes the most sense, frankly.
Jey: You know, because it's like people throughout the centuries who've loved God and they'll go to Heaven.
Clint: It's just bizarre. It was one of the craziest things I've ever seen.
Jey: I don't understand why Mel Gibson's Braveheart wouldn't be in the Heaven Room.
Clint: Maybe they were just doing a different Mel Gibson movie every night. We happened to catch Braveheart but on other nights it’s The Patriot, Payback, maybe even Lethal Weapon every once in a while.
Jey: I know that this is back in the days of, like, VHS tapes, but, like, could you imagine if it was just Netflix auto playing the next movie and they just walked in on the wrong part?
Clint: I don't think this was VHS days, dude. This was like DVD days at least, maybe Bluray.
Jey: Oh, God.
Clint: Then at the very end you get the little sermon and conversion card before they let you leave, of course. Unless you wanna hang around and catch the second act of Braveheart.
Clint: Well I think we’ve just about reached the end of our Hell House journey, Jey. Before we go, let’s just talk briefly about this idea of sinning for Jesus because I think it has permeated into Evangelical culture well beyond Hell House. There’s this idea that doing things that aren’t normally permissible - like listening to worldly music or making out or dancing - can be OK in the right context, like during evangelization. But as we’ve seen, they aren’t actually evangelizing. They’re entertaining fellow Evangelicals, so I don’t know how they justify it really.
Jey: The church wants to do something around Halloween too. Evangelical culture is about building an entire culture where you don't ever realize there is a life outside the church because that's worldly. It's a little culty but-
Clint: I think this mentality directly relates to the overwhelming Evangelical support for Donald Trump. They justified support for a man who embodied everything they hated about the world by convincing themselves it was for a greater purpose. In Hell House, they cosplay an exaggerated version of secular culture and justify it by convincing themselves it’s leading people to Christ.
It's just so bizarre. It didn't seem weird to me at all when I was a kid and when I was living in it. But looking back, it's just so strange, the things that are okay and the things that aren't. They would never let their kids watch a Saw movie, but they gather around the TV set to watch Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ torture porn every Easter.
Jey: Right. But we put that on the projection screen, like after school. And it was like, you can opt in to come around Easter and watch this. Like when I was a kid, instead of Easter eggs, I had resurrection eggs with the stations of the cross and everything.
Clint: You got to love that.
Jey: There would be like a miniature crown of thorns and stuff. I'm just like this five year old running around putting this shit on my Barbie, like-
Clint: The good ol’ days. Everything was so simple. But that's part of the appeal, right? It's a very simple worldview. There's black and there's white. There's right and there's wrong. And you don't have to think about it too much. You just have to follow the rules. In fact, you're encouraged to not think about it too much.
The other thing that irks me is how they just blatantly rip off the horror genre even though they act like they hate horror and Halloween but that’s bullshit. They love it.
Clint: Like, Hell House wouldn't exist without eighties slasher films.
Jey: Yeah, right. Yeah. They were a direct response to that. But it's the same.
Clint: That's the thing. At the end of the day, it's not any different. It’s just Halloween horror in a Jesus costume.
Jey: They're trying to get the crowd in.
Clint: Ya know, a lot of the Hell House productions will appoint a single person every year that is supposed to be their pop culture guru. This person is supposed to research what music is popular that year and what slang kids are using and stuff like that so the show resonates with a secular audience. And of course, that person has to swap every year so no one is overexposed to pop music.
Jey: Yeah, that's a huge thing. Yeah, it's very weird. You don't realize that there are people living completely different from you.
Clint: OK this is my last cohesive thought on this and I swear I’m done - I think Hell Houses betray the point of the horror genre. Horror is designed to create a finite space where the audience can experience fear. It gives us a certain amount of control over it. It lets us act out intense emotions in a safe space and that’s really cathartic for a lot of people. We can go to the theater and watch the new Halloween movie and be afraid for a couple hours but we know that Michael Myers isn’t going to follow us home at the end of the night. The fear is contained. But Hell Houses completely undercut that because they insist that:
Clint: You may be able to leave Michael Myers at the theater but Jesus is going to haunt your ass forever.
Jey: I mean, it would be a little bit horrifying. Like, could you imagine? He died pretty rough.
Clint: Yeah, but they love it. They love the violence. And the way they present what they call reality is so skewed too. In Hell House, every abortion leads to the mother’s death. Every gay marriage leads to AIDS. Every beer leads to a car crash. But in the actual real world, pregnancy is much more dangerous than abortion. AIDS is far more rare and much more treatable than it used to be. Not everyone who has a beer after work is an alcoholic. So much of the marketing around Hell House concerns itself with “realism” but it just simply isn’t true. They’re too far removed from reality to even begin accurately portraying it.
Jey: I'm flabbergasted by Evangelical culture to this day because I would have just assumed that maybe they've learned in the years that I've been out and you‘re telling me that some of them are from 2019 being just as terrible and it's like, no, they haven't learned anything. And it's just, it's just sad. But anyway, thank you so much for joining. Thank you for listening. Please send us all of your stories.
Clint: Yes, we would love to hear from you! If you go to our website at howgaythouart.com, you’ll find a place to submit voice recordings as well as written stories. If you’ve been to a Hell House or acted in a Hell House or just want to rant about Evangelicalism, we want to hear it. Find us on all social media channels @howgaythouart. Please follow and review the show on your podcast app. It’ll help our rankings and ensure you get the latest episodes. We’re also on Patreon if you want to throw a couple bucks our way. It’ll get you some cool rewards. We also have merch coming soon so keep an eye out for that! And special thanks to LK for helping out with our dramatic readings!
Clint: Thanks, y’all. Stay spooky.
Jey: Haunt a bitch today, you know?