One of my favorite recent pieces, entitled “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” posits the existence of two related, interspersed, but almost wholly disconnected groups within the United States: the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe. Despite the labels, this taxonomy goes beyond politics, and extends to worldview, suggesting that while there are prominent political preferences on both sides, the designation speaks more to deeper beliefs and circles a person may run in with people who share those beliefs. The author compares these groups as existing like “dark matter” to one another, surely there, but so separated from one another’s experience that they almost seem mythical.
Hell House is an unflinching, but kind look at the Red Tribe, at a group of people who are committed to their religious beliefs and, while taking actions that people outside of their circles may find disturbing or wrong-headed, earnestly trying to help. That earnestness on display is what makes Hell House more than just an opportunity to gawk at how the other half lives. It shows the casting and production of the local church’s Hell House—a religious alternative to haunted houses which presents fables and vignettes of people punished for their sins, using frightening imagery to prompt people to turn to Jesus – but also focuses on the people who are putting on this show.
This element of the film is strongest in the story of the Casser family, where a single father of five children and his eldest daughter become the arguable protagonists of the film. These two people in particular populate a world that feels alien and yet seem utterly familiar and heartwarming.
There’s something unnerving and even disturbing about seeing this fifteen year old girl screech in faux-agony when auditioning and later performing her part in the titular Hell House, playing a young woman having an extreme reaction to an abortion pill and is bleeding out in a hospital bed as a “demon” tells her she killed her baby. But there’s something sweet and relatable about how she looks at the cast list posting like any other young student finding out who got what part in the high school play, or when she goes on a date with her spiky-haired boyfriend (to church), or when she and her father have the occasionally fraught but clearly loving back and forth that many parents and children have.
The same goes for the patriarch of the Casser family. It would be easy, in a documentary, to treat something like his belief that prayer stopped his youngest child, who has cerebral palsy, from having a seizure, with ridicule. Instead, the camera shows him as a concerned, loving parent, finding solace in his faith. The most gripping and human moments in the film involve him. At one point in the film, both he and his daughter talk about the dissolution of his marriage. The camera focuses on him as he goes through the Hell House and watches a scene that appears to be ripped from his own life, and he’s visibly affected by it. The message is clear – this world may be foreign to us, but the people within it are not, no matter how their experiences and beliefs differ from those of the people most likely to be watching this documentary.
That’s not to say that everyone or everything is presented favorably. There’s something bizarre, and almost quaint some of the evils the Trinity Church of Cedar Hill, in scenes where scriptwriters struggle to figure out how to refer to Magic: The Gathering, or try to remember how to spell “Ouija Board” or discuss Harry Potter books as gateways to the occult. One members of the church is in charge of creating a scene about the dangers of raves, emphasizing that it’s a chapter from his own past that he brought to the Hell House. And yet, he seems more wistful and excited to recreate that atmosphere than he does committed to conveying its ills. By the same token, there’s something awkward at best and uncomfortable at worst when he describes how he met his current girlfriend after playing the part of someone who took her soul to eternal damnation in the prior year’s Hell House. (She’s standing next to him, smiling weekly, and practically blinking “Help Me” in Morse code when he says they’re thinking about getting married.)
But for the most part, Hell House depicts the subjects of its documentary with empathy. One of the recurring figures in the film is a Dallas Police Officer, and it’s odd watching him hand out what appear to be real guns (carefully explained and demonstrated to be containing blanks) for use in the performance. But it also shows him staying calm and trying to explain the well-intentioned message of the Hell House to a group of teenagers who are understandably offended by the church’s extreme and disparaging depiction of things like homosexuality. That scene is one of the few instances in which the film show’s people pushing back on the messaging of the Hell House. It’s an important thing to include, but in large part, the film is content to offer the scenes themselves, and the people who put them on, and allow the audience to make its own judgments.
To be frank, there’s a lot to judge. The scenes from the Hell House itself are gripping, both through the extremeness of what’s being portrayed, the message that runs so counter to (at least my) sensibilities, the unvarnished but very emotional performances by the (mostly young) group of actors, and the reactions of the people watching the performance. Despite the noble intentions of the church, it’s hard to watch these presentations without feeling fascinated but also frustrated at the messages sent.
And yet, in the end the film returns to the people at the center of Hell House. It shows the father of the Casser family praying with people from his church, confiding that his path is often a difficult and lonely one. It’s easy to look at the people of the Trinity Church as simply “The Other,” doing something we don’t agree with and engaging in practices like speaking in tongues and anticipating the rapture that seem strange to those of us from a different “tribe.” But Hell House highlights the humanity of these people, the ways in which they suffer and strive to do good in this world, through methods we may not like, but in ways we cannot help but understand.