Halloween Review: All Praise Hell House!

Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here...

Well, not quite. All you really need to abandon is expectations of a conventional haunted maze. Hollywood Hell House is altogether different - and deserves praise for it. This is not really a walk through haunted house maze; it's more a piece of living theatre, in which you move through a series of vignettes designed to teach a moral lesson about the consequences of life-decisions.

There's a girl who commits suicide after being date raped at a rave party. A girl stabbed to death by her boyfriend after he catches other girls kissing her. A computer nerd who stabs himself to death after getting a bit too obsessed with online, fantasy role-playing games. A Columbine-type school shooting. And in the highlight, a hospital room where a bloody abortion is performed live, while a gay man dying of aids is sucked down to hell, and a girl bleeding to death from taking RU-486 is saved from damnation when she accepts Jesus at the moment of death.

You are guided through this series of atrocities by a Mephistopholean character, who interacts with the human characters, urging them to sin. Then he reveals the consequences, taking you on a tour of damned souls in hell before a confrontation with Lucifer himself. The finale sees a pair of angels rescue the tour visitors, taking them for a final showdown with Jesus, where those whose name is not in the Book of Life are banished to Hell, while those lucky enough to make the list receive their eternal reward in heaven.

Essentially, Hollywood Hell House is an ironic re-enactment of a fundamentalist Halloween attraction intended to scare sinners onto the righteous path. The Hollywood recreation is based on the official manual for creating a Hell House attraction, and if you've seen the 2001 documentary HELL HOUSE (which took a look at one such event and the people behind it), then you have a pretty good idea what's in store for you here.

Obviously, the intention of Hollywood Hell House is far removed from the original, even if it does stick pretty close to the script. In a way, this is an experiment in context - where one's interpretation of a text has less to do with the text itself than with the reality in which that text is presented. (Think of the Borges story "Pierre Maynard, Author of Don Quixote," in which the title character rewrites the Cervantes novel word for word, only to have its meaning turn out entirely different because it's written and read in the 20th century.)

The West Hollywood location of Hell House - not far removed from a well-known gay community - signals immediately that the literal meaning of the text (e.g., AIDS is a tool of the Devil) is not being endorsed. The audience comes not to be passive viewers mindlessly absorbing the message; they assume the role of on-the-spot critics, actively rejecting the message, sometimes with derisive laughter.

If there is a drawback to this presentation, it is that the ironic intent sometimes shows through too much. The demonic characters play their roles reasonably straight - and are quite effective because of it - but the angels and Jesus drift close to camp, openly inviting us to sneer at the naiveté of the re-enacted melodrama. A more serious, totally straight-faced approach might have been both more dramatic and even funnier.

What makes the "Hell House" concept compelling is the sincerity of its intent, and to be honest, the message is not wholly without merit: decisions do have consequences, some of them negative. In the HELL HOUSE movie, this grain of truth made it easy to understand why the message could appeal strongly to the people we saw, and this understanding - the refusal to simply sneer - made the documentary fascinating. You won't get that feeling at Hollywood Hell House, where the tongue is firmly in the cheek.

Still, I remember watching the HELL HOUSE documentary. and thinking, "Trying to scare people into the arms of God is a dubious proposition, but there is something fascinating about the presentation, and I would like to see it in person." Well, now I have, and the reality pretty much lived up to my expectations.

The play is staged in the old Acapulco restaurant in West Hollywood, not far from the Beverly Center (and even closer to Trashy Lingerie and a striptease club - if ever there were sinners who needed saving!) Good use is made of the available space, and there is a wonderful sense of immediacy as the scenes are enacted within arm's reach of you (sometimes literally so, as when the damned souls in hell reach out and grab you).

Outside the restaurant, on the parking lot level where you buy tickets, there is a makeshift bar where you can order drinks while waiting for your performance. There are also some signs filling you in on the history of Hell House.

Afterwards, there is a more traditional bar (leftover from the days when the structure was a restaurant) where you can hang out, drink, and listen to Christian tunes, rap, and rock spun by DJ "Savey-Save." Some cast members will be there, urging you to write your sins on post-it notes and pin them on a picture of Jesus. As the drinking continues, they will break character, ask you what you thought, and talk a little about what they're doing

The most interesting tidbit we gleaned was that the Hollywood Hell House is actually toned down from the real thing. For example, in the abortion scene, instead of the bloody doll that we saw, the Hell House manual recommends using actual, raw liver to represent the aborted child. We're glad Hollywood Hell House did not take dramatic license quite this far.

Hell House Rating

Bottom Line

A unique Halloween attraction, with a novel spin on satire: playing everything absolutely straight, allowing the audience to supply the ironic distance.

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