Hollywood Hell House: Among the Best, Sadly Missed
Hollywood Gothique Says...
No longer in operation, the late and lamented Hollywood Hell House was one of the best Halloween events Hollywood Gothique ever reviewed. An early example of Halloween-themed interactive immersive theatre in Los Angeles, its absence is sadly missed.
Former Location: 385 La Cienaga Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90048
Hollywood Hell House was not a typical haunted house but rather a satirical theatrical production, based on the infamous fundamentalist alternative to traditional Halloween haunts, designed to teach “young people that they can go to hell for abortion, adultery, homosexuality, drinking, and other things unless they repent and end the behavior.” Keenan Roberts, who began presenting the real Hell House in 1992, sells Hell House Outreach kits to other churches, including a 263-page manual – which was the basis for the West Hollywood version.
It goes without that the West Hollywood presentation played the material for laughs, beginning with the tongue-in-cheek tone of their website, which featured a friendly-looking cartoon demon saying “This October Hollywood goes to Hell.” After walking through the haunt guests were invited to hang out for a dance party with DJ Davey Save, with “bands, dancing, and praising till midnight.” This provided an opportunity for guests to discuss the evening’s experience and for the show’s producers to offer disclaimers to the effect that they were targeting fundamentalism and fanaticism, not religion per se.
As a gimmick, Hollywood Hell House featured celebrity guest stars from time to time, including everyone from Kato Kaelin as Jesus to Dave Thomas, Andy Richter, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, Larry Miller, and Patton Oswalt as the Devil. You can view a montage of Satanic guest starts at the top of this page.
Hollywood Hell House haunted Los Angeles for two Halloween seasons, in 2006 and 2007. After going on hiatus in 2008, intending to return in 2009. However, the ambitious nature of the production, including the difficulty of finding a suitable location, led the producers to abandon the project.
Hollywood Hell House Influence
In retrospect, Hollywood Hell House clearly foreshadowed later immersive theatrical haunts in Los Angeles, such as the Theatre 68 Haunted House and Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival. Delusion Interactive Theatre gets a lot of well deserved credit for transforming the traditional Halloween haunt experience into something more immersive, dramatic, and theatrical, but Hollywood Hell House made its Los Angeles debut five years earlier, offering its extremely ironic recreation of a fundamentalist Halloween alternative designed to scare sinners onto the righteous path.
Instead of a fun house made up of painted flats, Hollywood Hell House was set in a real location (an abandoned Acapulco restaurant). Instead of walking through corridors filled with jump scares, audiences were led from scene to scene by a demonic guide: each vignettes illustrated a sin leading its perpetrator on the road to Hell; the scenes played out like mini morality plays, depicted for the audience’s benefit. In the finale, the audience was rescued from their demonic guide by a pair of angels, who took them for a meet-and-greet with Jesus, whose Book of Life contained the names of the Saved.
In effect, the event was an anthology of short plays strung together on the theme of damnation and redemption – albeit presented satirically. The horror, such as it was, emerged not from lurking monsters delivering jump-scares but from the unfolding of the stories (a young woman committing suicide after being date raped at a rave party), seen up close and personal, without the distancing effect of a proscenium arch. There was even an interactive element near the end when the audience, having seen numerous sinners sent to eternal punishment, were given an opportunity to confront the Devil and decide whether their names would be written in the Book of Eternal Life (those not in the book get a one-way ticket to the infernal region).
The amazing thing about Hollywood Hell House was that very little was done to satirize the text. Simply staging the scenes straight was enough to generate ironic detachment for a West Hollywood audience. But spoof or not, the Hell House presentation was an amazing piece of Halloween theatre, with some genuinely creepy moments (such as a recreation of the Columbine massacre, depicting a student shot for refusing to renounce his faith).
Unfortunately, Hollywood Hell House’s two-year lifespan ended long before interactive theatre became a big thing in Los Angeles. If it were to return today, it would find itself right at home.
Review: All Praise Hollywood Hell House!
This review originally posted on October 11, 2007
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 Documentary
The authentic “Hell House” concept was featured in an excellent eponymous 2001 documentary, directed by George Ratliff.
HELL HOUSE the movie was remarkable for the even-handed way in which is approached the material: except for a tiny sight gag at the end (when a minister claims he expects to be swept up by the Rapture, a jump cut seems to make him magically disappear), Ratliffe does not mock the people putting on Hell House; rather, he allows them to emerge as sincere people, who genuinely believe they are doing God’s work. Instead of laughing, you will find yourself identifying with them, especially the unfortunate middle-aged father who is single-handedly supporting and caring for all his children (including one with epilepsy) since his wife ran away with someone she met on the Internet.
The haunted attraction itself truly is a horror to behold, and you will find yourself appalled by what you see. Basically, it is a series of staged scenes in which sinners are tempted by demons to succumb to temptations of the flesh: A girl goes to a rave party where she is drugged and date-raped, precipitating a suicide and a one-way ticket to Hell. In a hospital, two people lay dying, a woman from a botched abortion and a gay man from AIDS; the one who repents finds redemption, while the one who refuses to repentant is finds his soul grabbed by demons at the moment of death. In the most truly disturbing moment, the middle-aged single father, who works the haunt as a guide, watches a scene clearly based on his own life, with a family torn apart when the mother meets someone on the Internet.
At the end of the tour, visitors are invited to sit down with the parishioners and pray for salvation; clearly, the preceding horrors are the religious equivalent of the old “Scared Straight” documentaries meant to frighten people into good behavior by showing the horrible consequences of mis-behavior. To be fair, the people associated with the haunt are shown engaging detractors in a relatively reasonable dialogue about the message being delivered. When ticked-off patrons object to the implication that gay people are damned, or point out that the date-rape character is more victim than sinner, what could have devolved into a shouting match stays level-headed, with the haunt spokesman arguing that damnation is ultimately a matter of a personal decision whether or not to accept God, regardless of the misfortunes of one’s circumstances.
The most sly element of the film is the way in which Ratliff allows those haunters to reveal how much they relate to the characters they portray. The subtle implication is that Hell House is a vicarious way for them to enjoy portraying actions that they do not approve of in real life. The most obvious example is the DJ in the rave scene, who admits that he used to be a real DJ. After complaining about the inaccuracy of the script – he feels he should have been consulted for his expertise on the subject – he is seen in ghoulish makeup on Halloween night, once again spinning discs just like he used to in the good old days, and you can’t help feeling that he really looks comfortable back in his old gig.
In short, the HELL HOUSE documentary is fascinating. Whatever one thinks of the message presented by these attractions, they seem genuinely creepy, and when the film is over, you may find yourself wanting to visit an authentic Hell House in person. It is unfortunate that Hollywood Hell House no longer exists to satisfy that curiosity.