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"Signaling Through the Flames": Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling

From: American Quarterly
Volume 59, Number 3, September 2007
pp. 911-935 | 10.1353/aq.2007.0067


Every October, hundreds of evangelical churches across the United States mount Hell Houses, Christian riffs on the haunted houses that dot the landscape of U.S. secular culture each Halloween season. Where haunted houses seek to scare you for fun, Hell Houses aim to scare you to Jesus. In a typical Hell House, actors playing demon tour guides take the audience though a series of bloody staged tableaux depicting sinners whose bad choices—homosexuality, abortion, suicide, and, above all, rejection of Christ's saving grace—lead them straight to hell. My essay discusses Hell Houses's use of, and confidence in, theatre as a medium of evangelization, a confidence that nonetheless evinces considerable anxiety around how to represent sexuality, especially homosexuality. I focus my analysis on the Hell House staged by the New Destiny Christian Center in the Denver suburb of Thornton, Colorado, in October 2006. This church also distributes Hell House kits through a sophisticated online ministry effort. I supplement this discussion with reference to the 2001 documentary Hell House and by a comparison to a Hell House staged by a "secular" theatre group in Brooklyn, New York, in October 2006. My examination is in service of a larger set of questions about how religious feelings are lived, experienced, and communicated in the contemporary United States.

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