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  • The Act of Being Saved:Hell House and the Salvific Performative
  • Hank Willenbrink (bio)

After the bodies of teens had been torn apart by a drunk driver and a young woman had committed suicide via webcam, we were led through a blood-splattered butcher shop populated by chainsaw-wielding workers and loaded onto a demonic merry-go-round that let our tour out at a scene of Christ’s scouring and crucifixion. Upon leaving, Steve wanted to know what I thought about the performance.1 I told him that the special effects were impressive, but the acting and scripting needed work. Steve seemed perplexed; he was not interested in aesthetic criticism. “Have you been saved?” he asked. I responded that I was raised Catholic and had been baptized and confirmed. This did not satisfy Steve. He continued: “Have you ever said the words ‘I take Jesus Christ to be my personal Lord and Savior?’” I told him that though I had never said those exact words, Catholics make a recommitment to Christ during Mass when they recite the Nicene Creed. This appeared to answer Steve’s question. He told me that his wife was Catholic and that he was “just checking,” before asking me if I had any other prayer needs.

This was 2007 and I had just attended Nightmare, a Hell House performance at Guts Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Twenty years after their initial productions, Hell Houses have become a robust fixture of evangelical Christian performance in the United States. Hell House has also made cameos in popular culture through the 2001 documentary Hell House by George Ratliff, Ned Flanders’s “Heck House” on The Simpsons, and a segment on the National Public Radio program This American Life. Meanwhile, the performances draw tens of thousands of spectators every Halloween season, subjecting them to a gruesome theatrical vision (referred to by Hell House producers as “scare tactics”) for the purpose of conversion. Like secular haunted houses, Hell Houses dramatize cruelty in a live-action horror show during the Halloween season. However, Hell House uses scare tactics to witness the “Good News” through depictions of teenagers in turmoil—self-mutilating, dealing with physical and sexual abuse, using drugs. [End Page 73]

The Good News communicated through Hell House is the salvation of Christ, with the ultimate goal of conversion. Such “witnessing,” in the context of Hell House, means informing the audience of the doomed nature of the world, the salvation available through Christ, and how their “choices” destine them for heaven or hell. All Hell Houses terminate with a conversion encounter where audience members, having made it through the “doomed” world, are offered salvation by the producing church. According to the New Destiny Christian Center in Arvada, Colorado, Hell Houses average a 33 percent conversion and rededication rate.2 The epigraph at the end of Ratliff’s documentary claims that of the 75,000 people who had attended the Hell House at Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, in 2000, 15,000 had converted or rededicated themselves to Christ.3 Theatre scholar John Fletcher, after visiting a Hell House in Tallahassee, was told by the pastor that of the approximately 500 visitors the first weekend, they had saved twelve people.4

How do these conversions occur? Can a ritual designed to convert take the form of a theatrical performance? Moreover, can we take these conversions to be sincere, given their birth in an amateur performance with a predilection for excessive, violent theatrics? Whether or not one agrees with how conversions are brought about, Hell Houses are triggering changes in their audiences—people are being “saved” by theatre. While performance theory explains how Hell House works, the performance’s ability to alter faith exposes the limits of our contemporary theoretical foundations with regard to performances espousing religious belief.

This essay analyzes how Hell House performances operate and theorizes how conversions can occur within theatrical representation. As religious rhetoric continually fuels our political climate, an examination of Hell House offers the opportunity to understand how an audience member can change through representation. I have coined the term salvific performative to refer to the embodied act connected to religious conversion. The utterance “I take...


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pp. 73-92
Launched on MUSE
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