Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”—William Shakespeare
This past weekend, I visited Dallas, Texas for the first time in 13 years.
I don’t want to bore you with my whole story right now (but I’ll tell you over drinks if you’re buying), so let me give you the “previously on” type synopsis: Back when I was a believer, I went to a ministry training school at a Pentecostal megachurch in Dallas. While there, I helped write, build, and act in a month long theatrical production called “Hell House” designed with the intention of scaring people into Christianity. I left and became the non-believing author of this blog.
And this past weekend, I visited Dallas, Texas for the first time in 13 years. And I visited Hell House.
This was not my initial intention. I was invited to visit my friend Amy—who is, incidentally, one of the kindest, most authentic, and generously loving people I know—and a few other friends (hi everyone! Love you all! Thanks for reading!). But as the day approached, I realized this was an opportunity to see my old culture through new eyes. I was curious how I would feel going through it as a non-believer.
A day or so before I left, I told my friend Josiah Hesse—a journalist and former fundy who writes about Evangelicals and generally deep and fun dude to hang out with—what I was doing and before I knew it, he had a plane ticket too. I was relieved to go with someone of a similar worldview. Plus, we could get high together, and that was going to be essential.
Josiah wrote about our experiences for Vice. You can read that here.
Josiah wrote about our experiences for Vice. You can read that here.
If you aren’t familiar, the central concept of a Hell House is that it resembles a typical haunted house in several ways. There are dark and twisting passageways and people that jump out at you when you least expect it. The difference here is that instead of showing you axe murderers and ghosts, you see someone dying of drunk driving or a botched abortion or a drug deal gone bad. And then after they are dead, we see these same people portrayed as burning in Hell for eternity.
I acted in Hell House for three years. I played a demon in the drug deal scene (and won an award for my role in our mock Oscars), and also got to play the High Priest of Satan, where I seduce a young virgin to Satanism through Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering and then proceed to sacrifice her to Satan.
(Of which, I will parenthetically add that I was going to parenthetically add a joke about it not being hard to find virgins playing Dungeons and Dragons, but that’s a tired and untrue joke. D&D is awesome and cool people play it).
Hell House is evangelistic outreach. Thousands of people go through it each year. After witnessing the bloody and traumatic scenes mentioned above, visitors are treated to a 3-5 minute long sermon around the general theme that we do not know when we will die (we could be hit by a truck the next time we cross the street) and that we must be sure that we know where we will go after we die. Then there is the typical Jesus bit that I will not repeat here because we are all pretty familiar with it.
A door is then opened, and the repentant are led into a room to talk with Christians waiting to pray for them. Those who do not respond to the invitation to repent must also walk out of the same room, a dozen earnest and loving eyes sitting in—well, the word I want to use is “judgement,” but maybe “prayerful concern” is more charitable—as you leave.
Hell Houses have been around since the days of good ole’ Jerry Falwell (of whom I have many opinions. Buy me drinks to hear them!), but the particular one that I was a part of became infamous because in October of 1998, we portrayed a re-enactment of the Columbine shooting as one of the scenes. This was only 6 months after the shooting. A documentary crew followed us around the following year and made a really beautiful and fair film about it. I am in it for all of 45 seconds, but it is the best 45 seconds of the movie. And I am not just saying that.
The same year of the documentary, I began the process of losing my faith. Perhaps oddly though, Hell House was never a factor in those early days of struggle. The obvious problem that people have with a production like that—the concern that fear seems to be a less effective and even sometimes harmful way to create converts—was not something that I even considered. And you know why? Because I believed with everything within me that Hell was a real place. And because I believed that Hell was real and that people that I knew and loved were in risk of ending up there, I believed that we had to do whatever it took to reach them. How could anything be too extreme? What was more extreme than spending all of eternity in Hell? A sprawling unimaginable stretch of timelessness spent in a skin melting heat in total isolation. Never being able to die. Think about that. Then take a xanax if you need to.
In the early days of my questioning the Church, my problem was not that we were scaring people into salvation, but rather why wasn’t every believer doing that? If you push a child out of the way of a careening truck, no one hates you if you happen to break her arm in the process. You saved her life. That’s what matters.
Now, I have changed my position on all this considerably in the thirteen years or so since I stopped calling myself Christian. And I also can presume that most of you that are reading this probably already have some qualms about everything I just described. The first question that seems to come up when this is discussed is something like “is fear the best way to tell someone about Jesus?” But as far as I am concerned this is an irrelevant question.
It is irrelevant because, and this is important, something like Hell House can only ever work on people who are already believers.
Think about it: I go and see a horror movie, maybe it’s aliens, maybe it’s ghosts, doesn’t matter (alien ghosts?). I get genuinely scared at places. I jump, I scream...and then I laugh. Because I know it’s not real. It was a manipulation of my flight or fight response. Effective, but short lived. Of course if I really believed in alien ghosts, things would be different.
That is to say for fear to ever be a motivating factor, it has to be of something that seems like a viable threat. Take terrorism for example: It is terrifying because it is by definition random in time and location. It can happen in any crowded place, any day, anywhere in the world. That’s terrifying.
And I don’t think I sound like a conspiracy theorist when I say that we can see how the fear of terrorism has been used to strip us of certain civil rights. So fear works as a behavioral control, but only if you truly believe the consequence of disobedience is real. And of course, even then, the sincerity of that obedience cannot be guaranteed.
When I walked through Hell House this year, I was accompanied by five friends. Three Atheists/Agnostics/sinners and two followers of Jesus. I could not even begin to assume what any of them believe about Hell or whether their experiences were, in any way, similar to mine.
But what I can tell you is that I did not feel fear. I was scared in the horror movie way, the alien ghost way. That is to say, I jumped at the sudden loud noises and felt my heart race at the disorientation of the dark tunnels that led us from room to room. There were times when I was scared.
But never once did I feel any real, primal, gut-reaction, motivating, life-transforming fear. And that’s because I just don’t believe demons cause drunk driving accidents. I don’t believe humans need the devil whispering into their to make them into terrible, horrible people. Humans get into trouble just fine on our own. And more straight to the point, I just don’t believe in Hell (ask me why sometime over drinks! Or tea or a walk or just ask me to write a blog about it). And because I don’t believe, Hell House is incapable of convincing me to change my life. You could have the best writers and actors and spend millions on the quality of the production, but it is never going to feel like a real threat. For it to be effective on you, you must already believe in Hell on some level.
My good friend Joel Wasinger, who was one of my travel companions through the pits of Hell House said, “I can't imagine that the whole damned thing could reach or have any impact on anyone who doesn't already have a decidedly conservative Christian background in the first place.”
Hell House being ineffective in its goal does not mean that it was without effect. Because I assure you, I did feel something.
My heart was racing out of my chest for most of the time I was in there. At two different moments, I had mini panic attacks where I briefly lost my sense of where I was. I was panicky and ashen faced. A cast member might assume that I was experiencing conviction.
But it was not fear I felt. It was shame. Or rather, having the voices of shame that have long and deeply haunted me become reborn in the actual flesh.
I felt sexual shame in the first scene where a young woman meets a guy on Tinder who ends up raping her and then selling her into sex trafficking. And I wondered then how much more women must feel this shame since it is specifically their sexual agency that is being punished? After all, it is never the rapist that gets punished in Hell, is it? But if women are sexually active (and God forbid, proactive in seeking out their own sexual pleasure) they will be kidnapped and raped. A few scenes after this we see a teenage girl commit suicide after her dad molests her. She goes to Hell for the sin of suicide. Hell House, it should be noted, does not tell us where the dad goes when he dies. Not to mention the incredibly graphic abortion scene, which I will just include here without comment. Men talk enough about abortion, I here give the spotlight to the ladies.
I felt the shame of my culture and my history, as I saw Hell House through the eyes of my dear friend who is a Black Lives Matter activist. I confess that I may not have noticed myself that the majority of the demons and villains were people of color, whereas the victims and heroes were white.
And here’s the thing: I fully believe that was not intentional, I also fully believe that this was at least partially accidental (the cast rotates in and out. Another night may have been more white. Can’t say for sure). But I also believe that doesn’t really matter at all. There are narratives around race that we as Americans have carried with us for a long, long time. The mere representation of them is enough to suggest hundreds years of racist ideology. For instance, a black man raping a young white woman and strangling an older white woman to death with his bare hands, something Hell House portrayed, has a long history of being the most popular justification for lynching. So no matter the intention behind it, no matter that it might be a white guy in that role 99% of the time, the imagery alone portrays a different message altogether. A message that the church has at least a partial history of supporting.
A scene featuring Black Lives Matter protesters facing off against Trump supporters was similarly hard to watch. I could see the intentions were good. They wanted to portray that we were so blinded by sin that we could only see through our identities of race, and have learned to hate the “other.” The solution then, was to look beyond our surface differences and hear each other out. But that message, if left just like that, is basically the same as saying “there are lots of bad people on many sides.” It fundamentally ignores that our problems with race in this country are systemic. It ignores that people of color have some real reasons to protest the way that our government and law enforcement treat them. And again, it ignores the long problems that the church has had when it comes to the issue of race. And that is a huge disappointment. In part because of how much of a missed opportunity this was to acknowledge and repent for the church’s complicity in the oppression of people of color, but also because Trinity Church, the church that puts on Hell House, is probably the most racially diverse church I have been a part of. But that night at Hell House, my friends and I only saw our deepest fears about Evangelical Christians confirmed. Racist, out-of-touch, pro-establishment, hateful. And what’s crazy is I know these people and I know their hearts and I know that is not at all the message that they want to convey. But more on that in a second.
Because I also felt a deeper kind of shame. A shame that I do believe was given to me by the church. A deep shame at merely being human. Let me explain.
As mentioned before, in Hell House there is a suicide scene. It was one of the times where I briefly blacked out due to anxiety.
I would later hear from the director that the intention behind the scene was so that people (I think he actually said “young girls” but I might be misremembering that) would realize that the voices in their head causing them to self-harm were not actually their voices and that might cause them to seek help. And I think this is good. My therapist tells me the same things. The difference here is that Hell House makes the claim that it is demonic influence that is causing these voices. And that, dear friends, is harmful.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety since the second grade. Josiah and I have both jokingly wondered if the reason we so strongly believed in Hell and the rapture and our total depravity as sinners was because we have mental illness, or if we have our mental illnesses now as a result of us believing those things. Hard to tell. Same basic effect regardless.
The things that the suicide girl hears in Hell House are the very things I hear in my head. Present tense. I have thought these very things today.
And I do mean the very same things. I am worthless. No one will ever love me. I am nothing. It would be better for everyone if I died. I hear these things in my head all the time. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t (usually) listen to these voices (I’m fine today, I promise), but they are there. I hear them everyday. They have never been fully quiet. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says or believes about me. Those voices are there.
When I was in Hell House, I was hearing those voices. They terrified me then because they were new. They terrified me because I could not identify those thoughts and feelings as depression or anxiety or a hormonal imbalance. The only language that I had to describe my experience was spiritual warfare. I thought that what I was thinking and feeling was an actual demonic presence that was attached to me. And so instead of seeking treatment or asking for help, I went straight to prayer. I repented, I fasted, I wept, I responded to every altar call that was given. At points, I was praying three to four hours a day: pleading, begging to God to save me from my mental anguish. I was convinced I was feeling this way because of my sin. I would repent but not feel better. There had to be some other sin that I didn’t know about. Something else that was wrong with me, that was making God mad at me. Spiritualizing my mental illness did two things: 1. It made me feel that my depression and anxiety were my fault. That this was the result of sin or disbelief. 2. When my depression and anxiety were not resolved through prayer and other spiritual means, I started to believe that God did not love me.
More than that, because I thought that some of my thoughts were the actual, literal devil, I never knew which of my thoughts I could trust. I knew anything of a sexual nature was demonic, obviously (again, lots of sexual shame), but what about feelings of doubt? What about thoughts that contradicted authority? The heart, after all, is deceitful above all things. Even now, so many of my friends who were raised the way I was confess that they have trouble trusting their thoughts and feelings. They also all have major problems with self-worth and a lot just have daily guilt over their sexuality, their politics, and really anything else that you can imagine.
And again, I believe the intentions here were good. When I talk to the people of this church, when I hug them and spend real time with them like I did last weekend, I know beyond a doubt that they love me. I know that love is sincere and real. But the way that they love can be harmful.
I sometimes feel Christians look at me the same way I look at a friend who is addicted to heroin. Like they can’t understand why I would so willfully throw my life away. Why I would trade in eternal life in Heaven for the cheap and short lived pleasure of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They love me in a way that wants to protect me from myself. To save me from what they think are dangerous impulses. And that’s what makes their love feel so toxic.
Or as Alan Watts used to say, “You simply must let me help you or you’ll drown,’ said the monkey to the fish.”
The problem that I have with the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” is that it makes love conditional. It says “I love you, but not the fundamental parts of you.” Or “I love you even though you in no way deserve it.” It is not a love that uplifts the beloved, it is a love that elevates the lover. Look at how good I am to love someone as lowly as you.
And that is at the core of so much American Christianity. It extends well beyond the narrow halls of Hell House. It is part of countless conversations between Christian parents and their wayward children. It is screamed loudly through conservative Christian politics. It is the way the gospel is presented in movies, in songs, and when approached by some stranger on the street or seated next to you on an airplane.
There is no one righteous. No not one. Our virtue is filthy rags. Our bodies and our brains are fallen and corrupt and cannot be trusted.
Anything good in you is God. Everything bad is you.
And what’s heartbreaking to me is that Christians believe this of themselves. I do not know how many Christians feel deep down that God does not actually love them, but I am willing to bet someone else’s money that it’s a lot.
And to me that’s the real Hell. Being tied to a belief system that reminds you at every opportunity that you are horrible and worthless and nothing. That the core of you is rotten. That your every impulse is suspect. That there is no escape from this wretched body of death.
I used to feel real fear at Hell House. I used to feel real feel all the time as a Christian.
But after leaving last weekend, all I really feel now is free.