Here, I explore Hell House, a performance-installation that casts notoriously jaded New Yorkers in the role of "true believers." For those new to this tradition: hell houses are haunted house-style attractions run by North American fundamentalist Christians, and operated in the days before Halloween.1 Unlike conventional haunted houses, hell houses feature exhibits depicting sin and its consequences. These exhibits tend to focus on "sins" that are also overtly political issues for the religious right in the United States. Common examples include abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. Pioneered by Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, and franchised by Pastor Keenan Roberts since 1992, today's evangelical hell houses offer complex strategies for producing affect-based faith. Their goal is ostensibly to shock, scare, or otherwise sway attendees into conversion by dramatizing "the devastation that Satan and the world can bestow on those who choose not to serve Jesus Christ."2 Yet the overlooked flipside of this fire and brimstone approach lies in its paradoxical pleasure. Who can forget the Texan teenager featured in George Ratliff's documentary, and her unadulterated joy upon learning the outcome of her audition: "I get to play the girl who has an abortion!" October 2006 marks the first time this Bible belt phenomenon comes to New York, and it is through their commitment to staging an "authentic rendition" of Pastor Roberts's trademarked Hell House Outreach Kit that Les Freres Corbusier's Hell House raises its most provocative questions.
What does it mean to transplant a communal mode of building, enacting, and touring Hell to a city known for its cool intellectualism? Will New Yorkers derive either enjoyment or an urge to repent from observing the horrific fates of pregnant teens and gay men? Sarah Rose Leonard explains the Brooklyn production's site-specific edge: "While the show itself isn't particularly gory or spooky, the system of evangelical beliefs it represents is sharply disconcerting to a secularized, urban audience" (Leonard 2006: 6). More to the point, producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss (who is Jewish) and director Alex Timbers (a Catholic) refuse to stage their project as a send-up. Instead, they deliver a jarringly "straight" representation in the hope that viewers will draw their own conclusions.
What's unsettling is how their deadpan rendition of fundamentalist damnation fits almost seamlessly with the conventions of today's popular culture. For starters, the tour group experience is not unlike reality television. Imagine a line of eclectic people encouraged to form a makeshift community by voicing their impromptu reactions. When a man with a devil-red face bursts through the curtain to start the tour, he luridly calls out, "Who likes to party?" Though I anticipate reticence or even resistance, the youths surrounding me respond with unfeigned approval, "I do!" "Yeah, man!" "Let's party!"
The first scene is a rave. I'm reminded of shows such as Scare Tactics or Punk'd, where viewers know an unsuspecting victim is being set up. Our tour guide introduces a fresh-faced teen named Jessica. Visibly nervous, she's approached by a youth who offers a pill to help her relax. After sipping her tainted drink, Jessica instantly passes out. Her seducer cackles, "Let's rape her!" as a hoard of men and women pounce. We cut to sobbing Jessica's bedroom. To my shock, our guide blames the gang rape on the incest she endured as a child. Urging her to "take control of her life," he gleefully watches Jessica pull a gun from under her pillow. There's a deafening blast, the lights fade, and we're sprayed with what feels like her blood. "Oh shut up!" our guide retorts to our disgusted groans. "It's only water."
While the rape scene is strangely slapstick in tone, a subsequent abortion seems downright harrowing. A cheerleader clutches her pompoms, legs spread wide open. "You lied to me!" she shrieks. "You said it wasn't going to hurt!" Far worse than the bloodbath on the walls are the crimson entrails the doctor extracts from inside her. These, we are made to see, are pieces of her aborted fetus. Our horror turns to awe, however, as we're herded into a large domed tent: the cheerleader's womb! Enchanted by its pink interior, we marvel at the tiny person within it, wearing a velvet jumpsuit. A pair of giant forceps invades the soothing space, yanking the little one out. Our guide fumes sarcastically, "It isn't a complete waste, though. Soon, we'll be harvesting her body for stem cells!" It's only when a young female spectator responds with a jovial "Yay!" that I snap back in touch with my own political values: I, too, support stem cell research and women's reproductive rights. How could a simple spectacle cause me to lose sight of that?
Room after room, we confront our cultural nightmares: classroom shootings by troubled goths; the campy gay wedding of Adam and Steve; next, Terry Schiavo joins AIDS-ridden Steve in the hospital. Schiavo repents and is saved, while god-hating Steve falls through his bed into hell. Several youths in our group demand to know how Steve got AIDS if he always kissed Adam with his hand covering his mouth (a gesture clearly lifted out of Roberts's script). Anticipating such wisecracks, the next scene features a coffee shop where urban hipsters riff on the possibilities of a comedy sketch poking fun at Christian rock. "Irony is so-o-o twentieth-century," our guide chides as gremlins attacks the hipsters. "You know what's really hot right now? Sincerity: painful sincerity."
Sincerity is, indeed, the affect we're forced to confront on the next leg of our tour. We enter a narrow corridor where hell's tortured souls break the frame separating us from them. They grab as we pass them, begging us to witness their regrets. "I don't even know how I got so drunk," confides a battered youth holding a beer bottle. "I should never have gone to that party." The cheerleader now weeps, "I want my baby back!" Perhaps the most terrifying specter for New Yorkers, however, is that of a Muslim suicide bomber who still has dynamite strapped to his chest: "They told me to kill in the name of Allah. I should not have listened." The woman behind me screams with genuine distress.
Try as I might to dismiss these sinners as histrionic stereotypes, I feel a sense of what Freud calls "the uncanny."3 I know I've seen them all before. I find myself doing what I rarely do when the authentic abandoned approach me; I reach for my wallet, only to grasp that we've landed in the pit of hell. It's a literal steam bath; people remove their coats. Bathed in an eerie red glow, Satan devours us with his knowing stare. While others make fun of his horns and flamboyant attire, I try to act frightened; I don't want Satan to think no one takes him seriously. It's just as Satan condemns us for our "drinking and drugging" that a blast of light steamrolls him to the floor. An angel emerges from the blinding intensity and whisks us upstairs to meet Jesus. Ironically, though, this is where predictable affects come undone. Instead of being grateful, the group harangues our Savior's hippy hairdo. Their mockery escalates when Jesus insists on being called "our only Lord." A minister rushes to the scene and earnestly asks us to reaffirm our commitments to Christ. No one but the angel responds. Nevertheless, we're visibly psyched about the "Gospel Hoe-Down" and beverages he promises below.
And it is at this hoe-down, complete with Christian rock and fruit punch, that I experience my unlikely spiritual awakening. There's a "Pin-the-Sin-on-the-Jesus" game inviting viewers to share a secret sin obstructing their salvation. A handsome youth steps forward to pin his sin on the board: "Bare Is Back—Anal Love." As stunning as this gesture is to someone raised in the heyday of AIDS, I'm even more troubled when the young woman who applauded stem cell research starts parodying the Christian rockers. Don't these kids have any respect, I think crankily. The Christian lead singer does not miss a beat; she invites her giggling imitator onstage, "Let's have a big hand for Tracy!" It's only when Tracy joins in performing Rich Mullins's Awesome God that I recognize her parody as fused with painful sincerity. What I mistook for mockery is actually American Sign Language, and she knows the song intimately enough to sign every word. As Tracy's friends in the audience laugh, she wipes tears from her eyes, face flushed with embarrassment. I find myself wiping my own eyes, as well, moved by the palpable joy she derives from reenacting this modern Christian classic.
Anne Bogart writes, "Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. [...] And our journeys will change us—make us better, bigger and more connected." She also posits that America's "dominant tradition is evangelical. For us, the sound of words takes precedent over their meaning" (Bogart 2001: 38–9). That night at Hell House, as the actor playing Pastor Roberts engages us in the oral tradition of call and response, I embrace my links to a religiosity that is foreign yet deeply familiar. More precisely, I partake in a reiterative practice that proves performative,4 or constituting the very identity it is purported to be. I am not American; I'm Canadian. I am not a Christian; I grew up Catholic. Nevertheless, I find myself transformed, via a call to memory, into the prevailing culture sediments that shape us. In that moment, I celebrate like a "true believer."
In one sense, both this interpellation and my resulting affective experience may be viewed as ironic. Tracy's reluctant yet gradually euphoric joining in song rehearses what I've seen on countless Sunday revival programs: a sassy young woman "sees the light" and "reforms," enacting her proper belief in the power of the Lord. I realize part of my pleasure in watching her sing arises from the very excess of Hell House; given the limits of self-mockery in which the installation takes place, there is little choice but to rejoice in a seeker's humbling rebirth. The project introduces an opacity that renders my "true belief" as problematic: embedded in a chain of evangelical and patriarchal citations that are not truly my own.
In another sense, however, my engagement with Tracy's ambivalent performance also elicits an unruly and personalized yearning. For reasons of my own, I want the fine lines she negotiates—between sincerity and mockery, pleasure and shame—to be real. When it is over, I find myself asking the pretend Pastor Roberts if the Christian rock group is legit. He chuckles at first, but when I persist, he tells me to google "What About Sunday." To my relief, they are not actors, but born-again rockers from Illinois.5 Seeing the youth group's homemade video on YouTube convinces me that Tracy, too, was not a plant, but a conflicted spectator like the rest of us. This is my true, perverse act of faith.
Why does it matter? For me, her heartfelt participation in a constructed spectacle sheds light on how today's young women inhabit prescriptive cultural scenarios. While Mullins's original lyrics praise a collective's supremacy—"Our God is an Awesome God"—Tracy's sign language recasts that power as her own: "My God is an Awesome God." Her embodied translation not only breaks rank with her friends' cool detachment, but also departs from the song's plural assurance, implying an individual bond to divinity. Tracy's unorthodox alignment with Christian spirituality leads me back to the Texan teen who reveled in playing the girl who has an abortion, putting herself in the place of a specter of defiled promiscuity. Citing the rules yet differently, these social performers risk forging self-made connections where conventional wisdom says none should exist. Though fleeting, their transgressive identifications offer certain spectators enduring hope.
Theresa Smalec is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at New York University. She teaches and advises in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her recent writings have appeared in PMC: Postmodern Culture, Theatre Journal, TDR, and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship, Ontario Government Scholarship, and the Sir James Lougheed Award of Distinction for Albertans studying outside Alberta. Smalec is completing a dissertation titled Body of Work: Ron Vawter's Performance Archives.
2 Les Freres Corbusier's performance of Hell House was created using the script and materials provided in Pastor Keenan Roberts's Hell House Outreach Kit. The installation features textual and audiovisual documentation of Roberts's beliefs about what his hell houses seek to accomplish. For one example of how the company directly incorporates Roberts's descriptions into their own publicity material, see Les Freres Corbusier and Arts at St. Ann's, Hell House, program, October 2006.
3 Freud initially defines the uncanny as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (124). He later links the uncanny to the force of repression, arguing that the term’s German etymology (das Unheimliche, or the “unhomely”) contradicts the sensation's true nature: this “uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed'”(148). Citations are to the Penguin edition.
4 For discussions of how performativity functions in relation to gender identities, see Butler, Gender Trouble, 24–25; 33; 115; 134–41. Butler's extrapolation of J.L. Austin’s theory of performative speech acts also sheds light on the reiterative practices through which religious and national identities are constructed and consolidated.
5 "What About Sunday?" (accessed February 7, 2007). Curiously, the What About Sunday official band website does not include any information about the young women who participated as lead and back-up singers during the Hell House performance I witnessed. While the group definitely exists, its “real” members seem to be five young men. I cannot help but wonder if Les Freres Corbusier hired the female performers (both of whom were very attractive in a conventional sense) in order to appeal to the more worldly pleasures of their New York audiences.
Bogart, Anne. 2001. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. London and New York: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.
Freud, Sigmund. 2003. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock; Introduction by Hugh Haughton. New York: Penguin Books, 123–162. Originally published as "Das Unheimliche" (Imago V. 5–6, 1919: 297–324). Citations are to the Penguin edition.
Leonard, Sarah Rose. 2006. "Artistic Director Alex Timbers on Bringing Hell to Brooklyn," Washington Square News, October 17, 2006: 6 (accessed October 25, 2006).
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