Visiting Hell: Inside a Christian Haunted House

Charles D’Ambrosio’s new collection, Loitering, out November 11, confirms what his devoted readers have known all along: He is among America’s finest essayists. Slyly cumulative in their emotional power and inspiring in their moral insight, D’Ambrosio’s pieces jump from personal history to cultural deep-digging. In honor of Halloween, we’re running the book’s “Hell House” essay, in which D’Ambrosio writes about his visit to a Christian haunted house in Texas. 

Hell House

Hell House is a ramshackle arrangement of buildings meant to depict in a literal and somewhat medieval way the vast potential for ending up eternally damned. It’s a haunted house in a haunted world, and through it you wind, down corridors of billowing black Visqueen, through rooms luridly lit by strobes and TV screens, past stage sets peopled with rapists and murderers and terrorists until, briefly interred in a black coffin whose convenient and clever back door opens onto the afterlife, some souls ascend into heaven while most are dragged down to hell. It’s an eschatological vision made up of a by-now-familiar triad of fundamentalism, outsized Texas bullshit, and some of the lowest conservative clichés about life in the big bad world — basically an undiluted version of our president, and as such, I guess, the potshots have already been taken. One hates to go to hell only to come back scoffing, but I took the tour three or four times, on two different nights, and the miscellanea of horror that made up this particular rendition lacked anguish and torment, not to mention the visceral, abreacted thrills you expect a good haunted house to have. There was a sort of moral hauteur that irritated me, but I was really hoping for spooky lowbrow sleights along the lines of peeled grapes for eyeballs and clumps of cold spaghetti for brains and whatnot. A major failing of Hell House was simply that it wasn’t scary.

Physical fear is more immediately threatening than the far-off rumored torments of damnation, and Hell House might have found a more effective model had it based itself on the annual hazing of pledges and cadets or the ordeal of grunts at a Marine Corps boot camp. I went to an all-boys school and for Frosh Week was made to sit in a tub of shit and lettuce, filled to the brim with fetid water and stirred with an oar, surrounded by crazed, shouting, doped-up seniors, and that was more unbearably nightmarish than any of the cornball lessons about moral hygiene I got from Hell House. Bodily fear just isn’t rejectable, whereas moral and religious ideas, Pentecostal or Catholic, right or left, are better handled by hermeneutics than horror, and anyway should operate under different rules of suasion. That conversion is sometimes accomplished brutally and by subjection ought to be seen as aberrant and a sad lapse, a drop in the level of discourse. But hazing, with its disorientation, its deprivations, is fairly nondenominational. You don’t need to evangelize in order to persuade. You confuse the senses, you tilt a floor, you dead-end a few of the dark corridors, you create prolonged silences, you flash white lights bright enough to blind, you blast noise so loudly stout men faint, you suffuse a room with the sulfurous reek of rotten eggs, you set up a gallery of yucky tactile experiences, you tease out a taste of eternity in a coffin with a claustrophobic stay in a closet, you do that and I really doubt the morality of abortion or homosexuality, for instance, would be half as worrisome, at least not for the immediate duration.

In other words, the argument of a haunted house ought to be aimed at the human body. In that sense, it should be morally neutral, or neutralizing. A good haunted house is about the utter collapse of our accidental differences, the uselessness of class, of gender, of education, of personal history, of all the distinctions we cobble together and call the self. Late enough at night none of this stuff protects you, not from the boogeyman. What’s haunted or, more accurately, what’s uncovered by terror, is the poor forked thing, and the agon of a haunted house isn’t between God and Satan, or the righteous and the sinners, but rather between the self and annihilation. Horror resembles humor in its leveling capacity, although the anesthetic quality of comedy, its coldness toward bodily pain, is replaced in a moment of fear by a more complete and nearby peril. If comedy is somehow about the body as an unfeeling object, then fear is the surge of feeling into a body threatened with nonbeing. A haunted house poses ontological problems, and thus ought to place courage in jeopardy — it ought to reach down deep into the Platonic dualism between physical and spiritual courage and blast it apart. A good haunting gives us a workable vision of equality, a denominator similar to the danse macabre. It’s probably fair to speculate that medieval depictions of putrefaction, particularly of worms crawling out of the bowels, drew inspiration from the visceral experience of fear, its locus in the upset stomach, which feels wormy when one is frightened, and to the extent that Hell House retained its folkloric roots it might have tapped that primitive seat of horror. A haunted house makes the experience of horror real, a thing inescapably participated in, with everybody hell-bound. But too often Hell House made the mistake of locating fear elsewhere, referring to moral arguments and social issues outside its walls and, in doing so, letting the drama of the endangered body drain away. Like it or not, a haunted house is a sensual affair, more like sex than theology, and won’t survive too much abstract organization or the damping down of strangeness and intuition, of otherness or the mystery of skin or whatever. Hell House didn’t obliterate distinctions and categories but erected them, the better to separate the saints from the sinners, at the expense of good fun. That a tour of hell would end in a call to prayer indicates the problem — if it had been more elemental and troubling, I would have come out the other end in need of water or air or sedatives.

Each room in Hell House could be considered a canto in the Commedia, particularly the Inferno, except that the idea of descent in Dante, the funneled shape of hell as you circle down into worse and worse sins, was ditched by Hell House in favor of a cosmologically flat canvas in which all sins were equally bad, and the entire trip instead resembled the morality plays and pageants put on for the feast of Corpus Christi in the fourteenth century. I’m not so much talking about design or construction here as the religious arrangement of sins. In that sense it stepped back from the Renaissance and the availability of perspective into the depthless stage of Everyman in the late Middle Ages. As a moral program, the schema for Hell House was linear, but as a physical structure, as architecture, it was anfractuous, like an intestine, twisting and turning, kinked here and there with knots, and the tour took you not so much down, as toward, an interior. It wasn’t actually a house; it was more like visiting a sin zoo, strolling from room to room, watching the curious habits of fucked-up people. In each of the seven or so rooms you saw a playlet but there was no overall narrative. The entire visit lasted about an hour, but with no plot, no torquing up of the drama, I arrived at the Day of Judgment bored to death.

You were ushered through Hell House by ghouls in skull masks and black capes. Some of the ghouls wore tennis shoes and were obviously adolescent, and their taunting had a certain playground aspect that was really annoying and bratty. There were even some especially short skinny ghouls no older than nine or ten or eleven who, relaxing between acts with their hoods off, came at me and the photographer, as we dawdled behind our group, and told us to go to hell, pointing the way. “Go to hell!” they kept saying, over and over, obviously enjoying a curse that, for the two-week run of Hell House, was officially sanctioned. As the tour went on it became clear to me that these ghouls were quite specifically the voice of conservative values, although at first it had seemed as if they were supposed to incarnate the devil himself. Either way, these kids qua ghouls weren’t giving off a full human vibration.

The tour took you through a variety of rooms, all staged like a theatrical set: the cabin of a jetliner, a rave, a hospital, a garage, a family room, a burial site, a cult sacrifice, a living room, a coffin, heaven, hell, and, before finally releasing you to the cold Dallas night and a cup of hot chocolate at the concession stand, a place to pray and perhaps even convert. Each room held its corresponding sin, the exact nature of which was often elusive. Loosely, you saw drugs plus sex, abortion plus sex, a slumber party plus sex plus murder, a cult sacrifice plus drugs plus murder, porno plus promiscuity plus bastardy plus sodomy plus suicide, and so on — there was a tendency to pile on and the impression was that you couldn’t sin casually or recreationally but had to be hardcore and committed.

The audience watched as a group, from behind a cordon. A few examples should suffice to give a flavor of the whole. The set for the Abortion Scene was a hospital room. A girl in blue scrubs was wheeled in on a gurney, her crotch and thighs garishly soaked in blood. She screamed her head off while a doctor and nurse talked across the gurney, consulting so calmly and in such quiet voices they seemed to belong to another story entirely. Whoever wrote the script hadn’t labored much over their dialogue — they showed no concern. You stared right at the girl’s spread legs — I did, anyway — and that was weird. Her positioning sexualized the moment grotesquely — the bath of blood and the girl’s agonal cries and even her death were an obvious but sick and grossly caricatured loss of virginity. More important, though, the girl’s death was an act of revenge, it was retribution for killing an unborn child. It proved a conservative moral point — all the while she was dying the ghouls leaned over the gurney and ridiculed her.

The Slumber Party Scene involved two girls having a sleepover, listening to Mariah Carey, watching television and talking about what they’d like to be when they grow up. Then a man breaks into the house and abducts one of the girls, taking her to his car for what he calls “fun.” You hear one of the ghouls say: “Don’t you just love the smell of fresh meat?” — which totally threw off the point of view for me. Up to that moment my sympathy had been entirely with the girls, but now the ghoul seemed to be saying that this young woman, hauled off to be raped, had somehow invited the moment, had transgressed, was blameworthy. Suddenly the ghoul was an agent of justice. Why else make this observation about fresh meat? It was creepy. Throughout Hell House it was mostly (sexual) girls who were in jeopardy, owing in part, I suppose, to the stock conventions of horror flicks; the girls’ bodies acted as territory in a disputed moral landscape. In the very next scene, which took place in a roofless structure, semi-outdoors, you see the same girl roped to a joist, her hands tied above her head, while her abductor digs the hole he plans to dump her body in.

In the Porno Scene, we see this slumpy guy on a couch, watching dirty movies. His girlfriend comes home. She tells him she’s pregnant. Then she tells him the child she’s carrying isn’t his; it’s his best friend’s. Then he violently forces some kind of humiliating sex on her. (We segue from the living room to the bedroom by watching a black-and-white video, quite blurry, that suggests rough stuff.) The acting in these skits, by the way, was a mixed bag, ranging from OK to horrible, but many of the girls, when they had to scream, could really belt it out. It was never the scream of a real person in real pain but rather a homage to horror movies. When the boyfriend leaves, the girl curses, giving the very best, full-out scream of the whole tour, rolls on the floor, blasphemously accusing her Bible and God of abandonment, and eventually kills herself, simulating slashed wrists by popping a plastic ampoule of stage blood, quite convincingly, on her arm.

All of this was meant to be hideous and repellent, yet each room offered such a long, prurient, gazing look into the life of degradation that the scenarios often seemed like a spastic reaction against a real desire, a fascination. I see two ways to take this observation. One is: somewhere along the line somebody had to imagine the act of sex, and that’s one of the reasons, I think, that so many of the stories ended in murder — it was a way of punishing the imagination and paying for the fundamentalist sin of passing sympathy. The economy of it was creepy in its efficiency, with the condemnation and dispatch following so swiftly on the lapse or frailty or doubt, never considering, for instance, that promiscuity might be about an ambivalent need for love, or the desire, the stray hope, for something other than nothing — possibilities that would engage the imagination, tempting it. And the other is: no one ever actually imagined any of this and Hell House was, instead, a gathering of clichés whose entelechy was fear and this house, far from being haunted, was in fact a safe refuge from the morally confusing universe out beyond the walls of black plastic. The sins were all childishly obvious, and I was aware, just vaguely, of being catechized. Very often I felt the tour wasn’t about conversion but enlistment, and as such, it was a test of loyalty, with anyone who was the slightest bit recreant banished. Loyalty — in its darkest form, which left so much death as its legacy to the twentieth century — rids the divided self of anxiety and guilt, so that murder smiles. The ghouls in Hell House did a lot of gloating as others suffered.

There was a dispirited familiarity to the rooms, a lack of care about the shabby way things looked. Most of the furniture, I imagine, came from thrift stores, arriving at Hell House pre-saddened by other lives, other misfortunes. Everything lacked an element of choice, the memory of an original moment of hope about how things would be. The interiors were decidedly lower middle-class. The headboard in the porn scene was flimsy, not up to the rigors of a good sodomizing, and the vanity was one of those things that put you in mind of a wedding cake, white and elaborate and frilly, so vestal and princessy you just know heartbreak is in store for any girl still holding on to those misplaced hopes past the age of twelve. Things were sad as gesture, sad as furniture, in a world premised on the idea that appearance is a lie. The percale sheets, the sagging mattress, the framed art on the walls (because art is what a blank wall wants), all of it lacked vitality. The sofa was slouchy and vague as to color and the various easy chairs were worn and soiled and the carpet was the kind that’s already there when you move in, with faint paths turned pale where other people have walked. It was a décor that suggested hope was elsewhere, in another life, and a décor that suggested unseen enemies, the sort of place that feels shameful and mean in a world where the failure to prosper is a sin. Of course, the sets were meant to exist only gesturally, as props, but there was something in the hard literal fact, in their mere presence, that encouraged you to see them in a realistic mode. The dingy and dim rooms made for an atmosphere of sordid involvement — they were meant to indicate a shabby moral state, a despondency — but to me the “sins” did not seem moral so much as economic and aesthetic — a matter of both failed consumption and poor taste. Hopelessness had come to reside in the sofa on the porn set because it would never move again, because time had come for it and stayed, like an intimation of death. You felt nothing would change, that progress was gone and destiny mislaid; what the future held was repetition and sameness. There was a malignancy in this world, but it wasn’t a problem you could blame on the devil. In Hell House it wasn’t sin so much as sadness and despair and heartbreak and misfortune and cluelessness and just every stupid human possibility that was answered with damnation. People pathetically in need of help were shot.

And so as we wandered from room to room, every narrative ended in death, every story came to the same conclusion, until it felt as if a flawed and fallen world were finally being cleaned up and organized and made perfect. Mistakes were made, and the mistaken were efficiently condemned, leaving behind empty squalid rooms in which it was impossible to imagine a tender unseen moment or a kind word or a shared silence that wasn’t murderous. It’s perhaps needless to say, but the people in these skits lacked a living texture, were crude-minded and ugly in spirit and, in general, dismissively drawn. Hell House resembled the smutty mood of a sixties exploitation film more than religion, a spectacle of types, lewd and overblown, exaggerated to the point of pornography with its parade of stock characters. But Hell House was quite specifically somebody’s vision of others. Whoever created Hell House seemed to despise people, their freedom, the varied possibility of them. Whoever it was could imagine only concluded lives, lives summed up by a single act, in a world where most of us have agreed, not always happily, to live with ambiguity. Every fundamentalism focuses on end times, and Armageddon is, in a sense, a rhetorical trope, an emphatic and overwhelming conclusion, meant to wrap up and make tidy the mistaken wanderings of history. For a fundamentalist the end is one of the forms desire takes, a passion no different from lust or avarice, intense with longing and the need for fulfillment and relief. It’s like they’re horny for apocalypse. They get off on denouements, which partly explains why Hell House never amounted to much more than a series of murderous conclusions. It focused only on that part of a story where life finds itself fated. Inside every act a judgment was coiled. Real people, with their ragged and uncertain lives, their stumbling desires, their bleak or blessed futures, would only break into the narrative, complicating the story, dragging it on endlessly.

You would think there’d be enormous anxiety involved in desiring the end since the end doesn’t seem to actually be anything. And perhaps it’s the messed-up management of this anxiety that accounts for Hell House’s failure. Kierkegaard says anxiety “is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite.” He says, “anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.” In other words, anxiety has no object; in fact, it tries to become fear because fear has a definite object that can be faced with courage. I think it’s fair to say horror bridges some kind of gap between fear and anxiety, using objects that are present yet unreal, objects that retain a somewhat objectless character. Horror makes visible the source of our anxiety, typically arriving dressed as death. It’s nothingness in a black cloak, coming for all of us, a bequest of our bodies. But Hell House was premised on an antipathy to the suddenly helpless body, a hatred. It gutted the very thing that would make it compelling. Instead of indulging the thrills inherent to horror, it swapped out anxiety for fear and came up with morality as an answer to annihilation. The hated content of Hell House was arrived at via a bunch of rejections, a denial, a suppression of the self, which helped the creator form a superiority over the rest of us who are slogging our way — living and loving, doubting and sorrowing — toward a hole in the dirt. The Pentecostals who created Hell House converted their anxiety over the human body into persecution, and their horror set them dreaming of death.

Added up, room plus room plus room, Hell House was a holocaust. Everybody died. They died — they were killed off — because they lived the wrong way, made the wrong choices, believed and thought or felt the wrong things. The whole thing kind of sickened me. The last night I stood outside, absurdly thinking of Dante and his imagery, as the kids rehearsed their lines in the early dark before Hell House officially opened. Out on the lawn you heard a disembodied anguished call in the cold: “Where am I? What’s going on?” And the strange music of a young girl warming her voice with: “God hates you. You killed your baby. I hear babies crying.” I stood for a while in a field, listening, then went inside to inspect the Rosco fog machine that would make Heaven the ethereal stuff of visions and the Styrofoam rock where, in half an hour, a sinner would be chained for eternity. The rooms lost nothing for being empty. In the hospital the bloodstained gurney waited for what the script called “The Abortion Girl,” a name as allegorical as Bunyan’s Giant Despair. The sacks of plasma hung from their IV poles, the false charts were clamped into their clipboards, the stethoscope waited for its heart. The Abortion Girl would again scream and hemorrhage and die hideously a dozen or more times later that night, and again her nightmarish pain would be mocked, but for now an accepting silence held the room. In the Garage Scene, the paint cans, the Hefty sacks twisted at the neck, the red car, all of it was stubbornly real in a way the stilted dialogue would not be. In the Slumber Party Scene, soon enough, the raped girl would hang from her rope, the abductor would dig his hole. But the show hadn’t begun yet and there was no morality or condemnation just now. The shovel was there and so was the partially dug grave and the heap of overturned dirt smelled wet and loamy and the rope dangled, empty and waiting, as a light rain fell through the roof. It was beautiful, and a relief, mostly a relief, to feel the rain coming down and know how resistant reality was, how durable, even in a world drained of love.