Variation of Manufactured Folk Drama: A Case Study of The Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House

Variation of Manufactured Folk Drama: A Case Study of The Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House

Mary Mesteller
Indiana University

A version of this paper received the prize for Best Poster at the 2010 IU/OSU Student Folklore Conference


Local Variation of Manufactured Folk Drama: A Case Study on the Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House analyzes The Hell House Outreach, an Evangelical Christian outreach tool, a folk drama that has become widespread in churches throughout the United States during the Halloween season. The Hell House Outreach’s popularity and traditional aspects are because of the The Hell House Outreach, which became available for purchase in the 1990s. Variation exists in content as well as context in individual hell houses, though a traditional form is maintained. It is within the adaptability where the producers of The Hell House Outreach believe the power of the ministry lies. The Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House in Southern Indiana is an excellent example of a hell house that altered the The Hell House Outreach Kit in order to highlight controversial moral and political issues unique to Monroe County of Southern Indiana.

The Hell House Outreach is an evangelical tool that has spread throughout the United States, and worldwide, since the early 1990s. While the first hell house is seen in 1983 from the Northwest Evangelical Outreach, its first wave of popularity was in the early 1990s. The objective of a church producing a hell house is to expose Satan’s lies and see the demonic influence behind the decisions people make. Groups are led by an actor portraying a demon tour guide through a series of rooms; the rooms feature enactments of various situations that often culminate in one or more characters dying and the demon guide celebrating. At the end of the tour, the group goes to a room simulated as hell followed by another room simulated as heaven where they are encouraged to pray and commit to a life of Christianity. There are many similarities found in hell houses. These patterns are in part due to Pastor Keenan Roberts’ Hell House Outreach How-To Kit, which came into the market in 1996. The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit includes a suggested script, manual, a list of suggested props and costumes, and DVD of a sample production. The kit serves as a guide for churches in setting up their own hell houses, but is not meant to be followed exactly. Adapting the guide to better the serve specific communities is highly encouraged, which is demonstrated in the Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House.

I focused my ethnographic work on the production and performance of the Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House in Ellettsville, Indiana. The Ellettsville House of Prayer purchased the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit in 1998 and then built upon the purchased model to make a production they felt would be more applicable to the Monroe County area of southern Indiana. This study explores the objectives in producing a hell house, the impact of The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit, secular adaptations of The Hell House Outreach and ultimately, the importance of variation within hell houses. What I found was that The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit is used as a skeletal outline of the production and that its flexibility and openness to variation is where the producers believe the power of the ministry lies.

Hell Houses as Folk Drama

I analyzed The Hell House Outreach as a folk drama with my working definition being a traditional performance of multiple people connected to a larger ritual bearing seasonal significance which is used to demonstrate the values and world view specific to that folk group (Burson 1980: 307, Green 1978:845, Nixon 2006: 191). My working definition is based on those of Green, Brody, Abraham, and Brunvand and I chose to combine them because The Hell House Outreach do not predominantly fall into one of the definitions, but embody elements of all the definitions that I’ve encountered in my research. For example, Brody’s definitions emphasized a ritual related to the drama, while Green, Abraham, and Brunvand focus on tradition. My working definition to analyze hell houses weighs heavily on both the traditional aspects of folk drama and its relation to a larger ritual. The Hell House Outreach reflects this definition of folk drama because it follow a traditional form annually during the Halloween season, are connected to the larger ritual of conversion or re-dedication to Christianity, and demonstrate the values of a specific folk group, Evangelical Christians.

Understanding the seasonal significance of hell houses is important in understanding the entire objective of these productions. In my in my interview with Pastor Larry Mitchell or the Ellettsville House of Prayer, he explained to me that in his view Halloween is rooted in satanic worship and hell house is an Evangelical way of taking Halloween back from Satan and using the holiday to bring people to Jesus Christ. “You know, the Bible says that we can take back what Satan has been stealing from us.” At The Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House, there is a variety of fliers available for patrons to read while waiting for their tour to begin and to take home. One of them outlines the history of Halloween from the perspective that it is rooted in Satanism. In this view, by having The Hell House Outreach occur during the Halloween season, churches are presenting people with an alternative where they can celebrate Christianity as opposed to Satanism during a time when the temptation for the latter is higher than at other points of the year.

The Hell House Outreach is an evangelical tool with the ultimate goal being to bring people to Christianity. Relating back to my definition of folk drama, it is a theatrical production intended by the producers to connect the audience to the larger ritual of converting to or re-dedicating their lives to Christianity. Prior to the beginning of the tour at the House of Prayer, a woman explained to the group, “This is not a haunted house; it is a demon-guided tour through reality.” Pastor Larry explained to me that by exposing Satan and giving people a “reality check” of his influence in their lives, The Hell House Outreach gives patrons a choice: to either continue allowing Satan to influence their lives or to allow Jesus to be their guide in life. The target audience of The Hell House Outreach is the “unsaved” and as Pastor Larry describes “closet Christians” who have not fully committed to Christianity. This is key to The Hell House Outreach’s connection to ritual as it is connected to the larger ritual of commitment to Christianity as a faith and lifestyle. There is also a heavy emphasis on reaching the “sight and sound generation”, who Pastor Keenan described to me as “teens and twenty-somethings”. They are also the largest demographic that goes through hell houses every year. Pastor Keenan emphasized to me that The Hell House Outreach is not intended for children due to the graphic and at times scary nature of the production; at his church in Colorado, they do not permit people under the age of twelve to go through the hell house. At the House of Prayer, one must be at least eleven to go through the tour because scenarios displayed are intended for a mature audience and do contain disturbing images.

The Hell House Outreach enacts all characteristics and functions of a folk drama, according to my definition. Ultimately, what was stressed repeatedly in the briefing before the hell house tours that I attended and in my interviews was that The Hell House Outreach is not meant as entertainment, but a service intended to lead people away from Satan and towards Christ. Through this, the ritual of converting to Christianity is encouraged and made available to all the patrons.

The Hell House Outreach Kit

I have labeled The Hell House Outreach as manufactured folk drama because of the heavy influence that the Hell House Outreach Kit has on individual hell house productions nationally and internationally. The Hell House Outreach Kit is available for churches to purchase so that in the production of their own hell house they are not starting from square one. Despite their purchase of the Outreach Kit to use as a guide, individual churches are in no way restricted from modifying the script by adding or omitting scenes and characters to better serve their community’s needs.

As stated earlier, the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit was authored by Pastor Keenan Richards of Colorado and made available for purchase throughout the United States and internationally in 1996. Pastor Keenan says that due to media attention and the success of The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit, he is often credited as the creator of the hell house concept, which is false. Pastor Keenan became involved in The Hell House Outreach in 1992 in New Mexico when a youth pastor friend of his encouraged him to go see one. He says he was immediately enthralled with the power of this ministry and by Halloween of 1993, he had written a script and produced a hell house in his New Mexico church.

In 1995 Pastor Keenan moved to the Denver area and brought his hell house model with him. In Colorado, he sought out attention from the media as a form of advertisement and other churches quickly learned about the success of the ministry and wanted as a result to bring The Hell House Outreach to their own communities. That year, thirty to thirty-five churches called Pastor Keenan, asking for help, so he decided to put together The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit to serve as a model for other churches. The purpose of selling these kits is so that everyone who wants to produce a hell house doesn’t have to “re-invent wheel”, as Pastor Keenan puts it. It was crafted in six to eight months and available for sale in 1996. The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit is not intended to be followed word-for-word, but can be adapted in order to fit the community’s needs.

Included in The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit is a Production Manual, DVD of the production, and the special effects audio CD. The How-To Kit costs $299.00 and can be purchased online or in person. The over thirty sections in the manual include information about preparation for the production, set construction, advice for interacting with the media, effective prayer methods, the original hell house script, and much more. The script included in the How-To kit contains seven core Hell House scenes.  The general prototype consists of a funeral scene featuring a homosexual who has died of AIDS. In this scene, the demon guide is introduced. Following is a clinical abortion; the unborn baby dies and the demon is pleased because he was going to grow up to become a preacher. A satanic ritual follows featuring a human sacrifice. In a drunken driving accident, a father kills his family. In a teen suicide reenactment, a spirit hands the gun to the teen and aides him in pulling the trigger while chanting “no more pain, no more problems”. In the Hell scene, the tour meets Satan, and he explains that everything that happened within the scenes was his handiwork. The tour is then rescued out of Hell by angels and taken into Heaven where they meet Jesus and are given the opportunity to pray the prayer of salvation. Before leaving, everyone goes into a response room where they fill out cards and give comments about their experience. There, they are asked if after going through Hell House they accepted Jesus for either the first time or as a rededication. There are people available in the response room serving as counselors for tour participants to pray with and discuss anything pertaining to hell house.

Additional scenes are also available for purchase and contain a script, prop list, scene details, cues, and any visual or sound effects. The range of cost is from $40.00 to $65.00. Some scenes are completely different from the seven core scenes, while others offer a different perspective on the same issue. The most popular scene available to purchase is “Mother’s Womb Abortion Scene and Heavenly Resurrection Scene Package”. In this scene a woman, Jennifer, is reunited with her aborted child, Tara, by the Angel of Tomorrow, so that Tara can have the opportunity to tell her mother what would have happened had she been given the opportunity to live. Jennifer and Tara meet when she is around eight years old at her first piano recital, then again at her Sweet Sixteen party, her wedding day, as a mother, and finally as a first grade teacher. In every scene, Tara asks Jennifer why she had to have an abortion and asks the questions “don’t you know what you took away from me? Don’t you realize what you cost yourself and me to save your reputation?” Jennifer is weeping hysterically; the angel has to hold her up and keeps assuring her that she has to see this and there’s a valuable lesson within all this. All the while, the demons are gloating, growling, laughing, and celebrating because Jennifer had followed Satan’s plan.

The tour goes on to view the remainder of the Hell House tour, but the “mother’s womb” scene is tied together in the heaven scene. In heaven, Jesus enters and walks to the back to the tour and finds Jennifer, who had just met up with the tour in that scene, though the tour is unaware that she is with them. He brings her forth and explains to her that since she gave her life to him, he had been helping her pick up the pieces of her past. He explains to her that Tara has been in heaven all along, she just arrived prematurely and then an angel brings out the youngest version of Tara, the girl from the piano recital, to be joyously reunited with Jennifer. Tara calls her “mommy,” runs into her arms, and they embrace. Pastor Keenan put great emphasis on the joy in this scene and explained that it clearly demonstrates The Hell House Outreach’s message: “Sin brings destruction, but ultimately Jesus is always there to bring things back together.”

In consideration of copyright laws on The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit, Pastor Keenan explained to me that the kit is copyrighted only to protect him and not to try to police every hell house worldwide. The motivation behind producing The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit is to give churches a tool to help them bring this ministry to their community. However, Pastor Keenan explains to everyone upon purchase that if they feel the need to edit or add anything to make it more applicable to their community, they should make those changes. That being said, Pastor Keenan does not endorse everything that happens in the name of The Hell House Outreach worldwide and because it has become so widespread, it is inevitable that people do things of which he is not proud. One example of this is a confusing sexual abuse scene. Recently, Pastor Keenan received an email from a woman who had read about a particular scene in a hell house where a girl is raped by her uncle and then goes on to commit suicide and go to hell. Meanwhile, the uncle is never shown receiving punishment. The woman who wrote the email argues that if anyone in that scenario committed a sin punishable by eternity in hell, it should be the uncle. Pastor Keenan replied to her, explaining that he does not endorse every alteration that churches have made to his Hell House Outreach Script and that personally he would not have written a scene about sexual abuse in that fashion because of its confusing nature. However, in his view, controlling hell houses worldwide would be going against the heart of The Outreach, which is to provide churches with a tool and a guide to make this ministry work for their community. As stated earlier, The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit is intended to be used as a skeletal outline for the production, not a script to be followed word for word.  The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit allows all hell houses to be considered items of folk drama because it provides churches with a traditional form that is widespread but also gives agency to individual churches and folk groups to alter the script to serve their community’s specific needs.

The Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House

Pastor Larry Mitchell is the Senior Pastor of the Ellettsville House of Prayer in Ellettsville, Indiana. The House of Prayer is the self-proclaimed “Biker Church”; Pastor Larry’s office is filled with motorcycle paraphernalia and a sign outside of the church reads “Jesus died for bikers too!” Pastor Perry Sanders, Associate Pastor of the House of Prayer says that he was apprehensive about coming to work for the “Biker Church”, but now says that he has never seen such a community that both talks the talk and walks the walk of Jesus’ message. He spoke with great pride about various financial and spiritual outreaches the House of Prayer conducts in the Monroe County Area. Drama is an important ministry they have. Aside from a hell house, House of Prayer produces Christmas and Easter productions as well. Pastor Larry says that it’s fitting for the House of Prayer to put on a hell house because “it’s a cutting-edge ministry and we are a cutting-edge church.”

The Ellettsville House of Prayer purchased the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit in 1998 after a friend of Pastor Larry’s, a youth pastor named Dana, had encouraged him to bring the teenage members of his congregation to his hell house production in Jasonville, Indiana. He was sent a flier that simply said “Hell House: A Demon- Guided Tour that will Change your Life.” The concept of something called a hell house being put in a church originally made him uncomfortable. However, knowing and trusting Dana, he decided to see what this was all about. He describes both Dana’s church and the House of Prayer as places of “cutting-edge” ministry. Recalling the first time experience of The Hell House Outreach for the first time, Pastor Larry says it was a powerful reality check and that he was blown away. Upon exiting the tour, Pastor Larry turned to his friend Nick and said “we got to bring this to Monroe County before anyone else does. This is phenomenal”. A larger congregation has economic benefits as well as brings prestige to the church. Since The Hell House Outreach helps churches recruit members, so being the first to have one in a given area would make that church unique and eliminate competition with other churches that would have a hell house or similar ministry. Within the following year, they had purchased the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit, put their own creativity to use in altering the model and writing new scenes, and by October of 1999, the House of Prayer had produced their own hell house.

House of Prayer has varied from the script in some cases to make their production more powerful and applicable to the Monroe County Area. Something they pride themselves on is their use of lighting and sound effects in every room in order to appeal to many senses. For the 2009 season, there were 272 volunteers, and 700 visitors committed to Christianity either for the first time or as a rededication, about 37% of their total visitors. This year, roughly 1,800 people went through the Hell House during its six nights of production. One year, they sold out two weeks in advance and decided to run the show for an extra weekend. Due to its popularity, they once tried to run the show for seven nights in a row, but ultimately, it was too taxing on the cast and crew, so they decided to only run weekend performances. The popularity of their hell house gives prestige to the Ellettsville House of Prayer as well as reflects a level of success in their mission. While the entire audience will not leave committing their life to Christianity, they have seen and heard the message of The Hell House Outreach and may discuss their experience with others. I attended an evening performance of the Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House on October 24 and November 1, 2009.

At the Ellettsville House of Prayer Hell House, prior to beginning the hell house tour, people wait in a room where concessions and merchandise, such as t-shirts and patches, are available for purchase, and fliers are placed on tables pertaining to the history of Halloween, abortion, and familiar spirits. There is a display of newspaper publications pertaining to The Hell House Outreach and letters of both praise and criticism. A woman plays a keyboard and alternates between soothing and eerie music. On the back of every ticket is a number which designates one’s tour group. When a tour’s number is called, everyone lines up single file against the wall leading to the door and is led out to their tour.

Before entering into the first scene, the tour group is given a brief explanation about The Hell House Outreach. The group is told that it is not a haunted house, but a service to help people understand Satan and his lies. People are told to be considerate and make sure that they aren’t standing in anyone’s way so that everyone can see and understand what is happening in each scene. Cell phones must be turned off so to not interfere with the sound and lighting systems as well as to not distract the actors or the audience. The speaker explains that the people wearing House of Prayer vests walking a long side the tour are there to escort them out of the tour if they don’t want to continue or if they break the rules by talking too loudly, using recording devices, using cells phones, or being disrespectful. The group is told not to touch the actors and is ensured that the actors will not touch them. Then, they are led into scene one, which is the funeral scene.

According to Pastor Larry, the first scene follows the script. The funeral scene takes place in the sanctuary. The church is lit red and there are people in the congregation dressed in black weeping. Every person in the tour group is handed a black rose and is guided into a pew. In the front of the church, there is a man in a casket and a preacher reading from the Bible who conducts the funeral. Mid-ceremony, a demon interrupts, and the tour is introduced to him. The demon guide explains that he lied to Jason about being born gay and went on to encourage his homosexual lifestyle. The demon explains that it is a lie, because nobody is born gay. Ultimately, he died of AIDS. Before moving on to the next scene, the demon alludes that Satan and God are competing for souls, and with Jason’s death, the score has gone to Hell: 1 and God: 0. The tour then lines up, and every person places their rose onto Jason’s body, exiting the church to go on to the next scene.

The second scene was written by the House of Prayer and takes place outside. This is a scene of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. There are many hooded people, including women and children. In the background, there is a twenty foot burning cross, a mannequin hanging, and demons dancing. Off to stage right is a burning car with a man hunched over it being whipped. During My first observation of the hell house, October 25, 2009, there was a man holding a large dog on a leash. During my second observation, there wasn’t a dog, but there was a man pacing with a club who wasn’t there the week before.  These variations demonstrate the flexibility of the program and could also indicate that this scene has a changing cast, which is the case in other scenes. The demon guide explains that these people have fallen for one his most evil lies: the existence of racial supremacy. The scene concludes with the man being beat over the car getting shot. The shooting was new to the scene as of this year. The KKK scene is an example of how the House of the Prayer modified The Hell House Outreach to make it more localized. The Ku Klux Klan has a presence in southern Indiana, and the House of Prayer stands against them.

The third scene is a depiction of domestic violence which incorporates spousal abuse as well as alcohol and pornography. This is another House of Prayer original script.i The setting is a bedroom where a woman walks in to find her husband looking at internet porn with a pile of beer cans next to the computer. She yells as him for looking at porn, and he replies “if you looked like them [the women on the pornography sites], I wouldn’t have to.” Pastor Perry of the House of Prayer explained to me that originally, the scene was a depiction of jealously, and decided to incorporate pornography and alcohol later. The couple begins physically fighting, and the woman grabs a suitcase and threatens to leave. The fight continues, and the demon encourages them by feeding the couple lines to say to each other and cheering at them. At one point, they calm down, and the wife cries as the husband gently strokes her back. The demon then encourages the wife to continue fighting, which she does and then the man chokes her to death. The man, horrified, says to himself “what have I done”, while off-stage, children say “Mommy, are you ok?” The demon replies that she is not ok and says that he has a man picked out for the little girl who is just like her father so that he can continue the family tradition, “or should I say, curse”. This scene is again an example of the flexibility of The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit and localization of the folk drama to reflect the Monroe County community.

The fourth scene depicts a teen suicide and follows The Hell House Outreach script. The demon tells the tour that he loves to influence teenagers because they are “cocky and vulnerable.” The setting is a bedroom with drug paraphernalia and alternative rock band posters. A spirit, who is addressed as Teen Suicide enters the scene and whispers into the boy’s ears that he is worthless and that no one will miss him if he were to die; he repeats these sentiments. Her voice is pre-recorded. She goes on to hand him a gun, guide his hand up to his head, and  chant “no more pain, no more problems”; he chants that as well. Strobe lights flash, and as the scene blacks out, the boy fires the gun. When the lights come back on, the boy is dead on the ground, and the demon guide celebrates.

En route to the next room, the tour passes by fortune tellers and palm readers, which were added because of their presence, particularly in Bloomington, Indiana, a college town near Ellettsville and the location of Indiana University. The demon guide says “go ahead and give her a call, you’ll really be calling me.” Pastor Larry later explained to me that belief in psychics and mediums is dangerous due to the unpredictable nature of the familiar spirits they channel. Familiar spirits, which are associated with demons, communicate through these people and become influential on the lives of people who ask for their consultation. To explain familiar spirits, Pastor Larry gave the following example. When a person calls a medium to speak to a deceased relative, she is not actually speaking to the relative, but to a familiar spirit. The familiar spirit spent lots of time around the deceased while she was alive to learn her mannerism and then be able to mimic her exactly. Through this, the person contacting the spirit will trust them, and the spirit can then influence her life, many times, in dangerous ways. Also the Bible states that humans should not be interacting with familiar spirits, because as humans we have no idea what can happen. This is also another example, like the KKK scene, where the hell house was adapted to make it more localized, because while they were not scenes present in the original Hell House Outreach Kit, they were added because Pastor Larry, as well as others on the production committee, saw a uniquely high presence of them in Monroe County and therefore added them to the program.

The next abortion scene is two-parts; the first section was created by the House of Prayer, and the second follows The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit script. Before viewing the clinical abortion, there is a waiting room scene, which was added by the House of Prayer and features a young couple debating as to whether or not they should have an abortion. The girl is unsure, and the guy wants her to do it. Pastor Larry says that the abortion scene is especially important for young men because they don’t understand what a young woman goes through when she is pregnant or during an abortion. In the abortion scene, a girl is wailing in pain as nurses hold her down and emphasize that this procedure was her choice. The sheet covering her is red with blood and demons are holding items, such as mangled rabbit and squirrel feet and body parts to represent aborted fetuses. In the end, a bloody glob is curtly thrown onto a tray and set on a table. The girl continues to cry and shouts that she wants her baby while the nurses unsympathetically tell her she should have thought of that before. The demon is pleased with the abortion because that fetus was going to grow up to be a preacher. He explains that there will be many more abortions because there are many more “preachers, Christians, and upstanding citizens to surgically remove.” He then points to someone in the audience and says “too bad I didn’t get you!” The abortion scene is included in The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit and was very similar in every video and written description of a hell house I found. This scene, along with others, is demonstrations of The Hell House Outreach’s traditional characteristics and influence of The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit.

The fifth scene is a drunken driving accident and is done according to The Hell House Outreach script. While indoors, to the scene appears to be outside for the floor is covered in leaves. Beer cans are scattered around and electricity is visibly moving up the antenna of the car. The car is damaged and a woman and teenage girl are lying dead and bloody out of the car windows. An injured man lies on the ground. When he wakes up, he starts asking what has happened, and the demon explains to him that he killed his wife and daughter. He defends himself by saying he could never do that because he loves them. The demon celebrates in the accident and finally says to the man, “your leg will heal, but I have broken your heart forever.” He then turns to the audience and tells them that they are gazing into their own futures and one day, like he stands over the father in this scene, he will stand over each person in the audience.

After leaving this scene, the tour is escorted into hell. The hell scene is Pastor Larry’s domain. In our interview, he told me that originally the tour kind of flopped by the time they got to hell so he re-vamped it. The tour is welcomed by Satan to “Hotel Hell” and “The Never-ending Barbeque”. A recording of a gate closing is played and thus ignites the feeling of being trapped in Hell. Decorations within the hell scene are primarily fire and skeletons. Symbolism incorporated into the scene is the presence of The Lake of Fire, the Grim Reaper, and Satan, also known as, Lucifer.  These are all places or figures associated with hell and death and the use of these symbols, assumingly known to audience ahead of time, are used to further emphasize the horrors of Hell. The Lucifer role is played by Pastor Larry, and he is a larger-than-life half goat, half human figure; his voice has been previously recorded. To further emphasize that he is a goat-man, Pastor Larry attaches actual cow legs to his boots, which he gets from a local butcher shop. Off to stage left, people are behind bars screaming for help and reaching out to the audience.  In the past, Pastor Larry told me they used to burn hair so that they room smelt like burning flesh, but the tour groups are only in there for a little over a minute while the actors had to be there for hours with the unpleasant smell. They then tried to use cheese, but it had the same effect on the actors. In this scene, Lucifer takes credit for everything that happened in the previous scenes. Satan is interrupted by a white light coming from stage left, and an archangel says “Come with me, my beloved. This place was not meant for you,” and the tour is escorted past the screaming people behind bars and into heaven.

Pastor Perry explained to me that the heaven scene is the most important scene in the entire tour because it is meant to inspire hope. After going through scene after scene of condemning tragedy, the Heaven scene is supposed to show the audience that there is hope for salvation that can only be found in Jesus Christ. It is the first scene where people are smiling; the room is well-lit, and decorated completely in white. Sheets hang from the ceiling to invoke softness and comfort. There are also white flowers throughout the room. In this scene, an actor portraying Jesus comes down from a cross and is clothed by angels, and he then stands with child angels before kneeling down to pray. Slow, Christian rock music plays, and the angels perform a dance. As Jesus kneels down, a person from the tour goes and kneels with him to pray. This person is a plant and was added to break the ice so the audience members feel less inhibited to pray themselves. The prayer of salvation is then done in “repeat-after-me” style by the angel that rescued the tour out of hell. He explains that if anyone said that prayer and truly believed what was being said, their names would be written in the Book of Life and Jesus would guide them into living a better life and ultimately receiving eternal happiness in heaven.

Following heaven, the tour proceeds to the response room where they are asked to fill out comment cards and surveys about their experience with The Hell House Outreach. The survey asks if one had accepted Jesus into his/her life after going through the hell house and if they did so for the first time or as a rededication. There are prayer request cards, general comment cards, and an option to leave contact information for a House of Prayer representative to contact the visitor to discuss their ministry, or just to talk. There are pamphlets on the table in the form of graphic novels: Doom Town, Who Murdered Clarice?, Caught!, and Birds and the Bees, Bewitched. Additional resources are available, such as brochures about abortion in Spanish and English, the same fliers found in the waiting room about the history of Halloween, a narrative highlighting the dangers of interacting with familiar spirits, and a brochure titled The Hell House Outreach Manifesto, which explains the belief behind every scene of The Hell House Outreach. Also, in the response room, people wearing House of Prayer vests serve as counselors and are willing to discuss anything with the tour members relating to hell house, their personal experiences, or spirituality.

Secular Adaptations of The Hell House Outreach

The Hell House Outreach is seen in popular culture in the Hollywood Hell House, the Off-Broadway Hell House, the documentary, Hell House, and the movie Hell House Outreach: The Movie, which is still in the planning stages. These adaptations of The Hell House Outreach veer away from the religious intentions that churches traditionally have when they produce the drama; instead they are intended for educational purposes or to mock hell houses and churches that use them as a ministry. While these adaptations of The Hell House Outreach are secular and not sponsored by a particular church, they are still reflections of variations of the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit and can be related back to my definition of folk drama because of they keep the traditional Hell House Outreach content and were released during the Halloween season. Furthermore, while the producers of secular hell houses may not have an evangelical goal in producing the hell house, keeping the traditional content makes The Hell House Outreach message of Christianity available to the audience.

The 2001 documentary Hell House was directed by George Ratliff. It was featured in multiple film festivals and took home the Golden Gate Award of the San Francisco Film Festival of 2002. The film follows the production process of the Trinity Assembly of God Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. Special attention is given to the actors and the audition and rehearsal processes. While there are brief scenes depicting negative reactions to the hell house, the focus of the film is not patrons’ feelings about The Hell House Outreach, but more so about the producers’ intentions behind the production and the process of producing it. Hollywood Hell House was a spoof of Hell House produced by Maggie Rowe. In our interview, Pastor Keenan told me that the case of Hollywood Hell House was the only situation where someone was deceitful in their intentions to purchase the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit. Maggie Rowe contacted Pastor Keenan posing as youth pastor in order to purchase the Hell House Outreach Kit, but her actual intention was to mock Hell House and try to harm The Hell House Outreach. Pastor Keenan heard about Hollywood Hell House from a journalist and decided to go to Los Angeles to take a stand as to what Hell House is actually about. After viewing the Hollywood Hell House, Pastor Keenan was invited to a night club with the cast and producers.

For 2-3 hours people stood in line and waited to talk to me. Actors, writers, cast members; and some of them had introspective questions, others just wanted a piece of me to tell me off. All great, amazing access and for the first time in my life I closed the night club down and it was all ministry. It was all talking to people about the Lord and planting seeds in their lives.

The Hollywood Hell House inspired the Off-Broadway Hell House produced by Les Frères Corbusier, a New York City theater company and took place in St. Anne’s Warehouse of New York City’s warehouse district. Their intentions were to produce a hell house in a secular forum without making a mockery of the concept. The brochure states “This authentic depiction of a Hell House is meant to educate and inform about a particular religious movement, not to endorse any specific ideology” (Pellegrini 2007: 927).  Finally, in 2005 Pastor Keenan was offered a movie contract, which before signing, he made sure Maggie Rowe would not be involved. Hell House Outreach: The Movie is not meant to be a parody of The Hell House Outreach, but a drama that shows the passion of people both for and against The Hell House Outreach. The plot follows a town that decides to produce a hell house which causes uproar of protests and divisions amongst the community (Nixon 2006: 328).

These examples of The Hell House Outreach in popular culture demonstrate the blending of boundaries between secular and religious forms of drama. These hell houses are not showcased in a church and the producers are not operating under the same goals churches are when they produce hell houses. Without the explicit connection to ritual, these adaptations still enact the traditional form and seasonal components of my definition of folk drama as they are heavily based on the Hell House Outreach Kit and take place during the Halloween season. While, they abandon the motive to convert their audience to Christianity and are aimed towards education and/or entertainment, ministry is still available as a byproduct because the traditional content of The Hell House Outreach remains present.

The Production Process

For the House of Prayer, preparation for their hell house begins immediately after Labor Day weekend and continues until opening night, the Friday before Halloween. The production process involves recruiting volunteers, constructing the set, holding auditions for the various acting roles, coordinating the lighting and sound effects, advertising, and rehearsing. The documentary, Hell House provides insight into the pre-performance process as it follows actors, writers, and set constructors through the process, which I was unable to observe at the House of Prayer.

The House of Prayer Hell House 2009 was made possible by 279 volunteers. While most of them are from the House of Prayer Ellettsville, people from other churches in Indiana– such as satellite branches of House of Prayer — commuted to contribute to the production as well. The cost this year was roughly $3,500.00 dollars and the least House of Prayer has ever spent on Hell House. Pastor Larry explained to me that the cost decreases every year because the amount of props, costumes, and set materials they have to buy decreases. They also found it more economical to use roadside banners for advertisements in lieu of renting billboards.

In Ellettsville, Pastor Perry, a demon guide himself, is also in charge of directing all the demon guides.  Each person brings their own flavor to the role, but the point of the performance is that by the end of the tour, the audience cannot stand to be around the demon guide. They are supposed to be fed up with the gloating and celebration of Satan’s victories that they cannot wait to get away from the demon and into Heaven. Pastor Larry and one other man play Satan. Originally, four men were casts as Lucifer, but two were cut because they were not taking the role seriously. Pastor Larry points out that, even though all the lines are pre-recorded, there is still a choreography that must be followed in order for the scene to be effective.

Pastor Larry says that what they really need is for more teenage boys to participate. They had a lot of trouble finding enough talented teenage boys for the suicide scene and threatened the boys of their congregation that they would make it a female role if more of them didn’t step up. In the past, they have cast older males who still look young for that role due to lack of teenage boy participation. Ultimately, the hell house is a church function and therefore anyone who wants to participate can. However, both Pastor Larry and Pastor Perry said that at the end of the day, it is also a performance and if someone isn’t a convincing actor, his/her role in Hell House should not be performing, though he/her can fill one of the many other roles. The volume of people involved in production of the House of Prayer Hell House make the production a highly communal undertaking. Additionally the quality of acting they demand reflect the seriousness the producers take in their performance.

All props, set pieces, and costumes for the hell house are organized in labeled boxes and stored on House of Prayer’s premises. It is organized to facilitate efficient construction and strikeii of the set and to avoid losing items that would result in having to repurchase them. The Hell House Outreach is one of many ministries put on by the House of Prayer, so rapid and efficient construction and strike is extremely important.

Following the two weekends of the hell house production, the coordinators discuss what they think went well, what didn’t work, and changes for the following production. These changes are both logistical and pertaining to content. Pastor Perry explained some of the changes that will be in effect for the 2010 hell house. They are in the process of writing a scene pertaining to crystal meth use. Ideally, Pastor Perry said, they do not want there to be spoken lines and for the tour to just walk by the scene en-route to another, similar to the psychic scene. However, for this scene, they want the person using the drug to die and Pastor Perry thinks they may need to add a person coming into the room and saying something to the effect of “oh my God! He doesn’t have a pulse!” Aside from the crystal meth scene, there were no plans for additional scenes to be added to the hell house when this was written in 2009.iii

A logistical change to be made is to use a smaller car for the drunken driving scene. This year, the car almost didn’t fit into the room and they were unable to have the car turned upside down, which is what they normally do. Another logistical change is to have the door through which the demon guide enters the funeral scene be a push door to avoid having the demon guide pull the door open. This will make for a faster, more dramatic entrance. They also are trying to find ways to improve the heaven scene.

Any change in the House of Prayer Hell House, whether it is content or logistics, further demonstrates the flexibility of The Hell House Outreach. Changes in content reflect contemporary changes in the Monroe County Area.


The Hell Houses Outreach embodies folk drama as it express the worldviews of a specific folk group – evangelical Christians – and varies depending on context while maintaining a traditional form. Most importantly, especially in the eyes of the producers, The Hell House Outreach is connected to the larger ritual of accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior and dedicating oneself to Christianity. This is encouraged by presenting familiar, but controversial, situations as dangerous, demonic work and then offering Christianity as alternative path to follow. They showcase a stance against lifestyle choices of moral and political debate such as homosexuality, abortion, drug and alcohol use, among other themes. Producers, such as The Ellettsville House of Prayer, intend to present both options of succumbing to Satan’s temptations or following Christ, through drama and then to offer people the opportunity to commit to Christ. Though hell houses have been manufactured through The Hell House Outreach How-To Kit, variation is prevalent in the content, context, and objectives of hell house productions. Churches are encouraged to alter The Hell House Outreach model to make it more applicable to their own community. This also relates to the variation of context as hell houses are found in both rural and metropolitan settings, many states, and in countries outside of the United States as well. Pastor Keenan concluded our discussion on local variation with this:

Local variation is relative to what’s local. We put the kit into the hands of ministries and missionaries and leaders in all kinds of foreign countries. There’s a hell house in Paraguay for 10-12 years and they modified it for a Spanish speaking audience in a Spanish speaking country. They took it and made it applicable in a foreign country, which is even more difficult than taking it from Denver to small towns. Local variations really mean global variations. The Hell House Outreach can be found in Japan, Philippines, and the Bahamas. It is incredibly versatile.

Hell houses are reflections of the communities in which they are situated and continue to change as their communities change. Objectives have varied in that while the majority of hell houses are produced by churches as an evangelical outreach tool, the model has also served as secular forms of entertainment, education, and mockery. My case study of the House of Prayer Hell House in Ellettsville, Indiana proved to be a strong example of a church altering the Hell House Outreach Kit to make it applicable to the community. The House of Prayer also reiterates the dynamic and adaptable power of a hell house as they modify their production annually. The power of the Hell House Outreach is in its adaptability. In being able to alter the script to add scenes, churches design their production to reflect the local community. This is seen with the KKK and psychic scenes the House of Prayer uses. The folk group of Evangelical Christians and members of the House of Prayer is able to express their views on contemporary issues and offer the outside folk group (the audience) to see the moral consequences of the choices they face


Burson, Anne C. 1980. “Model and Text in Folk Drama.” The Journal of American Folklore:305-316. American Folklore Society

Dark Rail Presents Hell House 19. 2009. 20 October 2009 <>.

Green, Thomas A. 1987 “Toward a Definition of Folk Drama.” The Journal of American Folklore:843-850. American Folklore Society

Hell House.

Hell House. 2001. Dir. George Ratliff.

Hell House Halloween in New York. Accessed: 15 October 2009

Hell House @ New College of Florida 1/23/09. Accessed: 3 December 2009

House of Prayer Ellettsville. Hell House 2009. Accessed: 01 October 2009

Nixon, Elisabeth Ann. 2006. Playing Devil’s Advocate on the Path to Heaven: Evangelical Hell Houses and the Play of Politics, Fear, and Faith. Doctoral Dissertation . Columbus: Ohio State University.

Hell House Outreach. 2009.New Destiny Christian Center of the Assemblies of God.

Pellegrini, Ann. 2007. ““Signaling Through the Flames”: Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling.” American Quarterly: 911-935.

VFC: Hell House Ad 2006.

i Domestic abuse scenes are not quite common and one is available for purchase with the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit. This is not related to the House of Prayer’s writing of a domestic abuse scene.

ii Strike: to tear down a set stage

iii A crystal meth scene is available for purchase with the Hell House Outreach How-To Kit, though the content is completely different from the House of Prayer’s.

Mary Mesteller graduated from Indiana University in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Anthropology, and Spanish with an Area Certificate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Presently, she lives in Key Largo, Florida where she teaches English as a Second Language. Her research interests are folk drama and cultural heritage tourism, primarily in Latin America.



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