Hell and Back to Back

In Hell House, Melbourne’s wonderful Back to Back Theatre ask what theatre can tell us about belief and if it can really offer guidance on morality. In the same week that I saw plays that screamed at me that it’s ok to be gay and racism is bad, it was almost a relief to experience a genuine god-fearing attempt to convince me that I’m a sinner destined for a firey eternity.

Hell House. Photo by Jeff Busby
Hell House. Photo by Jeff Busby

Hell Houses are American conservative Christian ghost-trainish experiences that take participants on a devil of ride to hell and beyond with visits to the likes of an AIDS funeral, an abortion, a teen suicide and all sorts of ungodly sins before the feathery white hope of angels, astro turf and the saviour. And there’s the joy of squeezing through a giant white vagina, and lamingtons and cordial at the end!

They are thought to have been created in the 1970s and Back to Back’s house is a staged version of Pastor Robert’s Hell House, which is a downloadable script and kit. Presented (at the too-perfect North Melbourne Meat Market) as a “religious artefact”, 50 community volunteers re-create the fun fair as the good pastor decrees; it’s almost like verbatim theatre and its context brings up far more issues than it’s content.

Here’s a show that’s like a bit like a fun fair freak show, presented by actors who are perceived to have a disability and non-actors. It was written for teenage Christians, but tax-payer funded for the entertainment of middle class theatre-going heathens. Back to Back know how to create mind loops of irony that force us to question ourselves much more than we question what’s on the stage.

Which isn’t to say that what’s on the stage doesn’t provoke. As the devil guided my group through a promenade of bloody vignettes, some laughed, some scowled and there were degrees of shock and concern. I was among the laughers and had a good giggle at the AIDS funeral, goths are bad and playing netball will make you kill yourself. But what was I laughing it? Christianity, fundamentalist beliefs, bad acting by people with a disability or the looks of shock and concern around me?

In the post-show forum about provocation, an audience member asked if “we”  would re-create, laugh at or even discuss a piece of fundamentalist Islam or Orthadox Judaism religious conversion propaganda. The “no way” was resounding in the silence. But it’s cool for us to mock Christians – and be funded to do so?

The good pastor’s web site says, “Hell House is a live theatrical outreach event structured in a tour production format that takes its visitors on a seven-scene journey portraying the consequences of sinful choices”. Take away the word sinful and it reads like many a theatre media release. Emotionally manipulative story telling is great, as long as we agree with the message?

So, as the be-horned and sexy devil sits on my shoulder, is all of the morality under scoring the black and white world of Hell House so bad? Teen sex isn’t the best idea, don’t kill yourself because life will get better, drinking and driving are not a good mix, mixing with goths will leave you outcast socially and you won’t be happy if you’re stuck as Wind Defence in netball. Sure, none of us believe that AIDS is the devil’s punishment for bloke-bloke love, but we have to agree that HIV sucks.

At the post-show forum Waleed Aly tried to explain that many of our contemporary, secular ethics aren’t that far away from the sin/consequence world of Hell House (and I dissolved into a puddle of happy when he talked about deontology versus consequentialism/utilitarianism because my uni Philosophy units finally came in useful).  It’s ok to give give big words to non-religious beliefs that there right or wrong behaviour, but bring in a god and that belief is crap?  

And that was before Clare Bowdich sang the Hillsong-commissioned “Your love walks with me”.

For everything that is laughable/shocking/despairing about a fundamentalist belief that there is godly right and punishable wrong behaviour, Hell Houses were created from a belief system that gives hope.

But what about the poor manipulated teenagers who have been so terrified by a Hell House that they’ve committed to a lifetime of bad haircuts, virginity and protesting at gay weddings? If I remember my own teenage years, it would have taken more than a 20-minute fun fair trip to scare me THAT much. Twelve years of Anglican schooling didn’t convert me; however, the shock of the grim reaper and his bowling ball convinced me about the goodness of condoms.

Back to Back Theatre know how easy it is to scoff at others and pat ourselves on the back for being so right or righteous. Hell House may start as a worthy laugh at silly old conservative Christians, but it’s really about questioning yourself.


Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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