The Hell Houses We Will Not Leave

What does this Pandemic-Meets-Election-Meets-Halloween Moment Feel like if not like our Greatest Fears Strewn Across the Front Yard?

Sarah Condon / 10.29.20

Hell Houses were a natural part of the Southern landscape when I was growing up. If you are not familiar with them, they appear in October alongside other haunted house experiences, only this one has a religious agenda. They aim to scare the hell out of you.

As you mosey through each room you will meet characters who have made bad “choices.” Who you have sex with, how much you have sex, and when you start having sex make for great Hell House foyers. Sex is hot in hell houses, I do not make the rules. Suicide often makes a whimsical appearance. And even dancing (¡escandalosa!) is identified as a “sin” people have committed who will be burning in hell. If all of this sounds traumatizing, that’s because it is.

Flash forward to college. I began my journey into higher education at a small liberal arts school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And boy howdy, did we put the liberal in liberal. Initially, I was thrilled to be there. We could say whatever, do whatever, and pierce whatever. Anything went.

Except Christianity. I was one of a handful of people who identified with it, and most of my friends wrote it off as a casualty of my geographical origins. I was the only student from Mississippi, and so it made sense that I would be one of the few people who talked incessantly about God.

So when the theatre department wanted to do a kind of satire on the classic Hell House experience, I was the first to sign up. I saw this as a moment to address the harm that had been done in the name of Jesus. What could this kind of Hell House look like, I wondered?

At our first meeting, the self-proclaimed fearless leader took the stage. He was a dashing young man with a passion in his eyes. My 18-year-old self thought, “This guy is brilliant,” before he even said one word.

Like a young, scraggly Ethan Hawke he stood proudly in front of us and started by proclaiming: “Hear me out! We should open with a Catholic priest having sex!”

I got up and left the room. I suppose my Christian witness is never as strong as I think it is going to be.

It turns out, hell is scary as hell regardless of how liberal or conservative you happen to be. It is full of poorly lit rooms and people suffering. It is a painting of our worst nightmares come to life. But mostly, it is a place where we can live out our rage against the people we have deemed to be worthy of it.

I wake up many mornings these days wondering if we are all in a kind of Hell House. Mercy and joy are in short supply. And rage is our autopilot. My neighborhood chat groups are full of angry posts about people stealing political signs. Admittedly, it does seem appropriate to see campaign advertisement alongside Halloween skeletons and tombstones. What does this pandemic-meets-election-meets-Halloween moment feel like if not like our greatest fears strewn across the front yard?

There will be an aftermath of the election regardless of who wins. And it will be devastating in one direction or another. Because when all of our hopes have been dashed and all of our promises broken we are only left with singular rage.

Since the world seems terrifying enough, it should come as no surprise that I am not much for scary movies. But The Haunting of Bly Manor has captivated me. For several episodes I have watched as these complicated and conflicted characters navigate their own kind of inescapable hell house. Some people cannot seem to leave, and others live in fear of gracing the doorstep. It feels as though the house will strip away every identity a person holds dear until they are only left as faceless, nameless embodiments of rage.

Towards the end of the series we come to know why. Centuries ago, a woman named Viola lay dying at Bly Manor. The scene is bleak. Her attentive husband and sister are there. Her child is in the adjacent room. A priest has come to offer her last rites.

He begs her to whisper a verse from John’s Gospel back to him: “I go and prepare a place for you.” As priests are called to do, he is offering her more than just comfort on her death bed. He is offering her the reassurance of heaven.

But Viola rejects him. She responds, “No. I do not go. Tell your God I do not go.”

When Viola dies, she gets her wish. Not only does she never leave Bly Manor, but for centuries to come she brings other poor souls into the hell house of her own making.

I watched The Haunting of Bly Manor desperate to understand the ghosts and fears that the characters endure. How striking that this hellish house began with a woman who rejected the mercy of God at her death bed, many, many years ago. It’s weird how Christianity finds its way into horror movies and hell houses, secular and religious alike.

However, it was the final description of Viola that wrecked me. I saw myself in her desire to cling to her own gravitational pull until there is nothing else. My need to endlessly narrate my rage, until that is really all there is for me to offer:

All things fade, all things. Flesh, stone, even stars themselves. Time takes all things. Tis the way of the world, the past recedes, memory fades, and so too does the spirit. Everything yields to time, even the soul. Wake, walk, forget even more. Her name forgotten. Her sister’s name, forgotten. As her memories left her, so too her face. So little did she remember that one night she found a child in her daughter’s old bed. And could not remember who she had been hoping to see. She had only the faint notion that she’d walked this far hoping to find a child. And here was a child. It must be the child whom she sought. It must.

She would sleep and she would fade and fade and fade. And the others, too. Those souls held in her orbit. Those unfortunates trapped in the gravity well she had made of Bly Manor. They were fading as well. Just a thought, just a feeling. Not a woman at all. Not a person at all. Not a name or a face. Just need, need. And loneliness. And rage. Her fate was a nightmare.

I am dying to escape the hell houses of my own creation. Rooms full of rage and fear. I long to take this anger somewhere that can take it from me. To someone who can release me from the inescapable loop that is my own hardened heart. We do not simply want to leave the hell houses we find ourselves in. We long for someone to knock them down and build something new.

I need Jesus to prepare a place for me. Perhaps even one this side of heaven, if it is not too much to ask. I need a place where my ghosts can no longer linger. Where hell has no house to call home. And where my identifying rage has faded into the mercy of God.

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3 responses to “The Hell Houses We Will Not Leave”

  1. Dale Klitzke says:

    Well done, Sarah, well done!

  2. CJ says:

    Awesome work, Sarah. I too have been wondering about hell lately, I guess it’s in the air these days. I think you put it aptly: “it is a place where we can live out our rage.” Whew. Also loving this spooky show.

  3. […] asks,” which is undoubtedly true — but this feels like a sophisticated defense of those ridiculous “evangelistic” Hell Houses Sarah Condon wrote about a couple years […]

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