Hollywood and Halloween

To most Americans, Halloween is a happy occasion for little costumed children to plead with neighbors for handfuls of candy. Older children revel in an evening coated with spooky atmospheres, ghost stories, and haunted houses. And now there are those adults who are using Halloween for politically inane and insulting purposes.

In 1990, a group of ministers in Cedar Hill, Texas created what they called a "Hell House," designed to scare people into realizing the dangers of sin and reminding them of the dreaded possibility of Hell. A Colorado minister named Keenan Roberts took that concept on the road, writing a script and creating a kit for other churches to replicate it. "Demon" tour guides take visitors through a set of scary scenes about abortion, homosexuality, suicide, and a gory drunken-driving accident. In the abortion scene, a young woman laying on an operating table screams "I made a mistake...I want my baby back!" At the end of the tour, visitors are asked what role Jesus plays in their lives. Using Halloween as an opportunity to preach a jarring Christian message has taken hold. It's now estimated the concept has been produced in 3,000 locations.

Can you say wet blanket? I'd like to say these ministers are well-meaning but misdirected, but I can't give them even that benefit of the doubt. Halloween is meant to be a celebration of childhood innocence, and childhood imagination. On both counts these ministers are ruining it, forcing those innocent children to confront and address dark, serious adult issues. Just as these parents would rightfully denounce how Hollywood is robbing a generation of children of their innocence, they are now doing the same, and because the ends never justify the means, this activity is to be deplored.

Hollywood doesn't like it either, but the way it is deploring "Hell House" is even more shameful. The hottest ticket on the Los Angeles theatre scene this fall was a play called "Hollywood Hell House." Director Maggie Rowe reproduced the Rev. Roberts script word for word, mocking every minute of it, milking it for dismissive laughter. (How anyone can giggle at a woman regretting her abortion is beyond me.) She acquired the script from Rev. Roberts by calling him up and telling him she was from a youth group. To avoid any guilt for misrepresenting her intentions, she called her production company "The Youth Group."

Self-satisfied second-rate and third-rate actors lined up for roles. HBO's Bill Maher played Satan, and Andy Richter, the former Conan O'Brien sidekick now starring in Fox's sitcom "Quintuplets," acted as Jesus. Richard Belzer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" also joined the cast, as did former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Julia Sweeney and former porn star Traci Lords. Actors and producers from shows including "The Simpsons," "24," "Arrested Development," "The Daily Show," "Six Feet Under" and "The King of Queens" lent their talents to the mockery.

Mocking what? It is an exercise ridiculing not the excesses of these fundamentalist Christians, but the essence of fundamentalist Christianity. For her part, the director Maggie Rowe, who calls herself a "recovering fundamentalist," said the show is therapy for her, since "The biggest journey of my life has been trying to undo what I think of as the spiritual terrorism of my church and fundamentalist churches in general." Her group claims, "Hollywood Hell House is not in any way an indictment of religion, Christianity, or the Bible. Its purpose is to demonstrate the absurdity of a literal interpretation of the Bible, specifically the belief in a literal everlasting hell."

But how do you not "indict" the Bible while declaring its literal interpretation is absurd? It's like saying you don't mean to mock anti-tobacco activists, you just think their warnings about the dangers of cigarettes are ridiculous.

Hollywood is not kind to religion, especially in its "judgmental" varieties - you know, those religious institutions governed by eternal principles - but the irony is that Tinseltown, too has what you might call sacred cows. What do you suppose would be these actors' reaction were fundamentalists to take their propagandistic movies about the frightening dangers of abortion opponents ("If These Walls Could Talk") or opponents of homosexuality ("If These Walls Could Talk 2") and play their scripts - for laughs? The outcry over the insensitivity, the mean-spiritedness, the intolerance of it all would be deafening.

"Hell House" is tasteless. "Hollywood Hell House" is also tasteless - and offensive.