Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Scaring the Jesus into you: American Hell Houses in performance
by Willenbrink, Robert Henry, III, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2009, 313; 3350386
Abstract (Summary)

Across the United States every Halloween season hundreds of evangelical Christian churches and church groups produce Hell Houses—a theatrical performance meant to scare their audience into accepting Christ. Hell Houses are the latest incarnation of saint plays or conversion dramas, which dramatize the conversion of a particular religious figure. However, instead of enacting the conversion of a historical figure, the producers of Hell House attempt to institute the conversion of their spectators. To accomplish this, the producers persuade the audience through the performance’s physical sermon, rhetoric, and gruesome theatrics. If persuaded to convert, an audience member utilizes a speech act called the theological performative to change their faith. In order to understand how this happens, I attended three religious Hell House performances and one secular performance. These productions illustrated how meaning and intention are tied to both the intentions of the producers as well as the understanding of the audience. Hell Houses are a particularly problematic aspect of contemporary performance due to their reliance on the beliefs of the producers and the attempt to convince the audience that these beliefs are true. This belief exchange and how the representation utilized in Hell House attempts to convince the audience of the validity of the producers beliefs is unique in the history of religious performance. Moreover, Hell Houses expose how a representation can be used to stand in for reality and convince others that the representation is “real.” The productions, I argue, must be read as a willing communion of belief, where the audience does not agree to suspend their disbelief, but the spectators agree to believe that what they see in the performance is “real.” It is through collapsing the distinctions between beliefs, reality and representation that the producers of Hell House attempt to persuade their audience into religious change.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Enders, Jody
Commitee: Cabranes-Grant, Leo, Yasuda, Kim
School: University of California, Santa Barbara
Department: Dramatic Art
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 70/03, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Religion, Theater
Keywords: Conversion, Hell House, Religious performance
Publication Number: 3350386
ISBN: 978-1-109-08242-5
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