The Hell House of Ryan Dixon: On the Origins of Hell House: The Awakening
By Ryan Dixon
Originally Published on FierceandNerdy.com
“Where do you get your ideas?”
As a writer I’m asked that question a lot. Usually I respond by spouting off something about an amalgamation of life experience, imaginative fancy and just plain ripping off better works. However, Hell House: The Awakening — the recently published Viper Comics graphic novel I co-wrote with Chad Feehan– provides a rare case where the idea sprung directly from a very specific incident in my own life.
Hell House: The Awakening was a story that both Chad and I had to tell. Despite its supernatural trappings, the book’s inspirational core—researching the poisonous vapors that drift off the sweltering swamp of Fundamentalist Christianity—was something that hit each of us, in very different ways, personally and tragically in the gut.
While the dark road that led Chad to become passionate about our graphic novel can only be revealed when he is emotionally ready, I have decided, after much inner turmoil and a few long discussions with the parties involved, to reveal for the first time my own inspiration behind Hell House: The Awakening.
Suffice it to say, over a decade has passed since the tragic events of 1998 and 1999 and not a day goes by when I don’t wonder how much better my life would have been if I had never gone into a Hell House.
In October of 1998 I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and desperately lonely. Having left the tight-knit group of friends from the rural area I grew up in 90 minutes away (which included fellow Fierce and Nerdy contributors Jersey Joe and On the Contrary’s Joe Rusin), I was too intimidated by the seemingly sophisticated and overtly-theatrical mien of my private-school educated fellow freshman in CMU’s legendary School of Drama to claim any of them as true friends.
As Halloween weekend approached, I longed to go on the type of haunted house tour my high school friends and I took every year. Since I was already branded as a “horror guy” by my CMU classmates, I figured that a good way to move at least some of them off the acquaintance column and onto the friends list was to take them on an unforgettably scary time in the Pittsburgh area, a rich breeding ground for homemade haunted houses.
Oct 30th was a Friday and that morning I was scouring the weekend section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (yes, we read actual papers back then) looking for the perfect haunted house when my eyes came across a blurb about something called “Hell House.”
As a true believer in the mantra that everything in life should be viewed at a slightly ironic distance, I became almost giddy upon reading that Hell House was a Christian haunted house that replaced the usual supernatural roster of ghouls, ghosts and chainsaw wielding maniacs with about-to-be married homosexuals, aborted fetuses, Ecstasy-fueled gang rapes and the ultimate room of choice where participants could either walk through a door marked “Heaven” or enter one labeled “Hell.” (Go through “Heaven,” you’d get to hang out with a simulacrum of Christ; enter “Hell” and you’d be forced to sit and pray for your own salvation.)
Since the only religious members of my class were a handful of closeted music theatre majors (all of whom would eventually pirouette their way out the closet in the ensuing three and a half years), I assumed I wasn’t in danger of offending anyone’s religious sensibilities when I decided that Hell House would make an ideal destination.
However, when I pitched the Hell House on Halloween idea, it was instantly nixed. My classmates were all planning to attend the School of Drama’s annual Halloween bacchanal and were much more interested in actually having sex then hearing Bible-wielding teen virgins preach against it.
Dejected and prepared to spend Halloween night alone in my dorm (on a Saturday night no less!), I decided to throw a Hail Mary pass by calling my friends back home to see if any of them could make the trip down to Pittsburgh. I held out the slightest hope that one or two of them would make it. Instead, I was delighted to discover that the old gang was getting back together.
As with most geek-centric teenage collectives seen in novels, films and TV (The Goonies, The Explorers, Stephen King’s It, etc.), our group could easily be otherwise explained with one word: male. The year before, however, had brought a notable exception to the rule. The exception’s name was Emily.
Emily and I had met at the “Indiana County Band Festival,” a week-long gathering where the supposed best high school musicians in our rural county teamed up to form an all-star musical super group and spent a week rehearsing for what usually amounted to an epically long and musically uneven concert led by a Mr. Hollandesque “guest conductor” from some state college in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania. (FYI…Even by the most liberal definition of the word, I was not one of the “best” musicians in the county. But since so few people played the trombone, I became a beneficiary of musical affirmative action.)
As we were both trombonists, Emily and I sat next to each other throughout the week and instantly clicked. And by click I actually mean– this being high school after all–that I fell madly in love with her from the moment I discovered we mutually considered The Hudsucker Proxy a holy relic of modern cinema and had the same taste in music (it isn’t an easy thing finding another teenage Mandy Patinkin fan in Western Pa).
(Author’s note: I should mention here that Emily was not her real name. Because of the events you will soon be reading about, I couldn’t use her real name for fear of being sued… or worse. So please don’t bother hopping onto my Facebook page in search of this “Emily”. You won’t find her, but will meet a handful of other Emily’s who won’t be very pleased by random friend requests.)
After the festival ended, I started to invite Emily to our group’s Friday night ritual of seeing new releases at the local cinema. Her ease with the rest of my friends was so great that in only a few weeks it felt like she had been with us from the beginning.
In hindsight, perhaps I was little too eager to indoctrinate her with my friends. As I teenage teetotaler I didn’t have the benefit of liquid courage to help me reveal to her my true feelings and thus I relegated myself to finding the “perfect” moment to attempt that consummating first kiss. This strategy of simply waiting for “the moment” to come along—let’s call it The Godot Defense—had about as much success as the characters do in the term’s eponymous source material.
The lack of even attempting to kiss Emily was an ever-expanding albatross upon my shoulders, whose near grotesque obesity threatened to drown me in an ocean of teenage angst. Finally deciding that, since I was a writer, even a failed kiss attempt would be a “good story,” I made plans to, at long last, to attempt the kiss during a long, romantic walk through the woods by my house the night before I headed for CMU.
“Man plans, God laughs.” Or so goes the old Jewish proverb. In this case, the moonlit walk I had been dreaming about for weeks was erased by a late summer Western Pennsylvania downpour. Instead of bonding over shared secrets and hidden desires, we spent most of the evening at Applebee’s, mocking Keanu Reeves’ immortally atrocious performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (“Music? Those animals!“), which was weirdly playing on the TV near us. The performance (“I’ve seen many strange things already. Bloody wolves chasing me through some blue inferno!“) is many things, but an elixir for teenage Eros it’s not.
The night of the Hell House was my next legitimate chance of propelling our relationship through the arid valley of friendship and onto the lush peaks of romance. At the very least I hoped the pious scares Hell House offered would have sufficient terror quotient to frighten Emily into taking my hand; the touch of which might provide me with enough verve to get up the nerve to kiss her.
Little did I know that instead of a kiss, our journey into the Hell House would be the catalyst for the all-too-real horror to come.
“This is Steve,” the Grim Reaper guide says. “He thought his homosexual lifestyle was everything a real man could want, but now he’s dying of AIDS.”
While the exact details of what my best friends and I experienced inside the Hell House can mostly be found, slightly fictionalized, in Hell House: The Awakening, when I think back to that Halloween night twelve years ago, I do so not to bathe in the memory of the fun we had, but in the still-in-vain hope of uncovering the sundering seed of tragedy that would eventually befall the beating heart of our group, my unrequited love, Emily.
Yet retrospection only brings a cacophony of our communal noise; the quiet sneers, suppressed giggles, and sarcastic remarks we shared while witnessing the immersive, multitudinous triumphs of aesthetic, thematic and moral bad taste within those dimly lit rooms dedicated to purging the sinful desires of homosexuality, illegal drugs, indecent literature and pre-marital sex from its visitors. Suffice it to say, the sort of genuine “haunted house” scares that could have perhaps provoked Emily’s hand into mine, and thus chastely consummate a romance, were non-existent.
At least that’s what I thought then. Now, I know better. Something inside the Hell House did frighten her. But what? No matter how many times I scour the cache of my memory, trying to find a Rosebud within the thirty minutes we spent inside the abandoned and re-decorated steel mill on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, I still cannot locate the inciting incident of Emily’s eventual descent. The infection point where the cancer of religious obsession entered her bloodstream, eager to metastasize and devour every ounce of her being.
If I had to hazard a guess–and believe me, during the ensuing decade I have hazarded many—the moment where everything changed happened somewhere within the two rooms that focused on that grand and deadly near-secret pseudo Holocaust that obsesses every Christian Fundamentalist: abortion.
Yet, wasn’t Emily giggling in perfect harmony with the rest of our group when we first stepped out of the Gay Wedding Chapel and into that cramped, humid room where the walls, ceiling and floor where covered in red, cushy pillows? Didn’t she whisper something like, “Now we’ve done it.” when we all assumed that we had entered Hell? And didn’t she then add, “I wonder if he’s up for adoption?” when our Grim Reaper guide informed us that we were not, in fact, in Hell but inside an Edenic womb and that the bulbous, overweight teen dressed in a form fitting, hairless and veiny costume was not some troglodytic humanoid demon, but an unborn fetus? Emily did all of those things, yes. But what was really going through her mind?
For a seeming eternity in the Womb Room we watched as the fetus– lying upon a mound of red bean bags, curled up in a, well, fetal position– peacefully stretched and yawned in rhythm to Enya’s “Caribbean Blue”, which wafted from the speakers. At about the point where I actually began to consider whether this room was indeed some sort of Hell for those without a strong constitution for boredom, two giant, sharpened tongs ripped into the V-shaped entrance, grabbed the tranquil, unborn babe and dragged it out.
Enya gave way to the atonal, discordance of Penderecki. Upon instruction from our Grim Reaper guide, we followed the fetus’s trajectory, emerging from the womb and into a grimy hospital room. The walls were made of faded and cracked white tiles covered in fake blood and excrement. On shelves around the room were, as Pastor Keenan Roberts’ original Hell House script demands, “Pieces of meat placed in glass bowls to look like pieces of a baby.”
In the middle of room, squirming in a creaky, ancient hospital bed was a girl—the actress couldn’t have been more than fourteen—with a huge red stain in the lower mid-section of her hospital gown.
She was writhing in agony while a doctor and a nurse—both roles performed in the Grand Community Theatre style by two sixteen-year-olds—stood on each side of her. The nurse’s hand held a vacuum whose hose was burrowed under the girl’s gown. After another moment of “actorly” business with the vacuum, the nurse turned it off, slid the hose out from between the girl’s legs and said to the doctor, “I removed the final pieces of her child.”
The doctor nodded, the girl screamed again and the nurse continued, “But she’s hemorrhaging blood.”
The doctor took the girl’s pulse. “She’s dying.”
“No!!!” the girl said. “Give me back my baby! Please! I’m so sorry!”
“You killed your baby!” the Doctor said, showing the decided lack of bedside manner that so many of us have grown accustomed to. “Now you’re going to die…“
“…and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
With their minds made up regarding their patient’s fate, the doctor and the nurse headed out while the girl looked upward and presented her final appeal for salvation, “I’m sorry Jesus!!!! Forgive me!!!!!!”
But it was too late, of course. Four teens dressed as demonized aborted fetuses crawled out from a trap door on the floor, surrounded the bed and stated the usual spiel about how the girl’s soul was damned for all of eternity. After completing their damnation preamble, they cackled in unison as the girl was sucked down and through the middle of her bed– presumably into the eternal flames of Hell– in the style reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s death in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
So transfixed was I by the (Ed) Woodian showcase of unintentional camp and bad taste on display that I only once ventured a glance at Emily during the entire two-part abortion epic. Upon that glance, while the nurse was vacuuming the remaining baby bits from inside the girl, I saw Emily in what I considered her most beautiful form. Her head was tilted slightly to the side while a dangling bang half-covered one of her blue eyes, which were sparkling even under the ugly, oppressive glow of the florescent light above.
And she was laughing.
If I had known then that it would be the final time I ever saw her laugh, I would have never turned back toward the horror show trio of the doctor, nurse and girl. I would have kept watching Emily, trying to memorize every facet and contour of that laugh, searing it into my memory for time immemorial. But I didn’t know that then.
Nor did I know the horrific irony of Emily’s last laugh: it was aimed at the very thing that would soon steal the joy from her life forever.
The phone rang in my dorm room during the dawning hours of a frigid Monday morning in January 1999. Already awake and blearily trying to memorize the opening prologue of Shakespeare’s Henry V that I had to perform for my acting class in just a few hours, I answered it.
On the Contrary’s Joe Rusin was on the other line. One of the charter members of our close-nit group of friends, Joe was two years younger than me and should have been getting ready for school.
“Emily’s in the hospital,” he said. “She tried to kill herself.”
After hanging up, I tossed the Shakespeare aside, put on my overcoat and stumbled through the thickening layer of snow accumulating on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, wondering… What should I do?
My initial response was to call my parents and have them pick me up so I could visit Emily in the hospital. This is what a best friend would do. This is what an aspiring boyfriend would do. But was I either of those things anymore?
I had gotten used to repressing my romantic longings for Emily. I satisfied myself with our strong friendship, but since that October night at Hell House, she and I had barely communicated. Our epically long IM sessions had gone the way of the dodo. Emails were returned, not within minutes or hours, but days. Calls were non-existent. In the month and a half between our Hell House adventure and Christmas break, I threw myself fully into school work and made an effort to bond with my classmates so I could avoid thinking about Emily.
But I cherished our relationship too much to let it suffocate in silence. After the semester ended I headed home, determined to re-connect with Emily at least as “friends.” The ideal event to begin the reconciliation process was our group’s traditional day-after Christmas movie.
Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi horror film The Faculty had been released on Christmas day and I assumed all of us, film geeks one and all, would be eager to see what that great garage sale auteur would do outside the realm of post-modern action exploitation. But during the trip-organizing game of telephone, my plans crashed into an unexpected obstacle: Emily didn’t want to see The Faculty.
“But you love sci-fi horror,” I pleaded with her over the phone, “You can quote Evil Dead 2 and Repo Man better than I can.”
“David doesn’t want to see such a thematically questionable film so close to Jesus’ birthday,” she replied. “He thought we would all be better off seeing The Prince of Egypt.”
Who in the fuck was David?!
He was, as I found out when Emily introduced him to us the next night, her boyfriend. They had met at a friend’s birthday party at a roller skating rink in nearby Indiana, PA, and had started dating about two weeks after our Hell House trip. When Joe Rusin asked, during our pre-movie dinner at Applebee’s, what she and David had in common, Emily replied, “We just totally click.”
In the past when either of us was dating someone, we always kept the references to the romantic partner to a minimum and never, ever, brought them along on any of our group’s adventures. Now Emily was blatantly breaking our great unspoken Prime Directive. Not only breaking it, but tearing it to pieces, setting it on fire and forcing it down my throat.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, our trip to see Dreamworks’ dreary retelling of the Ten Commandments myth was one made up of agonizingly awkward interludes, cross-cutting between the in-jokes and short-hand references our group was tossing to one another and… things David said.
Those things usually had nothing to do with the topic at hand, but focused ad nauseum on the biblical fidelity of Prince and the certainty that the film’s box office success would lead to, “a series of kick-ass cartoons based on the Bible.” David personally hoped that next film would be about his favorite biblical character… (wait for it) King David.
For her part, Emily stayed mostly silent, adding only a few curt comments to our conversations and nodding her head in eager agreement with seemingly every syllable that spewed forth from David’s well-chiseled face (that he was handsome in a corn-fed idiot kinda way, I cannot deny).
When I returned to school right after New Years I had accepted the fact that Emily and I were probably friends in name only. So, on the weekend following her suicide attempt, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I had my father pick me up in Pittsburgh and drive me an hour east to the psychiatric ward where she had been temporarily committed.
I was led through a series of long, bleak, labyrinthine corridors until we finally reached her room. I stepped inside, my eyes squinting from the refulgent power of the room’s only source of illumination, a blinding winter light blasting in through the caged window from a snow drenched courtyard.
After my eyes adjusted, Emily came into sharp focus despite the harsh backlight. Her once porcelain, silky face, which resembled nothing less than the subject of a Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, was, due to stress and loss of blood, now coarse and spectral, like the surface of a once-fertile planet that had seen its natural beauty ravaged by an asteroid attack.
She gave a hesitant, slightly embarrassed smile and said, “Hi.”
I sat in the rigid, squeaky wooden chair by her bed and we began the meandering sort of empty chit-chat which could have lasted for hours if not for the moment when she stretched her right arm out to pick up her small plastic cup of orange juice. The fleshy underside of her forearm revealed itself from the protective wrap of the battered Penn State sweatshirt she was wearing and I let out an audible gasp, not from the bandages covering her wrists, but what was beyond the bandages, carved into the fleshly underside of her forearm.
Before I could even ask what these letters and numbers meant, she stretched out her other arm, pulled up her sleeve and revealed another red, raw scarring jangle of words beyond the bandaged wrist.
Without prompting, she said, “This one’s from Jeremiah.”
‘Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.’
“Emily, why did you–”
“And that one’s from Job,” she said, her eyes returning to the first arm.
‘What then shall I do when God rises up? When He punishes, how shall I answer Him? Did not He who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same One fashion us in the womb?’
Tears teased out of her eyes. And she told me what happened.
Having been raised by proudly secular parents, Emily had always taken a particular glee in arguing with the religious crazies at her school during lunchtime, but after Hell House, she began to wonder if they weren’t somehow right. What if she were ignoring her only real chance of salvation?
And like a white, Christian knight riding in to rescue her at the moment of greatest danger, David appeared. He filled in her cracks of doubt with the confidence and relief of belief. Their romance metastasized so quickly that a few days before our ill-gotten movie trip she and David had taken a “True Love Waits” abstinence pledge (“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage.”) in front of the entire congregation of David’s church.
But a day after seeing The Prince of Egypt, she and David were in a hot and heavy make-out session (I worked hard to not visibly cringe when she said “make-out session”), scrunched up in David’s Ford Bronco II. “And it just kept going further and further until we did it.” Emily said. “Then I found out I was pregnant.”
Emily curled her arms tightly around her stomach before continuing, “After I told David, he kissed me and said everything was gonna be okay. But the next day he didn’t return my calls.”
Nor did he return her calls the day after. Or the day after after. Unable to take the unbearable burden of his silence any longer, she drove to his house where his parents answered the door. “They wouldn’t let me in and told me David said that he didn’t have sex with me.”
His parents continued their vitriolic harangue, calling her a slut and demanding that she never contact their son again. Emily, despondent, drove around aimlessly until arriving at David’s church at almost midnight.
“I gulped down a bottle of red wine I bought earlier and then smashed the church’s glass front door with a rock. I stumbled up to the altar, having no clue what I was doing. Then I remembered how the whole congregation had chanted those stupid bible verses with us during our virginity pledge and I…”
She paused, looking down to her forearms. The fingers of her right hand began to dance lightly upon the scars on her left arm. “I still had a shard of glass in my hand from the broken door so I carved the verses into my arms, digging as deep as I could to make sure that they’d never go away.”
After finishing her act of carnal calligraphy, she dropped to her knees and imprinted the bloody verses onto the altar’s thick beige carpet. Then she slit her wrists.
“But by that point I was so drunk and fucked up I just did it horizontally, not straight like they say you should do if you really want to kill yourself. I cut through a lot of tendon and gristle, but missed the artery. Still I passed out and would have bled to death on the altar if that asshole preacher hadn’t forgotten the notes to his sermon in the church.”
Emily stopped there, took a sip of the orange juice and stared out at the courtyard where another patient was now beginning the build the lower half of a snowman. Without even bothering to summon any sort of verbal response, I moved to the edge of her bed and gave her an all consuming embrace.
“I can’t have this baby.” She said softly into my ear.
“You don’t have to. Whatever you want to do, I’ll be here for you.”
“I know you will be,” she said. Without any other prompting, her lips moved away from my ear and she kissed me.
After years of fantasizing about this moment, I was so shocked by the fact that it was actually happening that it took me a long beat before I could even kiss her back. But then, we kissed a kiss that felt like it was not taking place in our world, but in some blissful, parallel dimension where we were the only two human beings in existence. The perfection of that kiss was, at long last, the evidence I needed to prove my thesis: Emily and I were meant for each other.
Before I left to go back to Carnegie Mellon, we made plans to see each other the following weekend (for someone without a car, my parents were amazingly flexible when it came to my travel plans). Emily would be out of the hospital by then and both of us eagerly exchanged ideas as to what we would do with a whole weekend entirely to ourselves. Would it be our first weekend as a couple, I wondered?
But that next Friday afternoon, when I stopped by a computer lab near my dorm to check my email before heading out, I encountered an unwelcome surprise:
Good news! During the week David came and apologized. He said he knew what he did was wrong and begged forgiveness. I accepted and am joining his church. Even better, we’re getting married at the end of the month (crazy soon, I know, but it’s for the best) and having the baby! It’s weird thinking that I’m going to be a mom so soon, but I realize now it was Jesus’ decision all along. What David and I did was sinful, but the result will be a miracle.
All the best,
P.S. I know you might be mad at me. But maybe this will help make you understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s from Psalm 139:13-14…”For You formed my inward parts; you covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.”
I didn’t respond to the email, figuring that she probably didn’t want me to. She was done with my world and I would never be allowed into hers. That was the last time I ever heard from Emily.
The years drifted on and, perhaps as a defense mechanism, my relationship with Emily became a comical story that I could toss out when the conversation turned to crazy ex’s. While we never officially dated, I thought that our kiss was good enough of a confirmation of our mutual romantic interest. Plus, “The love of my life broke up with me for Jesus” was an opening line that couldn’t help but grab everyone’s attention.
And that remained the status quo until a few years ago when Chad Feehan and I were bouncing around ideas for the project that would ultimately become Hell House: The Awakening. During a break from writing, I logged onto Facebook and saw Emily’s name staring back at me in the “Friends You May Know” section.
I clicked on her profile and found myself looking at a family, formally and awkwardly posing for what seemed like a Church directory photo. In the center was a smiling woman, at least thirty pounds overweight, her face a mummified mask of mascara, her hair a puffy perm so fresh it was like she had built a time machine, gone back to 1994 and stole it.
Surrounding her was a brood of three kids and behind all of them was a beast of a man who must have been David, though his bulging stomach, roly-poly cheeks and graying goatee– which looked more like an aborted beard–made him almost unrecognizable from the good-looking, clean-cut teen who had once forced us to see The Prince of Egypt.
My eyes drifted toward Emily’s arms. She was wearing a blouse with sleeves that went down to her wrists, but a small amount of her right forearm was exposed. The scars, faint and faded, were still there.
Those scars, I realized, were a true Mark of the Beast. The Beast of religious belief. This Beast preyed upon Emily, twisting her mind so that she confused fear with salvation, delusion with hope. It feasted on everything that was funny, beautiful, smart and good about her until she was just another member of the countless throng that make up the real living dead who walk among us.
Getting back to work after our break, I told Chad that a terrible Beast that was on the loose in our world. “We need to fight it,” I said. And our first battle would take place in a Hell House.