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.