“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.