Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Letter From California-September 12, 2004

It’s still only mid-September, so the kiddies haven’t yet finalized their Halloween costume choices for the year. I don’t exactly remember how I picked mine back in the last century, but I do want to say one thing on behalf of everybody who grew up at approximately the same time I did: those department store superhero costumes with the plastic jump suit and face mask attached by an elastic band were incredibly lame. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that Luke Skywalker does not walk around wearing a one-piece suit that ties around the neck, with a picture of himself on the front and the words “STAR WARS” splashed across the top. The other problem, of course, came from the mask. If you ever picked a character like Skywalker, the mask you got pretty much was the generic blonde-haired white guy. You got the generic dark-haired white guy if you went with Superman. Imagine a kid’s disappointment while he’s running around on Halloween, feeling like the Man of Steel, when some really out-of-touch grown up walks up and compliments him on his Rock Hudson costume.
Not cool. Not cool at all.
Of course, one off-the-rack costume never caused such a case of mistaken identity. No chance anyone would think you were an aging movie legend who turned out to be, well, a little different than people imagined him to be at the time. In fact, there were at least four of these unmistakable costumes; you could take your pick: Gene, Ace, Peter or Paul. That’s right, some of the cooler kids in elementary school went down to the Woolworth and picked themselves out a KISS costume. It meant you were a third grade rocker; it meant you were a little dangerous; it meant maybe you came from a bad home, but that just made you tougher. It meant all the kids would come up to you and say, “Hey, why would Ace Frehley walk around with a picture of himself on his chest and the word “KISS” written above it?” Ok, the costume itself was still lame, but you get the idea. Pretending to be one of the members of the band had cachet; you were bad, in a good way.
There was really only one downside to wearing a KISS costume: eternal damnation.
It’s funny how things look 25 years later. At the time, KISS came to symbolize pure evil. Parents everywhere worried that if their pre-teens listened to KISS, they’d start slaughtering perfectly good goats in the backyard during sleepovers and chasing their bonfire-cooked s’mores with warm mugs of each other’s blood. KISS, they feared, would usher in a new age of devilish behavior. In retrospect, KISS did signal the beginning of some unfortunate trends, but mostly in the area of bad hair and makeup. Their songs, when you listen to them now, seem cute and harmless compared to some of the things you hear now coming over the loudspeaker at, say, a public school.
So I suppose Halloween has always caused great debates of good versus evil, and probably the best place to see that debate this year is at the Hollywood Hell House right here in Southern California. You may have heard of this in the news, and since I am in the entertainment biz, I got invited to the first night and went to take in the scene. For those who missed the story, a group of well-known Hollywood people bought a “Hell House” kit designed for use by churches as a Halloween Haunted House alternative and sold by Pastor Keenan Roberts of Colorado. The idea of the “Hell House” is to show scenes of the suffering caused by a sinful life. As you walk through the House with your demon guide, you witness gory and violent scenes like an abortion gone wrong, a school shooting, and a drug-induced suicide. It makes the 1978 TV movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park” look like the Teletubbies. Eventually, you end up in Hell, face to face with the devil, until Jesus appears and you are saved.
As you might imagine, the Hollywood Hell House is a little different from most. I came face to face with Satan, as played by line-dropping, religion-hating comedian Bill Maher. Our group was saved from the wise-cracking devil by comedian Andy Richter, whose portrayal of Jesus was quite good, though Richter goes about a hundred pounds more than you normally expect Jesus to weigh.
Although the group claims to have produced the show exactly as Pastor Roberts wrote it, their purpose wasn’t exactly saving souls. I’m guessing that doesn’t surprise you. On the other hand, they weren’t just making fun either. They wanted the material to speak for itself and to let people draw their own conclusions, though of course they were expecting most people to think that the Hell House was ridiculous and extreme. A bit like “Fahrenheit 911,” you might say.
Part of the reason I wanted to go on opening night is that I heard that Pastor Roberts was planning to be there, and indeed, the producers had him as a guest of honor. So as I watched hundreds of hip, young, Hollywood people wait hours in line to get in, thinking they were having a laugh at Pastor Roberts’ expense, I saw Pastor Roberts smiling, shaking hands, watching the people, too. These were folks, after all, who regularly visit a coffeehouse, but would stay out of a Hell House like it was an outhouse. Yet, here they were, putting their names on a waiting list, hanging around a parking lot for the chance to go in. I heard the other day that the Hell House is now booked more than a week in advance.
Halloween brings out a lot of funny feelings in people, but I call this the strangest Halloween sight I’ve ever seen. People who disagreed with Pastor Roberts on just about everything were spreading his message to thousands and thousands of people that would never have seen it otherwise. Pastor Roberts allowed his work to be mocked, in a way, but smiled all the way through it.
Pastor Roberts and the Hell House producer cordially spent large chunks of the evening together, posing for pictures and talking to press.
Both were confident their own message was getting through.
I wasn’t so sure.


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