Excerpt: …Can a ritual designed to convert take the form of a theatrical performance? Moreover, can we take these conversions to be sincere, given their birth in an amateur performance with a predilection for excessive, violent theatrics? Whether or not one agrees with how conversions are brought about, Hell Houses are triggering changes in their audiences—people are being “saved” by theatre. While performance theory explains how Hell House works, the performance’s ability to alter faith exposes the limits of our contemporary theoretical foundations with regard to performances espousing religious belief.
This essay analyzes how Hell House performances operate and theorizes how conversions can occur within theatrical representation. As religious rhetoric continually fuels our political climate, an examination of Hell House offers the opportunity to understand how an audience member can change through representation. I have coined the term salvific performative to refer to the embodied act connected to religious conversion. The utterance “I take Jesus Christ to be my personal Lord and Savior” is this act. It is salvific because these are words concerning salvation, and a performative because the utterance is “doing something rather than merely saying something.” The performative alters the biography and identity of one enacting a new faith. In Hell House, because of the reliance upon theatrical mechanisms, the salvific performative is intricately tied to the production. Given the salvific performative’s scope, by virtue of its connection to conversion, its usefulness as a theoretical term has far-reaching potential. My goal is not to describe all conversions, but to show, through a thorough interrogation of the salvific performative in Hell House, how a conversion is tied to its context; that is to say, a convert does not change his or her faith apropos of nothing. To understand conversion, we must understand the context from which a change of religious faith emerges. In the case of Hell House, the salvific performative is one way by which a spectator changes from a passive observer of theatrically represented reality into a participant in the reality articulated through the representation. Thus, a spectator turned convert in Hell House sees theatrical artifice as “truth.”