Week 4

Please identify and deconstruct a scene in the film Hell House that demonstrates Clifford Geertz’s notion of “deep play.”  You can use (if you’d like) some of the discussion of the film and play in Ann Pellegrini’s article to assist you.

In his article on the art of Balinese cockfighting, Geertz draws on Bentham’s definition of deep play, which he reproduces as “play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from his utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all.” Thus, there are two components to deep play which must be addressed: the activity in question must be a form of “play,” as defined by Bentham and Johan Huizinga (in Homo Ludens), and it must have these high stakes attached. Hell House contains many examples of deep play, but the one I will focus on here is the infamous “rave scene,” in which teenager “Jessica” attends a rave, is coerced into taking rohypnol (commonly known as the date rape drug) and then raped repeatedly by multiple men (shown offstage). As a consequence, she rejects Jesus and commits suicide by slitting her wrists, while aided by a demon.

The rave scene can be broken down into the two parts needed to be justified as “deep play” thusly: first, the scene is a prime example of play. Dancing itself is seen as a quintessentially playful activity–a group of people get together and move their bodies in rhythm to music in order to release stress, court mates, or feel connected to each other. The costumes, set, and lighting of the rave scene contribute to the fun and playful atmosphere. In fact, when asked about their favorite part of the Hell House, child actors responded with glee about the rave scene, as Pellegrini notes: “One young girl unhesitatingly replies: ‘Rave scene’s the best, because you get to dance.’ There is vocal assent from her peers.” Considering that many of these children don’t often get to dance in a situation like this, the rave scene at the Hell House may be their only chance to experience this kind of play–making it all the more important and worthwhile.

But this is precisely where the danger of the scene comes into play. The high stakes required to categorize the rave scene as deep play lie in the looming threat of mimesis that comes with acting out a rave. The actors are experiencing something they never have come into contact with: dancing in a rave. They can trust that the experience is somewhat accurate, considering that the designer and “DJ” of the scene used to be a frequent attendee of raves (before he found Jesus). Though their goal is to show the dangers of dancing at raves and convincing others to accept Jesus in order to protect themselves from those dangers, there is a real threat for the actors of falling victim to the rave. Pastor Tim Ferguson and other adults understand that dancing in a rave scene at Hell House may very well serve as a “gateway drug” to attending actual raves. This is why Ferguson rejects the idea of having two women hit on each other during a “gay bar scene,” as he notes that with the amount of time rehearsing the Hell House, it’s possible that the two actresses could find feelings for each other in reality. The stakes of performing in the rave scene are high, but the fun and the necessity of performing are higher. Thus, the rave scene is deep play.

One thought on “Week 4

  1. Hi Allie, A great great post. You covered the the contradiction of deep play perfectly. Play, as Huizinga and Schechner point out is often a kind of rehearsal with loose rules, but is engaged in a situation that is supposed to be outside of the “real” world, and so the participants can engage in the action without “real world” effects. The members of Cedar Hill Trinity Church normally restrict forms of play and will only engage in mimetic reproduction of the world outside their community if it is in service of their evangelical mission. Plato feared mimetic production because it was compelling and distracting and he believed it didn’t contribute to the state. But Aristotle understood it’s power to astonish and instruct — the people were more receptive to messages through dramatic production. But he also knew the Dionysian power of mimetic production – that really it could, in cases like they do in Hell House, both whip people up into a frenzy, and that it produced feelings that would have to be carefully controlled by dramatugical inventions. Because, as you write, acting out something forbidden produces similar feelings to the pleasures of that kind of play. And if one feels the power of that — how does one police oneself and one’s feelings because you do experience that pleasure (and, following the gateway theory want it again). So the tension produced by deep play is intense — and the audience understands those stakes and take the work even more seriously, But, as Geertz and Ratliff show, the players of deep play cannot be just anyone. Deep play only occurs when the players are enmeshed in a cultural and belief system.


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