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.