Amish Teens Explore the ‘Devil’s Playground’

Browse through souvenir postcards from Pennsylvania and among the pictures of beautiful mountains and old buildings you are likely to find several images of Amish people driving their horse-drawn carts, plowing their fields, or walking in their plain clothes. Live in Pennsylvania (or Ohio, or Indiana, or even Florida) and you are likely to see their buggies on the road or a man in a beard and hat in the local Walmart parking lot. But seeing them in postcards and more so in real life only reinforces the idea of just how different, and how separate, the Amish are from the frenetic pace of a consumption-based, technology-driven society. The Amish co-exist with their “english” neighbors but for the most part keep to themselves. They dislike being photographed and even more rarely do film crews gain access to their lives. But director Lucy Walker gained this access, and her film Devil’s Playground offers an inside glimpse of the community, its values, a rite of passage known as rumspringa, and its effect on Amish teenagers.

Titles early in the film explain the foundation of the Amish thinking. Their church believes children should not be baptized at birth; instead, they believe that only an adult can choose Christ and understand the full meaning of that choice. This fundamental belief got the church persecuted in England and Europe, and so by 1860 most of them had relocated to the United States. For most of their lives, Amish children remain within the community’s folds and are raised with its teachings. They attend one-room schools until eighth grade, when their parents force them to drop out and work (in their views excessive education leads to pride). Half a century ago children just stayed home and worked on the farm with their parents, but many children today work in factories.

At 16 children enter rumspringa, a time that lasts between several months and several years, wherein teenagers explore the “english” world (known as the “devil’s playground”) and decide whether or not to join the Amish church. During this period teenagers are allowed to partake of things “english” teenagers do, such as getting a haircut, wearing nontraditional clothes, driving, watching television, playing video games, listening to music, smoking, drinking, doing drugs, dancing, and partying. If the kids commit these sins and get rid of the habits before entering the church, then they are welcome. But the decision can be a tough one. Wearing an Old Navy sweatshirt and jeans, Velda Bontrager explains, “Part of me thinks I want to be like my parents. Another part of me thinks I want the jeans and the car and just kinda do what I want to do.”

Some of these new freedoms might seem banal, but putting them in context with Amish teachings helps illustrate just how shocking they might be. In an interesting montage that uses an anaphoric device, several voices start saying, “We believe,” and then cite an Amish tenet afterward. At first one voice is heard at a time, and as the montage continues, the words “we believe” become uttered by several simultaneous voices, a community of voices, even though one voice still explains the belief. Some of their teachings include keeping themselves separate from the world, not making life difficult, using a horse and buggy to keep life simpler, men growing a beard after marriage, not having insurance, using Pennsylvania Dutch, men assuming the dominant role in marriage and women assuming a weaker role in their society – all working toward preserving their traditions and community. Beachy Amish Minister Steve Yoder explains, “It’s hard to train your children to be different from everybody else. There’s too much peer pressure.” After rumspringa (which literally means “running around”), if children decide to join the Amish church (and 90 percent of them do), it is a decision they make for life.

The film follows four teenagers in rumspringa: Faron Yoder, 18; Gerald Yutzy, 17; Velda Bontrager, 23; and Joann Hochstetler, 18. All four grew up in an Amish community in Indiana, and each has a different reaction to and experience with rumspringa.

Differences exist in how boys and girls experience this period. Boys wear “english” clothes and sometimes move out of the house, while girls tend to remain at home and wear traditional dresses and bonnets. Joann, however, moved out, but she expresses some regret about her rumspringa: “I wish I could say I never opened a can of beer.” She found that partying wasn’t for her and moved back home. Of the four teenagers, she is the only one to be baptized and remain in the church.

With rumspringa comes with own “traditions”. One is the parties. According to Gerald, “Every night’s a party. If there’s not one, you make one.” Indiana State police officer Scott Stuart confirms that the parties are “wild,” with several hundred teenagers from several states attending. They dance, they smoke, and they drink long into the wee hours of the morning. One morning after shot shows teenagers waking up with the sun, and some of them are asleep in cars, while horse and buggies are parked along the road as well.

Gerald seems to have the least amount of difficulty adjusting to “english” life. He has a factory job and a trailer, and he seems not to miss home: “If I was living at home, I couldn’t have 200 channels of DirectTV, stereo, Nintendo, and a fridge full of beer.” He really enjoys his freedom, but he eventually moves back home, though decides not to join the church, a decision he notes many community members fail to understand.

Outside Joann, Velda, and a couple other girls, women appear to have no voice in the Amish community. This might be seen at most repression or at least an oversight, but the film provides a contextual explanation. As is stated on some occasions and as is explained through Velda’s experiences and insights, women in the Amish society take a secondary role to men, and their primary options after entering the church are tending to the home and raising the children.

Velda struggles more than Joann with her decision. She explains she experienced a deep depression at 16, and she discovered that drinking and partying did nothing to help. She sought psychiatric help despite her family’s desire to have her at home. She eventually decided to return to the Amish church and be baptized, but about a month before her marriage, she leaves altogether and is excommunicated from the community and shunned by her family and friends. Velda explains her sentence, calling it “their last way of showing you they love you” because “they’re afraid for your soul.” She tries on her black wedding dress and bonnet, commenting that “It covers up the girl I really want to be.” She enjoys having a career and gets admitted to a Christian college in Dallas, Texas, despite not having a high school education.

Faron is the primary focus of the film, and he struggles the most with going back to the church and staying with it. He moves in and out of his friend’s house and his father’s house. He struggles with a crank (crystal methamphetamine) addiction, and he also deals to support his habit. He gets busted, narcs on other dealers to avoid jail, and moves back home (a death threat is out on him). A few months back home finds him happy with an Amish girlfriend, Emma Miller, 16, and with a job working at his father’s patio furniture shop, but he gets fired and kicked out again. He breaks up with Emma because she decides not to join the Amish church. He moves back in with his friend but then packs up and moves to Florida to win Emma back and start a new life, which he manages to get a start on by getting a job as a valet.

Is is through Faron we see another rumspringa tradition: bed courting. After two teenagers go on a date, the boy is allowed to stay in the girl’s bed for the night. Faron and Emma participate in this tradition, while an elder comments about how things are going to happen (but not sex) with two teenagers alone in a dark room.

The son of an Amish minister, Faron offers much insight into the community and its ways, even though he looks like quite the opposite with his sweatshirts and jeans, earring, and hickeys on his neck. He discusses the importance of windows and Bibles in an Amish home, and he talks about the directory that shows where other families live and list their children. He also offers an interesting insight into rumspringa: “It’s like a vacation. You get a little dose of the outside world, just enough so you won’t get tempted later on. And you’ll be a happier Amish person if you had a choice.” But in the end, he says, “I’m not ‘english,’ I’m not Amish, I’m just me.”

Stylistically, the film uses the usual grab bag of techniques with interviews, voiceovers, and archival footage, but two stand out. For one, titles are used differently throughout the film. Some words are superimposed over images of Amish life, while others appear on a black screen with an Olde English font drop cap. The titles explain some of the Amish background, and they also provide updates in the teenagers’ lives, explaining Faron’s getting kicked out or Emma’s moving to Florida. These work to provide context and background, which helps with understanding the community and rumspringa’s effects. Other titles introduce some of the people. Faron, Velda, Gerald, and Joann all get a treatment similar to the opening title, with a picture of them at a younger age and an Olde English font spelling out their names and ages. For others, but not all, names appear on the screen, and the teenagers, notably Faron and Velda, often get introduced several times. Yet some people never get introduced at all, which gets somewhat irritating in trying to figure out who is who and how they relate to others, if at all. Sometimes, it is impossible, even with the alphabetical list of participants in the credits.

Another stylistic point is the music, which is reminiscent of Philip Glass’ haunting score for Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. In this film it is primarily synthesized sound by Aphex Twin and other groups, and it provides an eerie feeling to the events, possibly adding to the diaspora they experience as they participate in “english” teenagers’ lifestyles. But sometimes the music gets too heavy and too frequent, and it can be distracting.

The primary goal for the Amish is admission to heaven, and their lifestyle reflects their beliefs in life that help them get there in death. The period of rumspringa offers teenagers two freedoms: a free pass away from the Amish way of life to explore the “english” lifestyle and a decision to determine whether or not to join the church. Whichever path they choose, the decision is binding for life. Devil’s Playground reveals a society bound in tradition and community without being preachy or quaint, and it provides the background for understanding the importance of rumspringa, showing us, through the teenagers’ experiences, not only how much they might give up but also how much they might gain, no matter which direction they choose.

Leave a Reply