Oct 29, 2013

When I went to a hell house

The man in this picture is a Georgia Baptist, doing his best impersonation of a demon in hell:

Baptist Satan

Such scenes are reenacted every year, about this time, at evangelical churches across America. I visited a hell house in Oct., 2008, while working as a reporter for a small metro Atlanta paper. The story I wrote had the headline, "'Going through hell' at Corinth Baptist": 
When Satan stomps onto the stage, a cowering and scowling demon says, 'Your master plan is still disguised as world peace.'  
Satan shouts 'Yeah!' at every account of Earthly iniquity, opening his mouth and exhaling, 'ha ha ha ha!' He raises his hands in victory when he hears how people were gunned down in church and there are gangs in even the 'hoity-toity' malls, and he yells out, 'Yes!'  
As the visitors leave the re-creation of eternal fire, passing from the dark, red-lit room out under the red EXIT sign, one of the demons breaks character, becoming a Baptist again.  
'Oh yeah,' he says. 'You're way scarier than a ghost.'
Scare-for-Jesus productions happen every year and sometimes attract a bit of attention. These are commonly known as hell houses, though, like Band-Aid and Xerox, "Hell House" is a brand name. Official Hell Houses are franchised out to churches, with a kit and a script and use of the name costing a congregation $299. The churches recoup costs and raise money with a small cover charge. The creator of the Hell House, Colorado pastor Keenan Roberts, estimates that he's sold "more than a thousand" kits, and that more than 75,000 people have passed through an official Hell House, with one in four making a decision to commit or re-commit their lives to Christ in the process.

Some of hell houses are independent, with churches designing and producing their own versions. There are also corn maze productions, as well as rapture-themed events with names like "Tribulation Trail." There are also other franchises, including "Judgement House." Corinth Baptist's was independent.

I was told at Corinth that the last time they put on a hell house they had nearly a thousand visitors the week before Halloween, mostly teenagers. Not quite 10 percent of them prayed to accept Jesus as their savior.

Despite the conversions, many evangelicals are critical of hell houses. Timothy George, chairman of the Charles Colson Center for Christian Worldview, recently wrote of his concerns about hell houses in First Things. He affirmed his belief in a literal hell and the reality of Satan, but said he's nonetheless nonplussed by hell houses:
It may be that some young people will find their way to genuine faith through such ghoulish shenanigans, but their overall import is a distortion of the Gospel. Those who indulge in such displays are taking something serious, eternal, and consequential and treating it with a finesse of a butcher doing brain surgery. In the process, they trivialize evil and domesticate grace.
There has also been a lot of liberal Christians criticism and from secular sources, which focus on the cultural politics of the terror. One detail that many of these criticisms miss is that while condemnation of homosexuality and abortion, alcohol consumption, rock 'n' roll, Hollywood, etc., are depicted quite vividly, this is partly to emphasize the point that having the correct cultural politics will not save you. In a number of versions of the hell house, the character who does drugs, has extra-marital sex at a party, has an abortion, and so on, is the one who doesn't end up in hell forever. This is, of course, an important point of evangelical doctrine: Only Jesus saves.

Another aspect of these entertainments, which I saw in 2008 but generally don't see commented on, is the self-conscious campiness. The volunteer actors were having fun and were funny, not afraid to ham it up on occasion. It's not unlike a lot of Halloween celebrations and a lot of the horror genre, where humor and fear are combined in curious ways.

At one point in the hell scene, for example, a young woman acting the part of the damned was screaming "I'm burning! I'm burning!" The demon's ad lib response: "It's hell."

Indeed. And an American evangelical tradition.