My senior year of high school, a couple of us went to a Hell House, which is a Christian haunted house with the goal of scaring youth to Christ (aka Judgment House). There are various incarnations of these events (done during the Halloween season), but most focus on what hell looks like and include sinners burning in hell. The goal is to scare you as far as what hell is like and make you commit your life to Christ.
As readers of the blog know, I just moved back to the Bible Belt after 6 years away. The first week of October, my spouse (not from the bible belt) saw a billboard for GUTS church’s Nightmare (aka Hell House) and asked what it was, her eyes widening in horror as I recounted my experience in high school. And last night, NPR’s syndicated show This American Life (from Chicago) re-ran a program from 2002 about Christian Hell Houses, particularly one Hell House done about 6 months after Columbine.
Hell houses go for shock value. The participants often include:
- A teenage girl with white sweatpants and a red bloody crotch who had an abortion and is in hell.
- A gay teen who dies from AIDS and is in hell
- School shooting victims who didn’t confess Christ in time and are in hell.
- A girl who gets her drink spiked at a rave, is gang-raped, and commits suicide…and is in hell (because of the suicide, of course).
Read on for more:
There’s a trailer for a 2002 documentary on Hell Houses here. I won’t embed it as it’s pretty disturbing, but if you watch it you can see the real visceral experience firsthand.
But the show isn’t over yet. Once they make it all the way through, participants get to the Decision Room where the pastor asks “Which way would you want to go? To Hell that you’ve just gone through, or Heaven?” Regardless of your free will choice, there’s only one exit from the room and even if you don’t want to give your life to Christ (again), you have to walk through the line of counselors and people with sheets with the Sinner’s Prayer written on them.
This is real. And the manipulation of emotional experience is evidenced by how they celebrate a successful season. In the NPR episode, there was the Awards Ceremony given at the tail end of a successful season. They have a Hell House Oscars at the end where they give awards for best devil, best abortion girl, best raped girl, etc (because 6-8 different people play each part).
Here’s the best raped girl‘s acceptance speech from 2002:
I couldn’t have done it without my rapers…at first I was really uncomfortable with it, being raped because I was like “what’s that like?” but it ended up being a lot of fun…oh, wait, I didn’t say that right! I ended up getting to meet a lot of people I didn’t know…ok, this is only getting worse!
Sigh. This is a franchise, by the way. 800 Hell House Franchise kits were sold in 2002. Who knows how many are done now? I know in my area of ministry there are at least 6 being advertised within a 100 mile radius.
To me, this is a manifestation of what Peter Rollins calls “power discourses” or a form of Christian apologetics that convinces the other that Christianity is compelling and must be accepted by any rational person, and miracles prove that a person ought to believe. In this case, by bringing people to their emotional or analytical knees through sparks, spectacle, and screaming women, then acceptance of Christ becomes forced and rejection irrational. I almost think they should complete the experience by having some people fake ran-over in the parking lot, showing how one must accept Christ as soon as possible because you could die at any minute.
The contrary form of power discourses, of course, is powerless discourses, or ones where a forced choice is not presented and questions are not answered. Instead, powerless discourses create sacred space where questions can arise and be wrestled with. Unlike a Hell House where emotions are battered and questions squashed, sacred space allows for emotional wrestling and non-black-and-white responses. If this is the future of Christianity as people become more and more immune to emotional manipulation and pandering to black/white dichotomies, then I just don’t see Hell Houses in this segment of Christianity.
What do you think?
- Are Hell Houses effective instruments for conversion and exemplify Christian ideals?
- Or are other people sick to their stomach by the practice of scaring children and teens to Christ?