Picture this: it’s Halloween Eve 1990. You and your friends are costumed up, ready for a night full of debauchery and immoral self-indulgence. You’ve been dying to scream your heads off at one of the plethora of haunted houses that springs up every October, but you’re especially psyched about going to the new kid on the block called, forebodingly, Hell House. You drive up and think to yourself “how scary can this really be, being that it’s at a church and all”. You pay your $20 bucks, walk in, and are guided from room to room from tour guides dressed as demons. The scenes seem exceptionally gruesome and startingly real: date rapes (and subsequent suicides) at raves, fatal drunk driving crashes, school massacres a la Columbine, and abortions gone wrong. Sound like the haunted house you signed up to see? Not likely.
Scaremare was the first “Hell House” of its kind and was, not surprisingly, created by none other than Jerry Falwell in the late 1970’s. It’s still in existence today. Scaremare, whose tagline is “Don’t be a stranger”, spawned copy cat Hell Houses around the country, most notably by Keenan Roberts of Colorado who infamously created and sold Hell House outreach kits0, and Temple Hell House in Temple, Texas, ironically near Fort Hood where 13 people were recently shot and killed.
The familiar and distinctive voice traveled over my speakers into my ears and, as per usual, my heart did the little dance it does when I hear him. My boyfriend, Ira Glass1 of This American Life, was interviewing George Ratliff, the director of a documentary so powerful it was selected to play at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival. The film portrays the story of Trinity Assembly of God2, a fundamentalist church outside of Dallas, Texas, and their version of Hell House. Trinity’s version of the script depicts sin as it’s defined by the religious far right, the consequences of committing those sins, and the salvation gained from redemption should one choose to commit their life to God. In general, the idea is to assert that non-believers do not pass Go, do not collect $200 and basically go straight to hell. The audition process for Hell House is apparently pretty fierce, and the cast and crew (all recruited from the church membership) are woefully large. Scripts are written, sets are built, souls are saved, and money is made. A Facebook page even exists for it.
I’ve embedded this year’s Hell House trailer for your enjoyment. The video is pretty intense, but worth a look.
Aprés Hell House tour, attendees are taken into what’s called the Decision Room. They are asked “if you died tonight, do you know where you’d go? Would it be heaven or would it be hell?”, and are given six seconds — SIX! – to decide if they want to bail (by which I mean remain one of the damned) or “go pray with a counsellor”.
According to director George Ratliff, approximately 13,000 people went through Hell House in 2008 alone and more than 700 churches have bought the Hell House outreach kit. Shockingly (well, to me, anyway), Trinity Assembly estimates that 1 in 5 Hell House attendees choose to either become Christian or recommit themselves to the church. Commit, indeed.
0 Uh, right.
1 Holy hotness, batman!
2 I searched high and low for a website for this church (by which I mean Google), but found zilch. Apologies for the non-linkage.