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Hell houses, judgment houses, etc. at Halloween

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Hell Houses:

A Hell House consists of a group of horrific scenes within a type of haunted house. The customer walks through a sequence of tableaus designed to create terror and revulsion. The last scene is different; it is typically a portrayal of heaven. The visitors are then asked to accept salvation by repenting of their sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Hell Houses are a relatively new evangelistic technique used by many hundreds of fundamentalist and other evangelical churches in North America. One intent is to proselytize the unsaved public. Another is to promote certain conservative Christian beliefs, such as: 

bulletThat abortions kill human persons;
 
bulletThat sexual orientation is a matter of choice, is changeable, and that God hates same-sex behavior; 
 
bulletThat everyone who is not saved will go to Hell when they die. They will then be eternally tortured without any hope of mercy or release; 
 
bulletThat underground Satanic cults engage in widespread sacrifice of humans

Some hell houses are disguised to resemble conventional secular haunted houses. The customer only realizes that they have a religious theme after they have bought their ticket and gone part of the way through the scenes.

Typical scenes are:

bulletA phoney reenactment  of the murder of Cassie Bernall, a teenager victim at the Columbine High School in 1999-APR. She was allegedly asked whether she believed in God, answered yes, and was murdered on the spot. The incident never happened. But the story has taken on a life of its own. She is frequently referred to in conservative Christian magazines, books, and radio programs as a Christian martyr.
 
bulletA person being sacrificed during a Satanic ritual. The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) web site warned of Wiccan rituals and stated "... evidence persists that some Satanists and voodoo groups offer sacrifices -- usual animals, but, possibly, human babies" at this time. Satanic Ritual Abuse was a widespread hoax that was commonly believed during the 1980s and early 1990s. 1
bulletWomen undergoing very bloody late-term abortions, complete with screaming, lots of blood, and particularly insensitive, uncaring health providers. Some of these scenes have been partly abandoned in recent years in favor of a portrayal of guilt and depression arising from Post Abortion Syndrome.
 
bulletGays and lesbians being tortured in hell for all eternity because of their same-sex behavior while they were alive on earth.
 
bulletThe dangers of "dabbling" in the occult and becoming demon possessed.
 
bulletPersonal tragedies arising from pre-marital sex.
 
bulletDisastrous tragedies and loss of life resulting from drunk driving.
 
bulletA man having an argument with his wife and is later seduced by his secretary.
 
bulletWitches pressuring a depressed teen to murder his fellow students.
 
bulletA 9/11 ground zero scene.

History of Hell Houses:

The earliest hell house may have been created by Trinity Assembly of God in Dallas TX. It was popularized by Rev. Jerry Falwell in the late 1970's. The concept was picked up in 1992 by Keenan Roberts. His first Hell House was in Roswell, NM. Since then, he has become a pastor of the Abundant Life Church in Arvada, CO. He sells "Hell House Outreach" kits to other churches. Included is a 263 page manual which covers "everything from media publicity to casting and costume." 2 A few excerpts from the The 1997 Hell House Outreach Manual are:
 

bullet"Pieces of meat placed in a glass bowl to look like pieces of a baby... purchase a meat product that closely resembles pieces of a baby."
 
bullet"Theatrical Blood. Because a large amount of blood is used in this scene and in others, someone should be responsible for mixing a vat of it each evening..."
 
bullet"Chrissy [the woman having an abortion] starts crying. She is extremely distraught...the medical staff is cold, uncaring, abrupt, and completely insensitive..."
Included in the kit is a video of the previous year's Arvida Hell House and a special effects CD. 3 According to Roberts' literature, the CD includes "the voice of suicide, the voice of God, and the bone-chilling demon declaration of 'HELL HOUSE' in the opening scene..."

The 1999 price of the kit was $199 U.S. It later went up to $208.80. He commented to National Public Radio: "We're not doing this to win a popularity contest. We're saying look, sin is hurting our nation and Jesus Christ is the answer to what you're going through."

Roberts has received international attention through an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show, and reports in the London Times, MS Magazine, New York Times, Newsweek, etc. He told the Denver Post that the exhibit was designed to "show young people that they can go to hell for abortion, adultery, homosexuality, drinking and other things unless they repent and end the behavior." 4

In his first three years of business, Roberts sold 300 kits, and had 20,000 guests. His own Hell House reports about 7,000 or 35% Christian conversions (instances of personal salvation). Admission is $7.00 U.S. or $6.00 if you have brought canned goods for the needy. Bill Geerhart has recorded a somewhat unsympathetic blow-by-blow account of his passage through the Arvada Hell House. 5

Roberts will not have a display in 2004. He told the Associated Press: "It's not gone away; we're just taking a year off." He said that his Hell House idea is now used by more than 500 churches in 14 countries. 6

The American Atheists website stated in 1998:

"Another example of a 'Hell House' extravaganza is in Kingsport, Tennessee where the Higher Ground Baptist Church estimates it will attract nearly 9,000 visitors to its gallery of horrors. Dubbed 'Judgment House,' the tour includes nine scenes and a cast of 200 actors. The themes mimic previous shows which stretch back to 1993 -- drunk driving, suicide and teen rebellion. This year, one exhibit will attempt to portray a teenage girls who dies after having an abortion. The minister in charge of the 'Judgment House' presentation told reporters, 'We have all kinds coming... Devil worshippers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, everyone'." 1

Criticisms of the Hell House concept:

bulletThe Colorado Council of Churches, criticized the scare tactics used in the Arvada Hell House. They were also critical of the literal demonization of homosexuals and abortion providers.
 
bulletRev. J.T. Tucker, director of youth ministries at Northway Christian
Church in Dallas
, TX suggests that any shock value wears off quickly in a society saturated with violent images. He commented: "I detest those things...Trying to scare people into a decision [for Jesus] is very wrong...If you consider all the money, along with ministry hours...if they would refocus those areas on missions in urban Dallas, I think they would have a lot bigger return..."
 
bulletThe Human Rights Campaign is a group which promotes equal rights for gays and lesbians. They note that homosexuals are frequently demonized in Hell Houses. The reality of sexual orientation is also distorted. A Florida house features a  "demon" who dances around the coffin of an AIDS victim, overjoyed that the dead man is now suffering in hell. He declares "I tricked him into believing he was born gay!  Have you ever heard something so silly?"  HRC spokesperson Wayne Besen calls such displays "pornography for the soul...It's poising the minds of people...It's especially hurting gay and lesbian youth who are already under pressure."
 
bulletThe Rev. Ballard's "Hell House" in Warren County OH was criticized by Doreen Cudnik, executive director of Stonewall Cincinnati. She said that the display "is out of touch with AIDS in the year 2000. To say gay equals AIDS equals burning in hell has the dangerous potential to lead to hate crimes against the gay community."
 
bulletThe Merced, CA Sun-Star newspaper criticized the New Beginning Christian Center for what the paper called an "unnecessarily brutal and insensitive" event. The church's pastor, Mike Duckworth, said: "We're going to scare the hell out of people and, at the end, show them there's a way out--Jesus Christ. We're bringing controversial issues to the forefront and then giving an antidote." 6
 
bulletA Christian radio station in Fairfield, OH terminated ads which promoted Kings Point Church of God's Hell House because the ads invited listeners to "come see the funeral of a homosexual AIDS patient." The Cincinnati Enquirer said that the ads were "blatant gay bashing." 6

Author's note:

Hell Houses appear to spread misinformation and disinformation about a variety of topics:
 
bulletThe nature of abortion: 90% of all abortions are performed in the first trimester. The percentage of third-trimester abortions -- as portrayed in the play -- is less than 1%) and are often performed because of a major genetic abnormality in the fetus.
 
bulletThe motivation and demeanor of abortion providers.
 
bulletThe appearance, beliefs and activities of Witches and other Neopagans.
 
bulletThe Satanic ritual abuse hoax.
 
bulletThe nature of sexual orientation.
 
We feel that their credibility will eventually suffer in the eyes of the public. Their Hell Houses may do more harm than good to the cause of their sponsors. 

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "At the cusp of Halloween, a nod to religious origins," American Atheists, 1998-OCT-29, at: http://www.atheists.org/
  2. "Hell House," Abundant Life Christian Center, at: http://www.alccdenver.com/ 
  3. Conrad Goeringer, "Church groups operating Halloween hell hoaxes," AANEWS, American Atheists, 1999-OCT-24. To subscribe, send a blank message to aanews-on@atheists.org
  4. Bill Berkowitz, "Christian Right plans holy havoc for Halloween," AlterNet.com, 2000-OCT-16, at: http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=9937

  5. Bill Geerhart "Halloween Hangover," at: http://www.postfun.com/pfp/features/98/nov/hellhouse.html 

  6. Andy Butcher, "Halloween 'Hell Houses' Come Under Fire. Christian 'shock evangelism' program criticized for insensitivity," Charisma News Service, at: http://beliefnet.com/.

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Copyright © 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-SEP-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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