Holding styrofoam cups of steaming hot chocolate on a chilly October weekend, some 30 teenagers eagerly awaited a hayride to a warmer place-Hell House X, to be exact, a live Halloween drama staged by Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, a town located about 30 miles south of Dallas. Hell House X attracts thousands of visitors each year with the promise of "live gunfire, suicide, blood, strobes, drug usage, death and hell."
Flaming torches welcomed the teenagers into trailers draped in black plastic, where black-robed demons escorted visitors through a series of four-minute scenes. Costumed actors reenacted a school shooting/suicide, an abortion in which the woman dies, a man dying of AIDS, date rape, and domestic abuse. Some scenes featured video clips of popular movies (such as This Boy's Life, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as an abused child) or the edited lyrics of popular heavy metal bands. In each scene, the deadly wages of sin graphically claimed the lives of characters, who discovered their eternal destination at the end of the tour. Some, by repenting and trusting in Christ, make it to heaven. Others go on to eternal torment.
Trinity's Hell House costs roughly $20,000 to produce and requires a 300-member casting crew. Hundreds of other church-run Hell Houses opened across the nation this month. In Arvada, Colo., Pastor Keenan Roberts runs one of the nation's oldest Hell Houses, where smoke machines and vats of smelly limburger cheese make hell a disgustingly entertaining place to be. "We are portraying the reality of what sin does in people's lives," he said.
Others see it differently. "Hell House is an outrageous example of the judgment and hate spewed upon gay and lesbian and bisexual people," wrote United Church of Christ minister Jo Clare Hartsig, in an editorial objecting to last year's Hell House depiction of homosexual "marriages." Scenes of bloody abortions also incurred the wrath of local Planned Parenthood representatives.
"It is shocking, it is offensive. But it is truth," proclaims one Hell House website.
It's not only liberals, though, who question the tactics of Hell Houses. Many evangelicals took offense last year when the Texas-based Trinity Church Hell House reenacted the Columbine shootings. The Hell House had included school-shooting scenes in previous years, but last year's scene was especially controversial because of the recent Wedgwood Baptist Church shootings in Fort Worth.
Trinity Church youth pastor Tim Ferguson explained his decision to include the school shooting: "The night of the Wedgwood shootings I was watching the news reports. Probably 100 times, they replayed Columbine images over and over again," he said. "The TV, media, movies, and video games-they show the images and it's just despair and hopelessness. Why can't the church show the same images and reinterpret them and say there's a message of hope out of this?"
But Scott Clark, academic dean and associate professor of church history at Westminster Seminary in California, says that the way of the church should not be the way of the world. "Simply because pagans are using gruesome, graphic images to make a dollar or sell a product doesn't mean that we are thereby justified or required to use the same images for a more wholesome purpose," he said. "The ends don't justify the means." The church, he says, should focus on preaching the Word and administering the sacraments.
And there is such a thing as too much reality, said Wedgwood youth minister Jay Fannin. "I've been through my own Hell House and that's enough reality for me," he said. Concerned that scenes meant to shock might instead desensitize, Mr. Fannin noted that "many of the kids who saw people shot in my church were thinking that it was part of a skit, that it was not real."
At Hell House X, the scenes seemed real enough to the teenage visitors. The delighted squeals of horror heard in most haunted houses were absent, and the audience seemed more shocked than scared. Most stood silently and some even cried softly while viewing a scene of a car wreck caused by drunk driving. The purpose of the shocking images is to point kids to Christ, said Mr. Ferguson. "The scenes are disturbing because they're real," he said. "It's like Schindler's List or like Saving Private Ryan. Those movies grabbed me and hit my gut because they were real. Hell House should do the same thing."