Hell Houses

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?



pblaauw October 27, 2009 at 6:00 PM  

file this under bad.hack (that's where i'd put it, anyhow)

it's more productive to tell people what they get from following Christ, than what'll happen if they don't.

Jude October 27, 2009 at 7:51 PM  

It is a bad.hack but at the same time is better than many Christians that seem to pretend eternity is not real or going to happen.

If you pretend God/heaven/hell doesn't exist and don't share the good news and just focus on being nice, thats a bad.hack too..

Other than the forced conversions, this is a way for Christians to be relevant during halloween

Seth,  October 27, 2009 at 10:29 PM  

That's just sick. A christian example of religious terrorism.

Aren't christians called to be better than this?

Jim October 28, 2009 at 9:00 AM  

Like you mentioned, it is emotional manipulation. Plus if there is no other option at the end, than there isn't really free will either. Jude is right we need an understanding of the reality of eternity but what is missed at these hell houses is that Jesus Christ is right there when the teenager gets the abortion, is raped, drinks too much, or is run over in the parking lot. In these times of horrible decisions or circumstances Jesus is there.

Lance H October 28, 2009 at 10:47 AM  

The "gospel" preached is reflected in the society in which it is preached. duh. I look at the social stats for Oklahoma and weep for Christianity.

Anonymous,  October 29, 2009 at 6:13 PM  

This may be a sad attempt to emulate pop culture, but don't we have the Apostle Paul, who glommed popular Greek concepts onto an originally Hebrew theology just to appeal to a bigger audience, to thank for this?

Some months ago NPR reported young people preaching the Gospel to teen skateboarders. Apparently keeping the faith helps you do kick-flips.

As for eternity, if the human clock running down from day one is not enough to motivate people to repent and live into the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus proclaimed as at hand, having come near, here in this world, I sincerely doubt superstitious fairy-tales of eternal punishment will, especially to the secularized modern-day teen.

Anonymous,  October 29, 2009 at 7:37 PM  

Hell houses are just what you said, emotional manipulation based on erroneous interpretations of a few misunderstood scriptures. I grew up hearing this kind of garbage. I chose instead to follow Jesus rather than those who practice scare tactics in order to subjugate others for profit and power.

Rev. Sonja October 29, 2009 at 8:23 PM  

Definite bad.hack I agree with Seth that it is a form of terrorism. At the very least it is extremely abusive. And in the Hell House scenario, Christians are the ones with the power to abuse.

Christians are the one's who are responsible for the good news. Telling another person they are going to hell because they don't get the good news, is more of a "nana nana boo boo." Sharing the love of Christ will go a great deal further in planting a seed for that person to have a lasting relationship with Christ. People who are "saved" at Hell House are simply purchasing fire insurance.

Personally, I believe that God loves humanity. It says so, right in the Bible. (John 3:16-17) You cannot have a decent relationship with anyone because they are afraid of you. You have a relationship with someone because they love you back. I am certain many people break God's heart, including so-called followers who terrorize non-believers.

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