Sunday, October 30, 2005

Not Your Average Halloween Haunted House

For the past few years, a growing number of conservative Christian churches around the country are sponsoring what are generally being called "Hell Houses" during Halloween:
It's a few nights before the opening of the House of Destiny at First Baptist Church of Florence [Mississippi] and dozens of amateur actors are practicing their lines.

In the basement, the Gatekeeper of Hell, portrayed by church pianist Betty Sapp, welcomes a visitor into the fiery underworld with her best high-pitched cackle.

"Well, well, well ... we've been expecting you," Sapp says. "You didn't think God would send you down here, did you? What, with all those good works you've done, you thought you'd go to heaven ..."

Welcome to the creepiest stop in the afterlife — complete with real fire, demonic characters, a heavy metal soundtrack and unfortunate souls bound by clanking chains. In the knick of time, visitors are whisked away to a heavenly realm of redemption.

Under 15,000 feet of black plastic sheeting, the church has been transformed into a dark, twisting maze where visitors can witness scenes of death and destruction — from the living room of a Hurricane Katrina victim to the beheading of an American civilian in Iraq. Then, there's the judgment scene where Christ invites Christians into heaven and banishes others to hell.

Like a haunted house, the scenes are intense and at times, disturbing. [see above images] Although tours are timed for Halloween, the production is not meant to celebrate a holiday that, for most people, translates into a night of costumes and candy.

It's part of a growing number of local faith-based events offered as an alternative to the ghosts-and-goblins formula of mainstream Halloween.

The anti-Halloween movement has attracted a large following, especially in the Bible Belt, with many churches opting to host youth lock-ins, harvest festivals and dramatic presentations to encourage members to shun Halloween.

Members of Wells United Methodist Church in Jackson are planning a fall festival for Sunday, complete with children's games and modest costumes.

The church has never opted for a House of Destiny-style project because they don't support its portrayal of judgment and what awaits those who shun Christianity, said Todd Watson, associate minister at Wells.

Planning began six months ago on the House of Destiny. The project cost about $2,000, with church members donating props and equipment, Herrin said.

Organizers view the project as a catalyst to cause people to consider where they will spend eternity. About 2,300 people went through the first House of Destiny four years ago and more than 200 made the decision to follow Christ, Herrin said.

"A lot of folks who would never come to church came to it because of what it is," he said. "I would feel it was 100 percent successful if one person came to Christ."

Watson, however, remains skeptical about the overall ramifications of such a project and its use as a tool for outreach. He suspects many of the visitors already are Christians or members of the church.

"I don't think it will make (people) embrace faith if the faith is all about fear and condemnation," Watson said. "Who wants to be near that? I doubt there are people who would become Christians because of it. Decisions made in fear rarely stick."
The idea of a Christian "haunted house" has been promoted in recent years by Keenan Roberts, who created a "Hell House" in Roswell, N.M., in 1992 and began marketing it to other religious organizations across the country.

In 2002, Colonial Heights Baptist Church created a "Judgment House," which was first marketed in 1983 by New Creation Evangelism Inc. in Clearwater, Fla. Wynndale Baptist Church in Terry put on a production, written by a church member, in 2001. The same year, Parkway Pentecostal Church presented the House of Choice drama.
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