When you think about forms of church outreach, haunted houses are not the first thing to come to mind. The church is constant in its attempts to draw young people into the ranks, but these usually take the form of barbecues, games and outings to the bowling alley. Now they have thrown ‘hell-houses’ into the equation, presenting children and teenagers to scenes of gruesome goriness and violence, using fear as the key to evangelism. Hell houses were introduced by Rev. Jerry Falwell, dating back to Texas in the late 1970s. A woman called Linda Ybarra from Pasadena, Texas has shared her experience of a local hell-house. In an interview with KTRK, Ybarra says that when she bought tickets for herself and her 14-year-old son, she did so under the assumption that the church-organised event would be like any other haunted house, full of ghosts, vampires, and zombies. In place of these common scenes, she and her son found themselves subjected to scenes depicting abortion and teen suicide with the aim of luring people into the fold of Jesus.
Ybarra, an avid horror fan, says that the experience has left her feeling violated, especially on the grounds that it depicted serious moral issues that she had not yet broached with her son. She said, “There was a young lady lying on a gurney, and two nurses. And one of the nurses was reaching into the lady and pulling out a bunch of gunk, and throwing it on the floor.” She added that the scenes were far too realistic for young teenagers and that the warning about violent content on the flyer was much too vague for what the event entailed.
On expressing her discomfort to the organisers, Ybarra was dismissed. She said: “I quickly realized that this is not something that I wanted to be at. So I asked if I could leave, and they did not allow us to leave.” Pastor Lamont Melrose insists that the hell-house is designed to frighten. He said:
“The material we are using to scare people is reality. We want to give people the horror of what it is to go through an abortion. We want to give people the horror of what it is to deal with a rebellious son that commits suicide.”
The youth pastor at Trinity Church Assemblies of God in Cedar Hill, Texas explains the ‘rationale’ behind the event: “Part of salvation is being afraid of going to hell.” A recent documentary called Hell House sheds light on this new phenomenon to hit America. Every Halloween season, Trinity Church hosts this alternative haunted house; scenes within include a young girl having an abortion procedure performed after being drugged at a nightclub and raped, a gay man suffering death from AIDS after being molested as a child, and a teenager who dies in a car accident without giving his life to Christ, having refused to heed his parents admonishments. In each situation, the victims are seen tormented by demons. The message of the church is this: these people are damned in hell. Ybarra admits her dissatisfaction that her tickets did not specify that the Hell House was religious in nature: “You don’t convert children like that — tell them that they are going to hell and things like that,” she said. “You just don’t do that.” Following such demented scenes, the terror tour presents a short glimpse of heaven – this is what you can have when you give your life to Christ. Church members said they are not surprised by the controversy surrounding the hell house but they see it is a way to save young souls each night.
What has possessed the Church to scare people into salvation? Why don’t they see the irony in what they are doing? While these hell houses claim to be an attempt to steer young people down a godly path and offer an alternative to pagan elements of Halloween they actually serve up violence, sex and blood. They offer children to chance to perform violent scenes, awarding prizes for the best demon and best ‘abortion girl’ performance, among others. That the church should take such a casual and cavalier approach to violence is disturbing. I take issue with the Church’s utilisation of the fear of divine punishment as a tool of evangelising. The whole thing is reminiscent of the recent comments of Mark Driscoll, who is currently the pastor of Mars Hill:
“Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is meritous [sic]. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”
Taking into account hell-houses and comments like Driscoll’s, it would seem as if many Christians are neglectful of the meaning of ‘gospel’ as ‘good news’. Where is the God of love who casts out all fear? What is Christian about terrifying people into conversion?