Welcome to a Texas Hell House, Where Wayward Christians Are Scared Back Into Jesus' Arms
A mother of three who sent her husband off to work with a smile and a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies, Carol Endicott seemed to have the perfect life. Until she was killed in a car crash, denied entry to heaven and dispatched by demons to spend eternity in the broiling pits of hell.
Carol’s grim demise forms the plot of Unexpected, one of hundreds of evangelical Christian theatrical twists on haunted houses that are produced by American churches each year in the run-up to Halloween. They aim to scare the wayward on to the path of righteousness with a rather more serious question than “trick or treat?” – heaven or hell?
Groups of about 15 people, ranging from young children to seniors, waited in the basketball-court sized hall of Houston’s Central Baptist church last Friday for their visit to the Judgement House as a clock ticked down on a TV screen.
When it was our turn we gathered outside the door leading to the first of a series of scenes acted out by volunteers in adjacent rooms. “This journey will take you through twists and turns that will ultimately cause you to ponder the reality of life beyond the grave,” our guide said.
We met the Endicott family at the breakfast table, then followed a daughter, Abby, as she went to a puppet ministry show at Bible school. In the third room, a friend, Sarah, persuaded Abby to accept Jesus as her saviour.
This was timely since events took a dramatic lurch in the next scene as we arrived in a mocked-up TV news studio and watched a screen with a “live” report from outside a cafe. A teenage driver had lost control of a car while texting and ploughed into the terrace, killing Sarah, Abby and Carol, whose bodies were covered by white sheets next to the vehicle.
Next we went to the funeral home, where Abby’s little brother, Jason, touched their caskets tenderly and looked forward to seeing them again in the afterlife.
On to the shimmering gates of heaven, guarded by God (an old white man). God sat behind a desk with a gavel and a Bible and made big decisions. Abby? Check. Sarah? Go right along with the angels, too. Enter Carol.
“May I join the girls now?” she asked God. “I’m sorry, Carol,” he replied, “but you will not be allowed to enter heaven.” Though she had many qualities, she had not accepted Christ before her death. “You must now pay for your own sins,” said God.
Carol did not see this coming. “I volunteered at the soup kitchen! I’ve won awards for my good deeds! You’re God. Can’t you make an exception?” Then she was dragged away screaming by two black-hooded denizens of the underworld, which was about as definitive a “no” as it gets.
God called each member of the audience by name and asked us to step forward. “It’s not your time yet but do remember this,” he intoned sternly. “The unexpected happens every day and one day you will stand in judgment.”
We crossed the hall to catch up with Carol and found her cowering on the ground in a barren, fiery landscape as Satan towered over her and taunted her in a booming voice amplified by a reverb microphone. The devil did indeed get the best lines.
“IS THIS WHAT YOU EXPECTED, CAROL?” he yelled. “THE FLAMES NEVER GO OUT. YOU CAN FEEL YOUR SKIN MELTING THROUGH YOUR BODY AS THE WORMS BURROW THROUGH YOUR BONES.”
If Carol thought that being a kind person and going to church at Christmas and Easter would be enough to secure eternal bliss, she was sadly mistaken. “ALL ROADS LEAD TO HEAVEN, CAROL?” said Satan. “NOT GOOD ENOUGH, CAROL!”After that, it was a relief to walk to heaven, cool, silvery-white and welcoming, to see Sarah and Abby with Jesus. Finally, the group was shepherded into a room where a church representative invited us to reflect on what we had seen, stressed the urgency of making a commitment to Christ given this life’s unpredictable nature and the dire consequences of dying an unbeliever, and led the room in prayer.
As we left, there were two choices: go downstairs to the parking lot and concessions stand, or enter the “encouragement” room, where pastors waited to welcome those ready to dedicate, or rededicate, their lives to Jesus.
Back in the hall, Isaac Milbourn, the lone child in our group, said the experience was “pretty cool. I liked that it took you through different scenarios.” Was it frightening? “Not really,” the 12-year-old said. His favourite scene was “the end, in heaven”.
The late televangelist Jerry Falwell is credited with popularising“hell houses” in the 1970s as a way for Christian fundamentalists to respond to Halloween, with its perceived pagan roots and trivialising of death. A volunteer waits o give out pamphlets
They remain widespread, though their uncompromising stances on topics such as abortion, homosexuality and suicide have brought criticism. A 2006 report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy institute described some performances as “literally demonizing” LGBT youth.
The most famous and one of the biggest hell houses, near Dallas, is in its 25th year.
This was the Houston church’s second production. It bought the rights from a Florida-based ministry called Judgement House, which offers two-dozen tailor-made fictional scripts that focus on ordinary people forced to face a reckoning, whether through criminal acts, natural disasters, accidents or even carbon monoxide poisoning.
Their website lists about 120 Judgement House productions this year, mostly in the south and midwest, and stresses that their scripts do not deal with “socially controversial issues” found in hell houses promoted by others such as Keenan Roberts, a Colorado pastor who started selling templates in the 1990s.
“It’s the greatest evangelistic tool that we have as a church. We reach a lot of unchurched people,” said Sharon Reagan, Central Baptist’s music director. In 2014, she said, there were 1,997 attendees and 487 “decisions for Christ”. The cast of 50, drawn from the church’s congregation of about 550, had rehearsed since August and performed about 18 shows on busy nights, when groups came through every couple of minutes.
Reagan’s thoughts were already turning to next year. “You’re always thinking, how can I ramp up heaven? How can I ramp up hell? What can I do to make it better? Those ideas are already formulating,” she said.
In 2016 the church plans to put on Web of Lies, in which a murderous internet stalker is executed and meets his father in the afterlife. “There’s a kerfuffle in hell,” Reagan said.
Jason Corkran was part of a four-Satan rotation. “What we’re doing in here can’t even begin to touch the surface of the reality of it. I do think it’s important we make it as real and frightening as we can,” he said during a brief gap between performances. He stood in robes behind a chain-link fence in the semi-darkness, his frightful makeup not running despite the hot-as-hell heat created by setting the air conditioning to 88F.
Corkran approached his role with gusto and was genuinely menacing. About 18 months ago the 27-year-old found himself “very backslidden in my faith” until “God kind of woke me up”. For him, this was more than mere acting. “This is my way of letting people know what Satan does, his lies and deceit,” he said. “It’s personal – I believe it’s real and every single person coming through here tonight is going to face an eternity either here or in heaven.”
Last year he played the devil on a few nights and on others a character named Jake who was hauled to hell by demons. “I think they like me for these parts as I’ve got a good scream,” he said, just before the room went pitch-dark as another group filed in and the flames flickered, Carol wailed and Corkran yelled, glowering and gesturing, scaring for Jesus.