Evangelical Hell Houses Are Waking Nightmares
For an ex-vangelical, returning to the fire-and-brimstone attractions can open up old wounds and offer insight into the frightening political vision of the Christian movement.
A man dressed as Satan rehearses for the Hell House Rage on Stage, presented by Destiny Church at Vision Fellowship in October 2003. Photo by Brian Brainerd/Denver Post, via Getty Images
There were angry Trump supporters shouting to our left, and enraged Black Lives Matter protesters on our right. A snide demon slithered from one side to the other, proudly exclaiming, "Welcome to my world, where anyone different from you is a threat, where evil grows and hatred runs deep! It's one of my oldest and most successful tactics!"
Smiling through ominous goth makeup, the demon whispered in the ears of each protester, planting racist slurs and stirring up divisions. The verbal combat was punctuated by the sound of an exploding handgun fired by a Trump supporter into the chest of a BLM activist, who collapsed to the ground, dead.
"You cannot escape my hate!" the demon roared. "Now get out!"
It was in the wake of the deafening gun blast at Trinity Church's Hell House 27: No Escape in Dallas, Texas, that I remembered just how toxic an evangelical hell house could be. The overarching message of this—and the countless other hell houses happening this Halloween—is that every ailment plaguing society today (drug addiction, domestic abuse, sex trafficking, gun violence) is evidence that there are demons around us aiming to seduce us into sin, death, and eternal torment in hell.
With the protest scene in particular, it seemed to be saying the racial divisions in our current political climate weren't caused by systemic bias, economic injustice, and mass incarceration—they're the result of trickster sprites stirring up trouble on both sides.
Hell houses are one of many theatrical productions that evangelical Christians host to reinforce these ideas. They combine interactive theater and haunted-house scare tactics, with the goal of impressing on each patron the fact that the forces of good and evil are at war for their soul.
"Scaring people into salvation has often been a part of the Christian tradition," according to R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. "Dante wrote about it in The Inferno. And the Puritans had their own way of scaring Christians with the afterlife. But the immersive medium of a hell house is a somewhat new way of scaring people into virtue, and it is terrifying."
The concept of hell houses was first popularized by Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, but only seriously took off in the 90s and 2000s when evangelical churches around the country made them an annual staple of their ministry. It was their tackling of social issues like abortion and gay marriage that made them a reliable source of controversy.
The Trinity Church hell house became one of the most notorious when, in 1999, it recreated the Columbine School shooting a mere six months after it happened, portraying the killers as agents of Satan aiming to slaughter all the Christian students. This led to the church being the subject of the popular 2002 documentary, Hell House—which was recently featured in an episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
From the perspective of a Christian who believes the world is governed by supernatural warfare, these hell houses are a kind of public service, akin to car-crash footage being used to scare teenagers in driver's ed.
"Something is out to destroy our kids," explained Pastor John Michael Barajas, director of the Trinity's hell house this year. "We want to shed light on what the enemy is trying to do to our children. Whether you believe in God or not, you can't see the suicide rate, the murder rate, and deny that there is something after our kids."
For the first two decades of my life, I was immersed in this fundamentalist Christian worldview, and participated in several hell houses in rural north Iowa where I grew up. During that time, the fear of demons infiltrating my thoughts, attempting to lure me toward eternity agony in hell, governed my behavior. So when the time came to impose that worldview on others in my hell house performances, I was remarkably good at it.
This single-minded urgency of warning heathens about the demons around them, while attempting to comment on controversial issues, often leads to narrow-minded portrayals of a complex world. According to Griffith, it's also in this simplistic worldview of hell houses that you can find a microcosm of the evangelical political agenda.
"With evangelicals this goes back over a century," said Griffith, "and while each historical moment has its own set of hot-button issues, there is a consistency in that the answer to all of the world's problems is: more Jesus."
I attended the Trinity hell house with a handful of former members of the church, along with a few ex-vangelicals from other churches. They left the evangelical world behind for a variety of reasons—which could all be explained as a result of demons whispering in their ears, if you are inclined to believe in such things.
Ryan Connell was once a staple of Trinity Church and acted in many hell houses, though by time he accompanied me to the church, he had not set foot on the property in 13 years. "This is my first time returning to Texas as a non-Christian," he said to me. "I wanted to do this as a personal journey."
If you watch the Hell House documentary, you'll see a young Connell performing as a priest in the Church of Satan, preparing to sacrifice a young girl in the name of Beelzebub. He can still remember his lines from the play. "I have deceived this girl, first getting her hooked on Harry Potter, Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons!" he recited to me in an arrogant, sinister voice, peppered with maniacal laughter. "Now here she is in my coven, wanting more power, and I will sacrifice her to the devil!"
Back in those days, Connell believed the world was coming to an end: All the sinners were bound for eternal torment in hell, and he could be one of them if he so much as thought about sex. Connell told me he once made the mistake of confessing to a Trinity pastor that he was struggling with the impulse to masturbate. The pastor replied, disgustedly, "I can't believe I let you around my children."
Though he and I both find it therapeutic to study our native culture from the safe distance of books, documentaries, and social media, it's harsh memories like these that can make an immersive activity like visiting a hell houses kind of triggering. "I haven't been able to sit through a church service without having a hardcore panic attack," Connell told me as we entered Trinity grounds.
Trinity's Cedar Hill campus in Dallas serves more than 10,000 members, so it's massive. It's made up of a network of church buildings, a football field, and the biggest electric towers I've ever seen. The property of the mega church is so vast we had to take a ten-minute shuttle from the parking lot to the actual hell house, which was hosted in a long, winding snake of tunnels connecting various shacks and buildings.
As we entered the first of many dark rooms—this one showing a series of surprisingly well-produced short films about domestic violence and sex trafficking—memories of my youth spent terrified of evil forces taking control of my thoughts and body came welling up from within.
For patrons of hell houses, these nightmares are intended to be seared into your memory. Pop-culture touchstones are sprinkled into every vignette, so that you make memorable connections between the fear of demons and, say, a certain song.
Connell told me that as an evangelical he wasn't allowed to see the movies or hear the songs referenced in hell house, and that the church would have a specially designated person to retrieve this pop culture info.
"We used to have a rave scene back in the 90s," said Barajas. "But that doesn't resonate with young people today like a girl putting her provocative photos on Tinder does."
Once the videos ended, a pair of angry demons burst out from behind a black curtain, yelling at us like prison guards, shouting "move along!" After walking down a dark hall, we were led into a domestic living room, where a young girl named Jessica complained of recently being dumped. She hoped to find a new romance after downloading the Tinder app.
Things quickly turned violent once her date arrived, and Jessica soon found herself prisoner of a sex-trafficking ring. A demon, who had been lurking in the background the whole time, subtly orchestrating the kidnapping, laughed sinisterly, saying, "All Jessica wanted was a fun night with a nice guy! Now she'll be having fun with a lot of guys for a long time!"
Next, we encountered a drunk-driving scene, followed by a violent drug deal, and the Black Lives Matter sequence. Then we entered one of the most potent scenarios in every hell house: the abortion scene.
It was during this scene that I saw a demon coerce a mother to force her young daughter to get an abortion that she clearly did not want. The mother kept saying, "This baby is going to ruin your life!" As the doctor was performing the girl's operation, a nearby demon wryly explained, "This woman honestly believes she's providing a service all because of women's rights. 'My body my choice!' Well, actually, it's my choice! Now gimme that little morsel in your tummy!"
In the next scene, we saw a girl who was sexually abused by her father, who went on to kill her mother. Later, that same girl was tormented by two demons, who filled her with shame for being abused and said the only answer was to kill herself. Weeping and screaming, the girl complied, slitting her wrists with a razor blade.
This harrowing scenario reminded me of a close friend of mine who suffered a psychotic breakdown and literally heard demons telling her to kill herself. Like this actor, she listened to the voices and ended her life. If I still believed in supernatural warfare as these people do, I would probably think that she was a victim of Satan's soldiers, instead of schizophrenia.
It's violent scenes like this that make hell houses so emotionally impactful. With most haunted houses, audiences have little to no context for the witches, ax murderers, and radioactive spiders coming at them. And even though the concept of supernatural warfare isn't universal, things like domestic abuse, racism, gun violence, abortion, and fatal car crashes are very familiar to most people. They're pains that we yearn to escape from.
But there was no escape for us, at least not yet. We still had to see where succumbing to the temptations of Satan inevitably lead: hell.
Naturally, the entrance to hell was through a coffin. It slammed shut and locked, placing us in a pitch-black hallway that gave way to a disorienting gauntlet of screams, moaning, banging metal, flashing red lights, and demons who would pop out from around dark corners.
Seeing these kids in their goth makeup and bloody mouths, overacting as they shouted at us to "move it!" and "get out of here!" made me kind of sentimental for my childhood. I remembered what a power trip it was to slip into demonic character and spew out all the terror I imagined was in store for me (make no mistake, I was certain I was hell-bound). Back then, I was desperate to traumatize all heathens into believing that my God was the one true God.
After our senses had been pulverized, we were led into a brightly lit room where an earnest young man who explained that there was only one person who could help us to avoid the traps of sin and the torture of hell that we saw in Hell House 27. His name was Jesus.
Brainwashing techniques like this traumatized me as a child. Atheism has been the only tool I've found to combat the fear of hell that still haunts my dreams. It's a common theme I see brought up in Ryan Connell's Former Fundamentalist Facebook group, where the religiously abused help one another determine what's "real or not real."
While the terror produced in hell houses is viewed by Connell and myself as a traumatic staple of our youth, for pastors like Barajas, it remains a commandment of love from the Bible.
"In the book of Jude, the Bible tells us to 'have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; and to still others, show mercy tempered with fear,'" he said. "The point of hell house is to show that there's a real hell, and that the mercy of Jesus is the way to heaven."
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