Photos by Sarah Gampel
Brother Thomas turns to me and says, "We're shorthanded in the abortion room." I've gone to work as a volunteer at a Hell House, an evangelical Christian haunted house in Cedar Hill, Texas, designed to scare kids away from sinning. "I'm either going to put you in the abortion room," Brother Thomas says, "or the drunk-driving room."
"The abortion room would be great," I say.
"When the visitors come in," Brother Thomas says, leading me to the room where a fake abortion performed by teenage actors is supposed to scare kids away from premarital sex, "what I need you to do is yell in a strong voice, 'Watch the steps!' If we don't say, 'Watch your step,' and they fall, we're liable."
At Hell House, Jesus steers kids toward the Lord. But he can't prevent lawsuits.
What the hell is a "hell house"? If you're not familiar, Hell House is a Christian alternative to the standard haunted house. Instead of Freddy Krueger, these costumed evangelists scare the holy Jesus into you—literally.
In this house of horrors, being gay results in dying of AIDS and premarital sex can lead the homecoming queen down a slippery slope of prostitution. Youth groups visit and are led through a series of "real life" horrific scenes designed to create terror and revulsion. Hell House outreach manuals include astute tips on creating authentic abortion room scenes, such as: Purchase a meat product that closely resembles pieces of a baby to be placed in a glass bowl.
In the end, Hell House patrons are asked to participate in a goofy ceremony and accept salvation by repenting their sins and trusting Jesus Christ—or face eternity in hell.
The largest hell house in the country is run by Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. The organization was depicted in the 2002 documentary Hell House, which featured such horrific scenes as a girl spewing vats of blood from her vagina area after an abortion (ouch!).
At this year's 23rd annual event in Cedar Hill, which happens today, 15,000 people are expected to pass through the gates. The theme is "Darkness Has a Name." The website warns: "There are guns, blood, violence, intense scenes, and disturbing images."
Hmmm? Will it be a horrible death due to twerking (twerk and get AIDs!) or horrific consequences from posting sexy selfies (caused by Satan)?
It was time to experience hell from the inside. I had gone online to request to be a volunteer, emailing Trinity Church and telling them: "I'm available to do any position that's needed. I could work next weekend and the weekend after and the weekend after that..."
An organizer emailed back: "I will use you as a tour guide or in the prayer room. Just come on out next weekend and I'll get you plugged in."
Done! I purchased a plane ticket to Texas and headed off to the world of a hell house. Help me, Jesus, help me!
Touching down in Dallas, I point my rental car in the direction of Cedar Hill. Arriving at the Texas megachurch, already a massive sea of teenagers are queuing up outside the Trinity Church choir room—each attendee popping down $12 a ticket. Hell House runs three nights a week from October 11 to November 2. If tours come through in groups of 30 to 40 people they stand to make... Well, you can do the math.
I'm directed toward a path in a field behind the church to meet the volunteer coordinator. I hesitantly approach a group on a ladder putting the last-minute touches on the exterior of the abortion room.
"Get him a black shirt. They won't take him seriously if he's not wearing a shirt," shouts the large man in charge, wearing a military hat that reads "God's Army." One of his crew members runs off to get me an official Hell House T-shirt. Hell House opens in 20 minutes, and they're shorthanded. "You're going to be the bully," he says, utilizing hell-house-worker terminology. "You'll make sure people get into the room quickly and if there's people talking, you make sure to keep them quiet."
"Right," I say, feeling slightly uncomfortable that I'm much older than the rest of the teenaged volunteers. "I'll be the bully."
"Get them in and get them out—and on to the next group!" he adds.
Yes, it's showtime for bad amateur-religious theatrics.
First, I'm assigned to the lesbian-suicide room. My job is to lead groups from the sex-trafficking area to a high school scene being enacted from behind a piece of yellow caution tape. The premise: a girl's classmates accuse her of being a lesbian. Suicide soon follows.
A youth group stands shoulder-to-shoulder and watches, transfixed, while a petrified ten-year-old tightly clutches his mom as this modern parable unfolds. "Let me tell me about my favorite student, Alex," proclaims a youth performer, caked with a large bloody gash across his head. "She's grown up pure. She's never had a boyfriend. Never been kissed. She's saving herself for the right man..."
For realism, the actress portraying the accused lesbian wears a plaid shirt.
"Don't touch me, lesbian!" scoffs the girl's best friend. She leaves in a huff, loudly slamming the door. Having no other alternative, our lead actress downs a handful of pills and kills herself, unable to face a reality where people have demonized her as gay.
"Alex has been pure her whole life. Look what good it did her. Now she'll be with me forever!" sneers the teenager portraying Satan's helper.
"You're doing a good job," one of the church leaders tells me, already praising my work ethic as I quickly steer the solemn youth group toward the drunk-driving room.
I beam with vocational pride.
The church leader has a suggestion to enhance the experience: "When you have groups in here, I want you to pray."
I vigorously nod my head.
He adds: "If you can pray in tongues, even better."
Pray in tongues? How does one even do that? The closest thing I know to a prayer is a Madonna song. I assume praying in tongues is something like making rapid gibberish noises with my mouth mixed with throwing in lyrics from the song "Mr. Roboto."
"MAKE YOUR WAY IN QUICKLY!" I scream, herding in another youth group. Going mad with power, I bark commands: "SCOOCH TOGETHER! PEOPLE IN THE MIDDLE KNEEL DOWN. NOW STAND BACK UP AGAIN. MOVE IN OR THE DEMONS WILL BE ANGRY!"
The scene begins: "Alex, are you a lesbian?"
"Pray with me!" I summon a pair of teenagers. I bow my head and start mumbling: "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto..."
A small child bolts from one of the hell-house-scene rooms and vomits. His mother is close behind. Throughout the night, other frightened children will also throw up.
"If you volunteer for ten hours, then you get a free hell-house ticket," a fellow guide says as we both physically assist a rotund man up a flight of stairs as he exits the abortion room.
Popping my head into the scene room, a cold, uncaring medical staff member is advising a young woman to terminate her pregnancy via an abortion. Subtlety is not key here. A red-faced demon taunts the woman with a sarcastic voice: "Why not have an abortion? Everyone is doing it these days!"
A girl in the audience begins to cry during the scene, solidifying that the actress portraying Abortion Girl is the queen of the hell-house ball. She knocks out a tour-de-force performance, hysterically screaming while being thrown to the ground by her angry boyfriend (who, of course, leaves her forever). I ponder if any famous actors have gotten their start on the Hell House circuit.
Returning to my post in the lesbian suicide room, I feel slightly insecure that my 14-year old hell-house co-workers don't like me. Trying to get on their good side, I mention to a cast member that I have some Broadway connections, and I could hook her up.
"How many times do you do this a night?" I ask the satanic demon with the bloody gash in his head between groups as a gunshot erupts from the sex-trafficking room followed by an actor screaming, "You ARE home, BITCH!"
"Hundreds of times," he says.
Soon, it becomes apparent: my Dante level of the hell house is seeing children reenact the exact same lesbian-suicide scene, over and over again, dozens and dozens of times, inside a wooden shed in Texas.
A kid grabs me mere moments after entering the lesbian suicide room. "I can't breath," he says, gripping his chest. Taking a page from Saving Private Ryan, I grip the kid by the shoulder and quickly assist him out of Hell House so he can get some air.
Afterward, I ask the church leader, "What scared him so much?"
"The whole experience," he replies. "He was panicking. He was really freaked out. This all scared him. He was clinging to his mom, and she had a hard time walking through the rooms with him."
The church leader seems pleased; the hell house is effectively doing its job by scaring the holy Lord into children.
"What if another kid freaks out?" I ask. "What should I do?"
"Get him out the door and take him to the prayer room. If they need prayer, someone will take them into the next room." Plenty more terrified souls are expected. "You're going to have adults doing the same thing. We had seven adults come out of the coffin room last night. We had to take them all down to the decision room."
"It was scarier last year," says a teen in a stocking cap, as his group departs the domestic violence room. "In the past, they scared us into reality. Now they're making us think about making the right decisions."
Sure, that's a kinder, gentler hell house—compared to churches who run radio ads inviting people to "Come see the funeral of a homosexual AIDS patient," (done with a Monster Truck rally voice?) but emotional/psychological trauma potential is still apparent. Freddy Krueger can easily be proven fake. But violent, graphic scenes trumpeting consequences in a place called hell can fuck a child up for life. Sure, the hell house might get more kids to church, but what about the percentage psychologically damaged by thinking being gay is a straight ticket to suicide or hell?
A chubby kid is in complete shock, sweating profusely—his face is white as a sheet after witnessing the actor shooting his fictional wife and strangling his fictional son; bad things that the church believes the kids must see.
"Just stick by my side," Brother Thomas instructs the traumatized child. He turns to his youth pastor. "We're about to go into the coffin room. I'll keep him close to the exit in case he needs to leave."
This poor kid is literally going to shit his Jesus-fearing pants when he enters the next room and gets stuffed into a claustrophobic, darkened make-shift coffin—where demons will pound on the sides while loudly shrieking.
Inside the darkened room, a video shows graphic scenes from Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ—as a ghoul voice commands us to get inside several upright wall coffins. I'm crammed in with three scared teenagers. They shouldn't fear; I'm here to help.
"Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto..."
"Is hell after this?" one kid frightfully asks.
We're taken out of the coffins and pushed into darkened room, a.k.a. hell. A human sacrifice is taking place under a flickering light. Masked ghouls and demons taunt those in the room with horrific shrieks and screams, coming mere inches away from the petrified kids. Unearthly sounds bellow from the bowels of Satan. The smaller children cling to their parents; they are sobbing, screaming, and frightened. The message is pounded into our heads: everyone who is not saved tonight will end up here, in hell, when they die. They will be eternally tortured without any hope of mercy or release.
Hey, sinners—welcome to your future!
Emerging from hell, the emotionally broken-down youth groups are greeted by the cool pastor. In the brightly lit decision room, the cool pastor jumps up on a chair to play the role of good cop to Hell House's bad cop.
"If you want your get out of Hell free card, it's your connection to God himself," exclaims the cool pastor with a friendly smile. "We want to introduce you to the King himself. We want to get you hooked on God. That is our purpose here in Hell House. We're going to open the door. Do what God tells you to do. The only way out is if you want to go in and pray!"
He's basically saying, either pray or it's back to the Hell room—for eternity.
Do these kids really have an option? No one wants to be the devil's bidet.
The Decision Room is like a scene out of Glengarry Glen Ross. The distraught and shattered youth groups' members emerging from the hell house are made to sign forms that state their commitment to Jesus Christ (keeping it legally, or at least celestially binding). Heads are bowed. Prayer is in our midst; there's much talk about casting away demons.
A prayer counselor is intensely speaking in tongues without irony, wrapping his hands around two kids with their eyes tightly closed shut.
"You're amazing, oh God. You're amazing. There's nothing the enemy can do to bind us anymore. You kneel for me in front of my enemy. In the name of Jesus, amen."
The exhausted prayer counselor then collapses onto a chair, spiritually drained from speaking in tongues.
"Wow. That was intense," one of the kids says afterward.
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