Whipped, humiliated, crucified, at the cusp of death, Jesus Christ speaks to me from the cross: “This is how much I love you! I suffered so that you wouldn’t be a slave to sin! I died so that you could live with me in heaven! I love you so much!”
Having said this, he breathes his last.
The onlookers around me stand silently, and I become aware of a chill in the air.
How did I end up here?
Because of my death-meriting sinfulness, which cannot be expunged except through the substitutionary sacrifice of God incarnate, theologically speaking.
Because I had driven to a North Texas megachurch, geographically speaking.
Since the early 1990s, many Evangelical Christian churches have created their own scare attractions every October, which generally go by the name “Hell Houses.” They narrate a theologically conservative, Biblically literalist, and theatrically horrifying story of humankind’s sinfulness and the salvation offered through Jesus’s crucifixion.
I visited three such experiences last fall: the Hell Houses of Tyler Metro Church in Tyler, Texas; the Hell Houses of Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas; and “The Nightmare” of Guts Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Here’s what happens inside an experience that promises to “scare the Hell out of you.”
Tyler Hell House: Who is the Serial Killer?
My group of twenty-five—guests of all ages, including many teenagers—begins with an evening hayride across the gigantic campus of Tyler Metro Church. Deposited at the edge of the woods, we disembark, the anxious, giggling teenagers clearly feeling the frisson of haunt season.
We march up a semi-lit path dotted with the seasonally appropriate decorations of fake tombstones, animal skeletons, and even a Michael Myers mannequin. Suddenly, a chainsaw-wielding maniac comes roaring out of the woods and chases us toward a shack. We quickly filter through the door and away from the murderer as the group’s screams dissolve into laughter.
We find ourselves in a large room bathed in menacing crimson. A man sits in the middle of the room in an electric chair. Next to him stands an executioner in ghoulish make-up.
“This man is a serial killer! What should we do with him? Spare his life or kill him?”
A boy near me cheers for his death, so the executioner throws a switch. Sparks fly. Electricity courses through his body. The serial killer’s soul departs to face its eternal judgment, leaving only the fried husk of a man.
The executioner grins and speaks again.
“So you’ve killed him! Now there’s one less serial killer walking around. But you’re not safe yet. There’s still so much sin in the world: just look at all the suicide, abortion, and gay men. Worse than that, there’s another serial killer, an even more vicious serial killer, out to get you.”
He directs us toward the back door of the shack so we can begin our unflinching tour of the moral rot and spiritual ugliness in our world.
We walk back outside and then into a cramped shed, where a burly, black-clad figure stabs a screaming young man until he’s silent. Is this the serial killer? The murderer pivots toward us and growls, “I killed this man because he said he was a Christian! Well, what about you? Who’s going to admit they’re Christian?”
Everyone in the room timidly raises a hand except for me. In a setting meant to embolden Christians to affirm their belief when no one else will, I am the one who becomes nakedly isolated. For one panicked moment, I wonder if this performer will actually murder me for being a nonbeliever. Fortunately, he does not. This man is a serial killer, but not the serial killer. We are released, and I exhale.
Tyler Hell House: Rooms of Sin
In front of the next low-slung building is another figure, this one unmistakably a demon, and a teenage girl, evidently in her second or third trimester, convulsing with tears. The demon narrates what happened: this young woman slept with a man who had promised he’d stay with her, and guess what? He knocked her up and left her, of course! The demon locks eyes with all the teenage girls in my group and dares them to take a chance with their oh-so-committed boyfriends, to see which guys would stay once a baby was on the way. I am not being addressed, but nonetheless a bleak nausea blooms in my stomach.
The problems continue for the girls. We shuffle into the building and behold a different woman in a rocking chair. She has dark circles under her eyes and coos insanely as she rocks nothing in her arms. The demon in this room explains that the woman aborted her fetus and is now poisoned with guilt for the rest of her life. I scan the room and see, on the floor next to a hospital bed, a disgusting spillage of blood and viscera from the abortion.
On and on we go, room to room to room, each time with a resident demon explaining the sin and sinner to us.
Here is a boy who, succumbing to despair, puts a gun in his mouth and sprays his bedroom wall with the contents of his skull.
There is a girl slumped dead over a steering wheel in a still smoking car. She was driving drunk in order to seem cool, her demon tells us. If we want to be cool, we can be just like her, and the demon can boast of another victim.
Next is a porn addict. In a brilliant bit of stagecraft, his eyes are fixated on internet porn on his phone; he wears a prison jumpsuit and sits in a cell with an unlocked door, unwilling to leave.
Nothing distinguishes scenes that are immoral only within a religious framework from those that would register as unethical for secular audiences as well. Sin is sin. Hell is Hell.
The conclusion of the sin-room series is a disorienting space with surrealist melting clocks painted on the walls. The resident demon dresses like a madhouse impresario. He jeers at how our generation is unaware of the signs of the times—that is, esoteric Biblical clues that the world is ending. Our demonic host rattles off a few: the ravings of “Rocket Man” in North Korea, innumerable wars around the world, and wildfires in Northern California. Chapter and verse citations for these signs are absent.
Tyler Hell House: Christ’s Passion
After a short jaunt through a graveyard, we enter the “Hellevator,” a steel cage in a tiny room that rumbles as though we’re plummeting thousands of feet.
We exit the other side of the Hellevator and are filtered in pairs into upright coffins. I squeeze in with a teenage boy. The door shuts, and hot air is pumped in until the space is stifling. We are dead. We are sinners. We are experiencing just a taste of the fire and brimstone we deserve on account of our disobedience to God.
The opposite side of the coffin swings open and releases us. Awaiting our arrival is not another demon, but an angel. The adolescent girl, petite, diffident, dressed in Christmas-pageant white, asks us to think about what we’ve seen. She tells us that sin is not the only way.
Then we meet Jesus.
When I first see him—portrayed by a teenager—he is naked to the waist and kneeling. A Roman soldier flays his back. Jesus cries out, yet his torturer persists with malevolent glee. My gaze lingers as we step outside.
All of a sudden I am at the crucifixion. There are the crown of thorns, the wound in the side, the nails in hands and feet, and the Son of God, dying while affixed to two boards of cheap wood.
Jesus calls to us with an anguished voice: “This is how much I love you! I suffered so that you wouldn’t be a slave to sin!”
He offers us salvation from the horrid desolation we have seen. He begs us to recognize and accept his love. He invites us to join him in heaven. Then he hangs his head and dies for us.
My group shuffles away in solemn silence.
Before this fresh melancholy can take root, we we walk around a fence and behold the risen God. He emerges from behind a hill, a stand-in for the tomb. Now Jesus is clad in glorious white robes, caressed in soft light, and accompanied by pop-epic orchestration. He tells us he is alive, even today, and that he still loves us and wants a relationship with us.
Tyler Hell House: A Believer’s Testimony
We wander back across a field toward the building from which we had departed on the hayride. Outside it an adult woman, not dressed as a character, explains to us that the real serial killer, the worst serial killer of all, is Satan. He wants to destroy us with sin and capture our souls. Jesus, on the other hand, offers us life and redemption. The choice is crystal-clear, and the choice is ours.
At last we proceed into an auditorium, where there are dozens of adult volunteers from the church who are waiting to greet us. Each guest is warmly engaged in conversation by a volunteer, who asks what we thought of the experience, where we stand in our relationship with God, and whether we wish to dedicate or rededicate our lives to Christ that very night.
Oscar, a kind man in his early 30s, speaks with me. I tell him I was moved by the sincerity and intensity of the experience. To the issue of my current faith status, I explain I was raised a devout Catholic but have been agnostic-leaning-atheist for years. He smiles and says he admires my conviction. I’m surprised by his evident lack of surprise.
Oscar claims that every person faces only one choice that really matters—yes or no to Jesus—and I made my choice not to believe. I respond that I honestly don’t feel as though I have chosen not to believe. I could choose to ponder, or ignore, or research religion, but how could I choose what I believe?
This question casually expands into an hour-long conversation covering the Atonement, the fate of non-Christians, science and religion, contradictions in the Bible, and other topics. Oscar is truly generous with his time, and even when he tells me I am probably headed for Hell if I don’t accept Jesus, there is equanimity in his tone. Eventually I thank him for the conversation, and my time at the Tyler Hell House is over.
The Nightmare and Cedar Hill Hell Houses: A Nonbeliever’s Journey
These are decidedly strange experiences for the nonbeliever. They induced some of the strongest emotional reactions of the entire haunt season. During the Nightmare in Tulsa, I was revolted by the piece of bloody flesh dangling from the coat hanger held by a girl who had just undertaken a self-induced abortion. At the Cedar Hill Hell House, a teenage girl in my group was sobbing after the crucifixion. These scenes elicited aching emotions with a panache that would impress the most experienced haunt creators.
The Cedar Hill Hell House stressed the horrors that can afflict ostensibly blameless people. There was a prolonged sequence where one teenager pimped out her friend on a “blind date.” The friend was raped and then chained to a dungeon wall as a sex slave. Maybe I missed the didactic function here. Was it that her piteous life still offered the balm of a relationship with her savior? Was sexual assault and forced prostitution the consequence of an insufficiently Christian world? Was the woman sinful for accepting a blind date in the first place?
The three Hell Houses I visited overlapped a good deal, but, as with all theater, there is room for aesthetic variation. The Nightmare portrayed its whipping-of-Jesus scene in the style of Eli Roth. As death metal hammered through the speakers, Jesus was flayed by men in bloody butcher aprons who bellowed, “Behold your Messiah!” Jesus screamed in agony, and the ruined flesh of his torso resembled scrambled eggs and ketchup.
Then again, Eli Roth might owe his vision to Christian iconography. After all, David Edelstein called both Hostel (2005) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) torture porn. And seven hundred years earlier, the Inferno depicted a walk through Hell, more or less harmless to the protagonist, which surveyed horrendous monsters and gruesome torture; Dante invented the walkthrough haunt.
The Godliest Haunts
All three Hell Houses also incorporated miniature jump-scare-haunt segments where we were accosted by performers dressed as traditional Halloween monsters, not as Christian demons. These sections acknowledged their theatrical debt to conventional secular haunts and offered some familiarity to teenagers who may have been resistant to a religious event.
Similar to extreme haunts, Hell Houses seek to amplify the intensity and urgency of fear (one experience even styled itself a “Reality House”). But instead of achieving this through physical aggression and radical uncertainty (How long will my head be held underwater? or Is that approaching stranger a haunt actor?), Hell Houses utilize the power of ultimate consequences. Extreme haunts may promise bruises, ruined clothes, and uneasy memories; Hell Houses promise a realm of infinite and never-ending torment.
Extreme haunts present guests with unpleasant sights and sensations, yet offer an ironclad way to stop all the pain and uncertainty. So do Hell Houses.
The safe word is “Jesus.”
To read more about the Hell Houses or their parent churches, visit the websites of Tyler Metro Church in Tyler, Texas [no website available for their Hell Houses]; the Hell House of Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas; and The Nightmare of Guts Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hell Houses