The corpse of Abby Endicott lay before me, blood staining her face and neck. The SUV that had struck her was empty, its hood covered with the carcass of a waiter. Other bodies were strewn about the sidewalk café, like that of Abby's brother, unconscious. And of her mother Carol, dead.
The driver, a teenage girl whose shirt advertised her senior status in high school, was in a fit of hysteria, confused words spewing out of her mouth. She had been texting while driving, she frantically explained. Her dad was going to kill her.
Meanwhile, the tweenage girls next to me locked arms, bracing themselves against the shocking, yet exciting imagery. Despite the carnage we just witnessed, the jovial curiosity that they had at the beginning of the night lingered. A group of eight or so kids, joined by a couple of chaperones, a set of parents with their son, two adult women, and myself and my two friends, were directed to turn around by our accommodating guide, a sweet woman. We now faced Abby and Carol's funeral.
It was only moments earlier that I saw Abby's day unfold. Breakfast with her family. Her trip to her friend's church. Her decision to accept Jesus as her savior, and Carol's skepticism at the idea.
And as Charleston Baptist Church's Judgement House was about to show me, this decision changed Abby's eternal fate. The church used its West Ashley facility to present the story of the Endicotts as an Evangelical Christian alternative not only to traditional Halloween, but to the darker and more violent hell houses that have garnered so much controversy in the last 20 years.
Building a house
"I do see it as a historical phenomenon," says Dr. William S. Poole, a professor of American religion in the history department at College of Charleston. He's explored hell houses in his books Satan in America: The Devil We Know and Monsters in America: Our Historic Obsession with the Hideous and the Horrible, which will be released in 2011.
"I think it does grow out of the Satanic panic, which was this concern that swept the country in the 1980s and the early '90s that there was sort of this Satanic underground that was operating," Poole says. "What went along with that was a nervousness about Halloween itself and the idea that Halloween was somehow a Satanic holiday, and so the hell house was going to be this Christian version of Halloween. It was something that Christians could do with Halloween."
The origin of the hell houses isn't entirely clear, although churches in Colorado and Texas lay claim. They began getting national attention with the publication of a Boston Globe article in 1999. The Trinity Church Assembly of God in Cedar Hill, Texas, garnered controversy by depicting a school shooting in the wake of Columbine and an attack at a nearby church. In 2001, the documentary Hell House followed Trinity's yearly production.
Evangelical churches generally host the houses, and evangelicals generally attend them. They're mostly centered in parts of the country where that faith is the strongest, like in Texas, Colorado, and South Carolina. Poole thinks the evangelical groups that stage hell houses believe that America is under siege by dark forces. "They're being Christian warriors by doing this," he says. "Especially when it's youth groups involved, they're kind of underscoring their support for their parents' values."
In the hell houses, attendees are pretty much guaranteed to see a few specific scenarios. Teens die in an alcohol-fueled car wreck, a gay man succumbs to AIDS, and a girl graphically hemorrhages after a botched abortion procedure. All these poor, departed souls are taken by a taunting demon-like figure to the house's version of Hell — unless they accept Jesus into their lives before they die. Then they get to go to heaven.
Most of the scandal created by these houses doesn't seem to come so much from what they're trying to say but how they say it. Borrowing a horror-film aesthetic, some churches used real animal entrails during particularly horrific moments. "It's things that most parents who are in that tradition would never allow their kids to see in another setting, in a theater for example," Poole says. "But because the goal is seeing it as conversion and convincing people of the literal possibility as hell, then this is seen as an acceptable kind of presentation." They also employ the most basic and negative clichés in presenting homosexuality, rape, and suicide.
And at the end, a clergy member or volunteer will give the audience a choice. They can let Jesus into their hearts or they can reject him. They can let the host church counsel them, pray with them, and possibly convert them, or they can make a decision that the church believes you will regret for all eternity.
But hell houses aren't the only evangelical spook houses around. After the backlash that many churches received, some turned to a cuddlier version of the hell house. Judgement Houses (and yes, that's judgement with two Es) have replaced the blatant gore with family value-based themes, avoiding the most tendentious issues. "I think there's been the realization for some that the hell house pushed so many hot buttons that it turned people off, whereas the Judgement House is this kinder, gentler version," Poole explains. "Although it's still heavily, heavily politicized, and a lot of emphasis is on the safety of the world of Christian churches and youth groups and suburbs and all of that."
New Creation Evangelism Inc., based in Clearwater, Fla., runs Judgement House, a company that provides scripts, including the one used by Charleston Baptist Church, to churches, known as "Covenant Partners," around the country — including 15 in South Carolina — and the world. To date, the company's website states that their scenarios have been performed in 34 states and seven foreign countries. The 13 different stories include "Web of Lies," where a young girl meets a sexual predator on the internet, and the more lighthearted "Hannah's Hope," about a girl with cancer who inspires her high school and her entire community. This year, Charleston Baptist chose to perform "Unexpected," which climaxes with a tragedy caused by texting and driving.
The Judgement Houses are less confrontational, but some of them do depict hell. And there's still the hard sell at the end. "It's still heavily ideological," Poole says. "It's just that it's a little bit less in your face."
Charleston Baptist Church's Judgement House is in its fifth year, and Susan Murphy has served as its director each time. She explains that the attraction is an eight-scene walk-through drama. "A guide leads you from scene to scene and a story unfolds, and you find out that their decisions in life and what might happen depending on the decisions that they make. Of course, it's Christian based."
Putting the house on is a year-long process. As soon as one Halloween season is over, Murphy is back at work finding a script for the next year. "I do a lot of praying," she laughs. "God lays a script on my heart and that ends up being the one."
The Charleston Baptist Church's Judgement House is a youth-led program and ends up using 200-250 members of the local Christian community (both from Charleston Baptist Church and other area churches). One hundred are used in the cast, while the others work in the background, like with counseling. Some of the program's funding comes from the church itself; the rest comes from donations. "I have to start thinking about logistics and what all it's going to take, depending on the script, what we're going to be able to do," Murphy adds. In August, she holds auditions. Later that month or in early September, practice begins.
"As a church, we're hoping that people come to an understanding that they need Christ in their life," she says. "It's an outreach program of our church to reach out to the community, not necessarily to bring people into our church but to bring people to a knowledge of Christ."
Since most of the Judgement House scripts don't specifically revolve around Halloween, other churches around the country may choose to put theirs on at other times of the year. Murphy prefers the October holiday and explains that since it's such a huge process and they do so many other outreach events, like Upward Basketball, it would be hard to do it more than once a year. Plus, "It's kind of an alternative to the haunted house," she says.
"It's quite moving. After all that I do every year in choosing the script and working on it and everything, when I end up actually going through when it's finished, it moves me every time. I usually cry," Murphy adds. "And I know what's going to happen, and it still affects me."
To Hell and back
Poole visited the Washington Avenue Baptist Church hell house in Greenville as a graduate student. Since it was the mid-90s, he couldn't make a reservation through the church's website like I did. Instead, he had to wait in a long line — with kids as young as eight.
"Honestly, my own view is that it's a profoundly negative experience," Poole says. "It's possible that some people are joining these churches and becoming a part of these churches because of this, but the message that is communicated ... is that the people you disagree with over political and cultural issues are motivated by Satan, essentially."
At the time, Poole was about to lose a friend to AIDS. And then he had to a see a scene that exploited every kind of stereotype connected with the disease, ending with the victim getting dragged off to hell. He says it was anger-inducing and horrifying. "This was a way to portray people that are different from you as demonic in some sense."
After he journeyed through the house, to hell and back, Poole reached a final room, where a clergy member asked the group to raise their hand if they accepted Christ as their savior. Poole didn't, something he regretted when a volunteer came up to him to counsel him on his faith.
Poole did not get anything positive out of the experience. "I guess I wish they would go away is my final view," he laughs. But Poole has never been to a Judgement House.
Though exceedingly tame compared to the images seen in the Hell House film, the Judgement House scenes following the Endicotts' accident were still jarring. While Abby is allowed into heaven, a cloaked figure carries Carol, screaming, off through a curtain. It didn't matter how good she tried to be during her life. It didn't even matter if she was a Christian. What mattered was whether or not she had accepted Jesus, and she had not. That's the idea that Judgement House seemed to emphasize the most.
We eventually find her in a warm and smoky room with black walls, crouched in a corner, rocking and weeping as an intimidating man in a black T-shirt sermonizes to the audience, illustrating what hell may really be like. A younger man whimpers against a wall, his head in his knees; he too was a victim of the accident, but he was 18 and thought that he had all the time in the world before he needed to accept Jesus. He was wrong. And in a flash, what little light there was went out and the screaming began. As the audience escaped the room, young men and women appeared out of nowhere, wailing, their arms shackled to the walls.
After that, we were taken to heaven. And we got to see what happened to Abby, who the church believed made the right decision. A chorus of white-robed angels greeted us, and we were led to the kingdom — and to Jesus himself.
And then Jesus hugged all of us.
At the end of the night, we were taken into the final room, where the acting was over and reality set in. We sat in a circle, listening to a church member explain the real reason for the Judgement House as a box of tissues waited patiently on a table in the center. He asked us to close our eyes, bow our heads, and pray.
The ultimate goal of these houses is to get people to accept Jesus into their lives, to get saved. But generally, the people who come to them are already living within this faith. They're members of Charleston Baptist Church, or of other neighboring evangelical churches.
One by one, the man presented us with questions. Were we unsure where we would end up after death? Did we need to recommit ourselves to Christ? If we raised our hand in answer, we were escorted to another room.
When my friends and I were asked to open our eyes, and our chance for redemption that night had passed, the room was almost empty.
Charleston Baptist Church's Judgement House (13 San Miguel Road, West Ashley) is open Oct. 27 and 29, 6-9 p.m., and Oct. 30, 4-8 p.m. Reservations can be made at scbaptist.net/charlestonbc/jh2010 or by calling (843) 556-4673.