Is It Hot in Here?

I Grew up Participating in a Hell House. It Was Weird.

Guts and gore in the name of the Lord.

By Lauren Jackson October 26, 2023

“Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” is not a phrase that the average American associates with Halloween, but for me, and for many other Americans raised in an evangelical church, it is. Why? Because I, like many others, participated in our church’s version of a Hell House as teenager.

For those not in the know, a Hell House is kind of like a haunted house, but for the Lord. There are demons, there is gore and there is no shortage of fear. It's kind of like a "scared straight" program. The idea is to so terrify a child about the consequences of sin that the child vows to live on the straight and narrow. And at the end of the Hell House experience, there is hope—for salvation and for your soul.

It makes me giggle to think about it now, a reaction for which I’m grateful, since so many ex-evangelicals look back on similar experiences with bitterness and regret. I have fond memories of the fellowship at my south Sarasota County Baptist church. The Passion Play was superb; the music ministry program, led by an enthusiastic musical prodigy, was incredible; and the youth group was extremely fun. For example: Every year, the youth pastor rented a cherry picker and threw TVs, toilets and other household goods off of it, in hopes of bringing more teenagers to the Lord.

Was there trauma? Sure. One year, at church camp, a counselor unwrapped a gift and re-wrapped it with the torn paper, comparing it to losing your virginity before marriage. “This is how your future husband will see you, as a gift someone else has already unwrapped,” she told us, intending to instill fear and compliance.

To reinforce that message, every year, during the week before Halloween, the church would set up a haunted-style house, and while some details of it are fuzzy for me now, others are as clear as if they happened yesterday.

The "house" was actually located within the church. Its sanctuary remained untouched by the fire and brimstone of the Hell House, but the rest of it was fair game. Visitors wandered from one Sunday School room to the next as they journeyed to Hell.

Children younger than 13 were not invited to star in the Hell House, but were encouraged to visit. My sister recalls being so scared in the first room that the "angels" came in and transported her “straight to heaven.” "Heaven" was the final room of the house, where people dressed up like angels witnessed to church folk and strangers, urging them to either restore their commitment to Christ or accept him into their heart for the first time.

The room that so terrified my sister started with a horrific car crash. The church spared no expense. An actual front end of a car, with shiny chrome bumpers and a semi-intact windshield, was stored in the church's theater room for its yearly use in the Hell House. Teenagers, chosen by the youth pastor for their fervor, were selected to reenact the dangers of fornication before marriage and living an un-Christ-like life. This began with the car crash, complete with smeared blood, cracked glass and a dying young couple who had just done the deed.

Visitors followed the teenagers’ storyline from room to room, from the car crash (due to drinking while feeling each other up) to pregnancy loss (which, in retrospect, must have happened the moment they consummated their relationship, because the following room showed the female teenager losing her baby and her life from the crash). From there, the unsaved teenagers were transported to Hell, along with the scared visitors.

Hell was where the real fun was. At age 13, after years of visiting the Hell House, I was selected to participate in scaring the pants off non-Christians. I knew exactly where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in Hell, where the coolest teenagers were dressed as demons and danced the night away with glowsticks while popping out occasionally to scare a passerby.

The point of the Hell House may have been to deter visitors from wanting to end up in Hell, but Hell was where I and anyone who was anyone wanted to be. After all, that's where all the cool kids were. The room, an original chapel from the church’s smaller days, was draped in black garbage bags to prevent any light from entering. We wore black masks and black clothes, and we danced and danced, raving for the Lord.

Eventually, visitors were saved from Hell and whisked to Heaven (except for the fornicating teenagers; they were lost for eternity), where the most pious youth donned angelic costumes and were backlit in a soft, white glow, surrounded by cotton ball clouds. You didn’t want to end up like those teenagers, did you? “Would you now like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” the angels would ask. Maybe this goes without saying, but the angels were always the most committed to the message. In hindsight, that’s probably why I was never chosen.

After Hell House hours, we would convene in a room just off to the side of Hell. We ate Lorna Doone cookies and drank apple juice—demons and angels convening and laughing and celebrating Jesus, proud of the work we had done in His name.

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