The idea is to scare the sin out of youngsters.
By DAVID CASSTEVENS
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Ten years ago a Colorado preacher wrote a manual about how to stage a Christian-themed haunted house. It sold for 199.
Like everything else, scaring the hell out of teens is getting more expensive.
The Hell House Outreach Kit now costs 299.
The Rev. Keenan Roberts has distributed his product to 800 churches in every state and in 18 countries. He estimates that as many as 3,000 ministries will sponsor similar attractions during the harvest season.
Hell House. Judgment House. Virtual Hell. Heaven's Gates & amp; Hell's Flames.
These Halloween spook houses lead kids through a series of graphic reality-based skits that portray the consequences of sin. The Rev. Mr. Roberts' New Destiny Christian Center bills its Denver-area Hell House as the most "high-flyin' ... death defyin' ... Satan-be-cryin' ... keep-ya-from fryin' ... cutting edge evangelism tool of the new millennium."
The pastor's comprehensive guide covers casting and costuming. His kit includes a CD soundtrack with tormented screams and the inhuman voice of "Lucifer."
Some Hell Houses are arguably as shocking as secular Halloween attractions, like Hangman's House of Horrors in Fort Worth and the macabre theme park in Terrell, Texas, called Thrillvania, which one trade magazine ranked the fourth-best haunted attraction in the country.
"I went to one [Hell House[ in St. Louis, but they called it something else," said Larry Kirchner, publisher of "Hauntworld." "Most people didn't know what to expect. It was extreme."
Trinity Assembly of God Church in Cedar Hill, near Dallas, stages a Hell House that attracts 10,000 visitors each October.
The Church at Burleson, south of Fort Worth, Texas, charges 15 admission to the Living Hell -- Resurrection.
These turn-or-burn events originated in the 1970s with a ScareMare attraction sponsored by the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. They are intended to bring youths face to face with their mortality and encourage them to accept Jesus Christ.
The Hell House at Roberts' church in Colorado boasts a 33 percent salvation and rededication decision rate.
But there is nothing meek about the message or the method.
The preacher believes the Bible teaches that homosexuality is sin and abortion is murder. In one of his Hell House sketches, a "demon" tour guide performs an unholy marriage between two men. The skit fast-forwards to a hospital room where one of the partners lies dying of AIDS.
"We're not saying if you have AIDS or an abortion you're going to hell," Mr. Roberts said. "There is forgiveness."
Some human rights groups denounce the controversial ministry as misguided. Even some church leaders say that salvation-by-fear evangelism is inappropriate.
"In what way is this the good news of Jesus?" asked the Rev. Eileen Lindner, a Presbyterian pastor with the National Council of Churches. "They are using the banner of Christianity to advance their own ideological perspective. It misses the mark by any standard of Christian education, pastoral care and outreach."
The Rev. Carol West is pastor of Fort Worth's Celebration Community Church, whose primary outreach is to gays and lesbians.
"Any group that demonizes, or perpetuates hatred, of others, I'm not sure they're working in the name of God," the Rev. Ms. West said. "They're teaching bigotry and prejudice, through fear. I like to think their intent is good, but they're doing a lot of bad things to marginalize others."
Two years ago, Los Angeles comedians lampooned the Hell House ministry. Hollywood Hell House was not "in any way an indictment of religion, Christianity or the Bible," it said in its production material. "Its purpose is to demonstrate the absurdity of a literal interpretation of the Bible, specifically the belief in a literal everlasting hell."
On opening night, Mr. Roberts sat in silence as the audience laughed throughout the performance that was based upon the scripts he wrote.
Comedian Bill Maher had a starring role.
"I though he would be a better Satan," Mr. Roberts said. "Bill Maher didn't know his lines."
No small effort
The Living Hell -- Resurrection in Burleson is no small or inexpensive undertaking.
Special effects throughout the maze-like set are top quality. Security cameras are mounted in every room. Before the church began routinely searching ticket buyers with a hand-held metal detector, one mischievous youth entered The Living Hell several years ago with a canister of pepper spray and the chemical got into the ventilation system. The building had to be evacuated.
Because of the show's graphic nature, children younger than 14 must have a parental release signed at the ticket booth.
Hundreds of kids lined up outside the church on opening night.
They entered The Living Hell in small groups, about a dozen middle-school students, clinging to each other as a faceless death guide waving oversized rubber hands welcomed them in a loud threatening voice. The host began the tour, leading them, like a malevolent real estate agent, from one room to the next.
In one intense scene, an underage youth, mangled in an alcohol-related car crash, died in the hospital emergency room.
In another tableau, a distraught teen sat on her bed and videotaped an expression of love for her younger brother. Then she bolted into an adjoining bathroom. Suddenly, the group jumped -- screamed -- at the sound of gunfire. A single shot. The demon walked his subjects past where the girl lay face down, the floor and walls covered in fake blood.
At another stop, a doctor performed an abortion even as the young patient tearfully pleaded with her boyfriend, saying she had changed her mind. Too late. The heartless guide threw back his head and laughed with theatrical glee.
"This way," the dark host intoned.
The guide and his minions hurriedly divided the youngsters into three groups and herded them into pitch-black closets. Once the doors slammed closed, suddenly the floor began to shake and rumble, creating the sensation that the enclosures were elevators, and they were moving, the wrong way, descending into the pit of you-know-where.
After glimpsing the nether world, and its wailing torment, the group journeyed on. In one soft-lit room, they faced the Son of God, speaking from the cross.
Later, they silently filed past the biblical empty tomb.
Heaven vs. Hell.
"You do have a choice," an angel calmly and repeatedly assured.
After the emotional roller coaster ended, the youths entered a bright room where several adult church members smiled in greeting and offered soft drinks. The counselors began engaging the kids in one-on-one dialogue about the drama they had just witnessed.