Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Hell to Pay: Christian Haunted Houses and Audience Reception

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Hell to Pay: Christian Haunted Houses and Audience Reception

Article excerpt

Introduction

For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

--Romans 6:23

"What you're gonna see in Hell House is a reality check ... and I really feel it's our responsibility as the Church to warn our culture like a watchman, warning someone of danger. ... If I don't do that, then the blood is not only on your hands for your sins, but it's also on my head and my hands for your sins, as well." The opening words of the 2001 documentary Hell House, spoken by Reverend Tim Ferguson, a youth pastor at Trinity Church in Cedar Hills, Texas, clearly explain the purpose of the performances in the venue. Hell House, as well as other Christian haunted houses, is intended as a warning to our civilization. It is an attempt to show us what awaits us beyond the grave, depending on the choices we make during our earthly existence. The evangelical equivalent of secular scare attractions, Hell House and similar live-action productions present visitors with numerous scenarios of sins and consequences, acted out as visitors walk through. A violent "wakeup call," Christian haunted houses have been accused of scaring people into converting to Christianity and criticized for the controversial topics they address and the graphic nature of the displays.

These criticisms cannot be dismissed outright: it is easy to see that it is difficult to stay objective when one is confronted with blood-soaked scenes of abortions and men dying of AIDS because of their homosexuality. However, as has been noted by Ann Pellegrini, "Cultural critics need to move beyond simply analyzing--and lambasting--the over [sic] content or theology of Hell Houses (what Hell Houses say) and focus instead on the affectively rich worlds Hell House performances generate for their participants (what Hell Houses do)" (2007, 912). Before we follow the method suggested by Pellegrini, however, it will be beneficial to explore what these performances intend to do, thus providing a framework for subsequent audience research. The intention here is not to focus on the number of people who convert or recommit after a visit to a Hell House. (1) Instead, this article will examine the potential emotional impact on visitors of the displays in Christian haunted houses, based on an exploration of the setup of the various venues and the effects that they use. Drawing from academic work, interviews with those involved, and treatment of the phenomenon by secular sources (the 2001 documentary Hell House and the 2006 production of Hell House by Les Freres Corbusier), the aim of this paper is to provide new insights into the experience that Christian scare attractions aim to achieve.

"The Evangelism Tool of the New Millennium": Origins and Definitions

The term "Christian haunted houses" will be used throughout this article to encompass all such performances, including the now infamous Hell House and the lesser-known Scaremare and Judgement House. Although these are three different organisations and each has its own focus, the goal of the productions is identical: to reach visitors with the message from the Bible and to provide them with displays of the possibilities and consequences of the choices made during their life (resulting in going either to heaven or hell). The method by which the message is presented is by putting on a theatrical production, consisting of a number of rooms in which scenes are played out. These scenes present choices made by the protagonists of the scenario and, eventually, the results of these choices. However, as already stated, the focal points and the actual content of these displays differ from production to production (I will return to this later). This use of drama as a depiction of choice and consequence reminds one of a morality play in which the subject matter is updated to match today's culture and its perils (a connection which is also noted by Jackson [2007, 52, 54]). …

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