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Hell House
By Amy Radil
June 2, 1997
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Hell House debuts in Minnesota this Halloween. Hell House is billed as a guided tour of Hell - one with a Christian evangelical message. Tour guides lead visitors through scenes intended to shock, disturb, and convert.

It's opening night for Hell House at the Solid Rock Church of God, a Pentecostal church in the town of La Prairie, in northeast Minnesota. With the help of 11,000 feet of black plastic sheeting, the church has been transformed into a dark, twisting maze.

The first group of visitors – three adults and five kids around the age of 12 – are ushered into the opening scene: a funeral parlor. They take their seats in the back. The actor in the casket portrays a gay man who has died from AIDS. Other actors play mourners, dressed in black and weeping. A tour guide, who identifies herself as one of Satan's minions, appears from a cloud of machine-made fog, wearing a hood and ghoulish makeup. The guide taunts the mourners, and tells them that a death by AIDS is a victory for Satan.

Demon: Now he's gone forever, into eternal fire with all the rest of the twisted, perverted, sin-infested souls.
Hell House employs the familiar language of Christian conservatives on both spiritual and political matters. But Keenan Roberts says Hell House is above politics. Roberts staged the first Hell House in 1993 and is pastor at the Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colorado. Roberts says if people are offended by Hell House, that's okay.
Roberts: We're not doing this to win a popularity contest. We're saying look, sin is hurting our nation and Jesus Christ is the answer to what you're going through.
Roberts' church sells a production kit to other churches who want to stage their own Hell House. This year about 175 churches ordered the kits. For $150 they receive a script, a tape cassette of scary sounds, and production advice. As in other localities where Hell House has been staged, it is meeting some opposition in the Grand Rapids area. Pastor George Gilbertson at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church has toured Hell House. He has urged his church members not to take their children through the exhibit. Gilbertson says he disagrees with the use of fear as a basis for faith. Dennis Whitter, the pastor at Solid Rock, says Hell House fits with the mission of his church.
Whitter: We believe that a lot of people in our community are hurting from the social pressures of today; in some cases from making bad moral decisions. We've all done that. And a lot of men, women and children are suffering consequences of their own actions. This shows where some of those decisions can take them.
The next stop on the Hell House tour is a set depicting an abortion clinic. A young woman lies on a hospital table. She screams as if in pain from an abortion. Actors portraying a doctor and nurse wear bloody gloves. They order the woman to be quiet. While this scene plays out, the tour guide holds up photographs of aborted fetuses.

Demon: We've got them convinced that it's merely tissue, but really it has a brain…and a heartbeat.
The tour also depicts a satanic ritual, a teenage suicide and a fatal drunk-driving accident. Finally, visitors descend into Hell and are greeted by Satan – he's in full costume, including horns and a long red cape.

But then an angel appears to take the visitors to a heavenly scene of redemption. A prayer counselor invites the visitors to become Christians. Bill Martin, a professor of sociology at Rice University, says Hell House is simply a contemporary version of evangelical staples: hellfire and brimstone. And he points out that evangelicals have always been open to using new techniques, like radio and TV, to spread their message. He says the real question is whether a production like Hell House is ever seen by anyone who isn't already converted.