Welcome to Hell

A Christian group in Texas has devised a unique method of redirecting wayward teens off the highway to hell and on to a more righteous path. Andrew Gumbel takes the tour
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The Independent US

It's called Hell House, which sounds ordinary enough. What makes it peculiar is that it is run by a right-wing evangelical church, and its aim is, quite literally, to scare the bejesus out of impressionable teenagers and shock them into signing up for a life in the service of Christ.

We've already endured scenes of assault, abortion, murder and suicide, complete with ear-piercing gunfire, strobe lights, thumpingly loud music and buckets of theatrical blood. We've seen a teenage girl punished for entertaining a single brief thought about meeting a guy on spring break - a thought that leads directly to her being viciously gang-raped. We've seen how homosexual temptation can lead to lies, betrayal and violent death. We've seen people become evil under the influence of pornography.

And now we are plunged into sudden darkness. Out of no-where, actors in devil costumes grab us by the shoulders and throw us into upright coffins. The doors slam shut and won't open. Someone is cowering next to me in my coffin, but it's too dark to see who it is. The heavy-metal soundtrack is cranked up to maximum volume, the devils start beating the coffins with sticks and laugh manically that we are on the way to eternal damnation.

Some of my fellow Hell Housers lose it completely. "Get me out of here! Get me out of here!" screams a girl a couple of coffins down.

"Don't worry, Sarah," one of her friends shouts above the din. "We're Christians, we're going to heaven!" We are in a converted barn in a field belonging to the Trinity Assembly of God church in the Dallas suburb of Cedar Hill, which prides itself on being the first church in the United States to host a Hell House. That was 15 years ago. By now Hell Houses have become quite the fashion among certain fire-and-brimstone evangelical churches across the country. One Colorado-based pastor, Keenan Roberts, has developed a Hell House Outreach kit which he sells to other churches for $200 (£113) each.

Hundreds of them have taken up the idea, and established a series of vignettes that re-enact everything from botched abortions to the Columbine school massacre to the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers in September 2001. The world is cast as a place of blood and conflict, in which just about every form of sex is an instrument of the devil, pleasure is bound up in sin and pain is the depressingly ubiquitous norm.

"You've been to a haunted house, but you've never been to hell!" advertises the answering machine at Trinity church. It sounds as though there might be the tiniest bit of room for fun amid the gore and mayhem, an impression only bolstered in the hour or so before the show itself begins. In a common-room tucked away among the church's many buildings, high school students laugh and joke as they get themselves made up as demons and sinners.

A couple of girls laugh at a story of someone's grandmother who became so scared the previous year that she wet herself. One of the girls, introducing herself just as Crystal, protests that the church fathers wouldn't let her have any of the really good parts. "They won't let me be Satan. They won't let me be the gay guy," she complains.

The church authorities, on first encounter, seem much too friendly to be hellfire preachers. Carlos Ortiz, a youth counsellor in his first year running Hell House, talked so thoughtfully about the careful preparation that went into the content and pacing of the scenes that I began to wonder if the whole thing would turn out to be disappointingly tame. I did not need to wonder long. Another counsellor called Thad Trober assured me shortly before showtime: "The show has always been at the highest intensity. We push it as high as it can go." And he was not joking.

Soon I was walking into the performance among a group of 13- and 14-year-olds terrified at the very prospect of what awaited them. The music was cranked up high, the lights were low and devils flocked to prod us from one room to the next.

In one early scene, the devils hovered around a pair of teenage boys developing a crush on each other. One devil explained that one of the boys thought he was gay only because he had been molested as a child. As for the other: "By 13 I had him addicted to gay porn ... just give a little hate and I'll show you what I can do." By the end of the scene one boy had turned on the other and beaten him to death. A little further on, a drug deal gone horribly wrong featured a teenage boy torn between his supplier (a rap-loving black guy, of course) and his virginal girlfriend, a vision of blonde innocence and Christian virtue. As if the point were not well enough made, the graffiti on the wall of the drug house includes the phrase: "Sell your soul."

Things started getting particularly gruesome, in a Hammer horror sort of way, in the abortion scene, when cold, heartless doctor characters used an outsize pair of tweezers to pull unidentified bloody animal parts out from between a teenage girl's legs. (This trick, incidentally, is straight out of Keenan Roberts' outreach kit.) Having extracted the foetus - "America's version of the Holocaust," the devil narrators tell us - the doctors then manage to let the girl die too, through inattention. They act like it's just another day at the office.

In the show's most overwrought scene, an alcoholic, adulterous, porn-addicted litigation lawyer who has just secured freedom for a known paedophile stabs his wife rather than have her discover he has been molesting their daughter. The daughter then shoots her father, retreats to her room and slits her wrists, spilling fake blood over the floor, next to her bible.

This might have seemed unintentionally funny were it not for the relentlessness of the sensory bombardment we had all undergone for the previous half an hour. As it was, my stomach started turning in vague discomfort. Some of my fellow Hell Housers were pale and clinging on to each other for security.

From here on in, everything was over the top. We were escorted into what we were told was the ante-chamber of Hell, where Grand Guignol videos showed demons trampling on the buried heads of the condemned. "Do you know where you are going when you die?" asked the soundtrack. Soon we were treated to a montage of images of Jesus being whipped and tormented before nails were banged into his hands and feet in gruesome close-up - images that were intended to give us Hell Housers hope.

Thoroughly shaken, we were taken to one last room where a pastor called Larry invited us to choose between two doors - one plain one marked "Exit" leading straight to the night-time air, and another leading into a "prayer room" where Hell Housers could sign up for the church and talk, if they wished, with a counsellor.

"The question is, if you were to die tonight, where are you going to go?" Larry asked. At least three of the teenagers trembled visibly. "The devil is trying to stop you going through the prayer door," he asserted. And, he told us, calling yourself a Christian was not enough protection from eternal hellfire. "Who does the devil want most? Those close to him, or those who got away?" he asked. The teenagers murmured: "Those who got away." Larry thundered back: "And what are those who got away called? That's right, Christians!" Every single member of my party went through the prayer door. Some of them rushed through.

The whole thing was crude and manipulative, of course. Hell Houses have attracted plenty of criticism - not just from homosexual rights and feminist groups, but also from less extreme evangelical churches who feel it is entirely inappropriate to inspire religious feelings through blank fear.

The most lasting impression, though, was not the insidious way in which the usual Christian right talking-points on abortion, homosexuality and extramarital sex were hammered home so much as the kind of world constructed by Hell House and the way it spoke to its target audience - young, impressionable church-goers from lower-middle class communities.

It was hard to shake the feeling that the drugs, alcoholism, pornography, child molestation, rape and gun violence depicted in the show were a real part of everyday experience in this part of the world, whatever one thought of the way the issues were interpreted and twisted to fit the distinctly unforgiving Christian message.

Thad Trober, the counsellor at the entrance to Hell House, explained how he had converted to Christianity after a terrifying car accident that claimed the lives of several of his friends. They had been out drinking and taking drugs, and got crushed by a train as they sat in their parked car across a railway line.

"The Lord had to use that incident to get my attention," Mr Trober told me. "When I turned my life around and started following Christ, I was scared. Real life is scary. So if scaring is what gets your attention, then we're going to do what it takes to get your attention."

The Trinity Hell House has certainly succeeded in that aim. Every year, thousands of young people arrive at the property to undergo the experience in the weeks leading up to Hallowe'en. Some of them repeat it two or three times. Cathy McCleary, a group leader from the nearby town of Garland, told me: "The Lord uses it to touch their hearts." Her charges, meanwhile, walked in near silence across a darkened field back to the car park. After an initial flurry of animated conversation to compare notes on what they had experienced, they seemed too shellshocked to speak.