Take your child to a Hell House this Halloween, and you will not only scare them, but teach them that homosexuality is a choice, that abortions inevitably end in bleeding profusely from between their legs, and that both will send them straight to hell.
Over the past 17 years, Evangelical churches around the world (though predominantly in the Southern and Midwestern United States) have received over 75,000 visitors to Hell Houses – haunted houses aimed not just at scaring you, but at teaching you that "sin destroys and Jesus saves." The houses typically have seven rooms that depict mortal sins, such as suicide, drunk driving, homosexuality, abortion, or domestic abuse. Most of the scenarios end in death. And they all end with Hell and Heaven rooms, which show the everlasting consequences of our life's decisions – i.e. eternal damnation and torture, or acceptance into the kingdom of God.
While Jerry Falwell is widely credited with creating the first Hell Houses in the 1970s, a pastor named Keenan Roberts from Colorado has been largely responsible for their proliferation. In 1996, Roberts created a comprehensive Hell House Outreach Kit, which costs $299 and includes a DVD of the production, a special effects CD soundtrack, and a 300-page manual which guides erstwhile evangelists through set design, scripting, publicity, and many other technical and marketing aspects of the production. His website claims to have reached "millions," with a 33% "salvation and rededication decision rate," though he was also quoted in a 2012 Huffington Post article to have reached "over 75,000" with a 25% salvation rate. Hell Houses have reached 26 foreign countries and all 50 states.
While popular, Hell Houses have been controversial over the years for their portrayal of homosexuality and abortion, and rightfully so. The official Hell House script shows a man in a hospital, dying of AIDS because he chose to be gay, and blaming God for his horrible death. The abortion scene seems to follow two routes: one where a girl is bleeding profusely from between her legs because of an abortion pill gone bad, and one where a team of doctors rip pieces of human flesh from between her legs and toss them on the floor.
These scenes are not only the most controversial, they are the most dangerous. They amplify stereotypes and misinformation to lead young audiences to believe three things:
- Homosexuality is a choice
- Homosexuality inevitably leads to AIDS and death (actual quote from an actual performance: "He thought his homosexual lifestyle was everything a real man could want, but now he's dying of AIDS"
- Abortions are likely to go terribly wrong
While I firmly believe sexual orientation is not a choice, many are still unconvinced, despite evidence to the contrary (here, here, and here). If nothing else, the discussion on sexual orientation and homosexuality should be considered unresolved, rather than treated, as it is in Hell House, as an unhealthy and sinful lifestyle choice.
Additionally, while men having sex with men (MSM) are still much more likely to get HIV than any other group in the United States, HIV is hardly an inevitable result of homosexuality, with 81% of MSM living HIV-free. (By the way, there are also literally zero reported cases in the U.S. of HIV transmission between women who only have sex with women).
Horrible complications are also hardly an inevitable result of an abortion. A 2012 study from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill found that in the U.S., one in every 167,000 legal abortions resulted in the mother's death. They additionally found that for every 11,000 or so babies born, one woman died during childbirth, making abortions actually statistically safer than live births. So if Hell House were to represent reality, instead of portraying an extreme, they would have one woman in an emergency room dying of an abortion and 15 other women around her dying during childbirth.
To disagree with abortion and to feel uncomfortable with homosexuality is one thing, but Hell House's fire and brimstone, black and white, judgmental approach to Christianity is dangerous for the young people that it reaches. The community authority figures that typically run the Houses are deliberately misinforming their visitors by exaggerating the effects of certain lifestyle "choices," lying when they claim to have a "reenactment of a clinical abortion," and ultimately butchering Christ's message. The existence of Hell Houses is damaging to both Christianity and the rational development of our nation's youth.