It's Halloween and the haunting season has begun at a church near you.
Colorado is ground zero for the Hell House phenomenon and the Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada is its nerve center. The 400-member church launched its first Hell House in 1995 and the controversial themes of their version of a haunted house -- focusing on anti-abortion, homosexuality and other "sins" -- immediately caught the attention of the media and denouncement from human rights groups and other religious leaders.
The media attention also opened the floodgates of financial opportunity. That first winter, 40 churches called for tips on conducting their own hell houses. Abundant Life is now cranking out how-to kits for other congregations across the United States that are eager to spook their own flocks.
For Abundant Life, hell has become somewhat of a cottage industry -- and a lucrative one at that.
"We never started this to be some sort of politically correct group or to try to garner public support," said Hell House founder Keenan Roberts, senior associate pastor at the church. "We stand behind our biblical beliefs, and we're very aggressive with what we believe."
In the last six years, more than 500 churches in 48 states have purchased $200 start-up "Hell House Outreach" kits, which include a how-to manual, a 40-minute video and an audio CD.
Other "extras" include human sacrifice background noise (cost: $15), hell screams (also $15), a Date Rape package for $40 and special embroidered sweatshirts for $35.
Roberts says the elaborate costumes, lighting, special effects, fake blood and makeup they use for their productions costs about $15,000. However, the church nets about $40,000 off ticket sales each year, and more than $100,000 from kits and accessories since 1995.
In other words, hell is one hell of a business.
Scaring people to Jesus
Since 1995, more than 40,000 people have rolled through the Hell House, with about 6,000 attending each year. Roberts says the church targets young people and boasts a 25-percent conversion rate of "people who have accepted God or brought God back into their hearts."
The $7 tour passes through five scenes elaborately decorated with costumed actors, lights, fog, music, mirrors and other special effects.
This year's 45-minute tour is kind of a greatest hits of sin. In past years, the church utilized human sacrifices and Monica Lewinsky--Bill Clinton scenes to scare the bejesus out of impressionable young minds. This year's standards include a gay wedding scene (actually a married couple with the woman dressed as a man -- "We weren't going to have men kissing in our church," said Roberts) which ends with one of them dying of AIDS, a graphic abortion scene, a teen-age drunk-driving fatality, a rave party where a young girl dies from an overdose and a teen suicide.
All the while, a church volunteer dressed as Satan, sometimes Roberts himself, cackles and taunts the sinners. At the end, tour-goers enter a heaven room, where a Jesus character wanders through the crowd asking people to sign up.
'Porn of the soul'
Abundant Life may be making money, but many other religious leaders, as well as human rights groups, have denounced the tactics.
In an online criticism posted on Religious Tolerance.org, a spokesman for the gay and lesbian rights group Human Rights Campaign calls Hell Houses "pornography of the soul. It's poisoning the minds of people and it's especially hurting gay and lesbian youth who are already under pressure."
The Colorado Council of Churches has come out strongly against the method, and many individual church leaders have criticized the concept.
"I detest those things; trying to scare people into a decision for Jesus is very wrong," said Rev. J.T. Tucker, director of youth ministries at Northway Christian Church in Dallas, Texas. "If you consider all the money, along with the ministry hours, if they would refocus those areas on mission work, I think they would have a lot bigger return."
Tasting the medicine
This year, Arvada's Hell House is getting a taste of its own medicine.
Life and Liberty for Women, a Colorado-based pro-choice group, has been holding silent protests, carrying placards with the names of abortion providers who have been murdered by anti-abortion activists, as well as displaying posters of fetuses that were aborted illegally, during the years when abortion was outlawed.
In addition, the group has placed newspaper advertisements with women wearing dresses covered in blood to depict botched illegal abortions.
"They've never had the tactics of graphic pictures used against them," said Life and Liberty for Women president Peggy Loonan. "This is a challenge to the public. For those people who are trying to make abortion illegal, we're out there challenging them."
Roberts simply shrugs off Loonan's protest.
"We've been protested against by more than 500 people over the years, from the Lesbian Avengers to pro-abortion activists and gay rights people," he said. "Take a number, get in line. We're not stopping what we're doing that is very successful."
Pueblo goes to hell
Despite Colorado Springs' reputation as a nerve center for the religious right, no local churches have adopted Abundant Life's take on hell. Roberts admits it's somewhat of a mystery why Colorado Springs doesn't have its own Hell House.
However, Pueblo's Trinity Life Center, a 200-member charismatic church in east Pueblo, bought a kit this summer and will hold its first Hell House this weekend.
Pastor Richard Conley has no qualms about using shock tactics to drive home the message of Jesus. Conley -- who noted that Pueblo has the second-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the state -- expects that Pueblo will embrace the concept of Hell House.
"People have become desensitized through the media and movies to a verbal message and we've found it powerfully effective through imagery," he said.
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