When I was 10, I was forced to give my life to Christ.
As a kid, my mother was a devoutly religious woman (she would not even let me dress up for Halloween), so I was shocked when she told me I was going to go to what she called a “Hell House.” I was going with my church youth group, so to be going to something with this extreme a name, I suspected it was typical Jesus stuff she had signed me up for. I was wrong.
We stood outside, waiting to go in. There were white folks all around, but that was not unusual; it was Oklahoma, after all. I learned by listening to those waiting that this was an evangelical event, but it was called a “Hell House”—I was intrigued. We made it to the front of the line and walked in. I was not ready for what I was about to see.
The first thing I saw was a young, white, clean-cut dude welcoming us. He explained that these were going to be examples of what would happen if we did not follow the “way of Christianity.” I thought that phrase—“the way of Christianity”—to be weird. He talked like there was only one way to be a Christian, and he was going to show us what happened if we wavered from that path.
He walked us forward, and I was met with a remarkably gruesome scene. There was a car crash, blood and guts everywhere. The guide explained to us that the driver had been drinking, and this is what happens if you do the same. I was shook. Next, we were led to a room where a woman lay on a bed. A closer look revealed that she was burnt beyond recognition. The guide, in nice and warm words, explained that she went to sleep high on drugs. He did not specify what drug it was, but being the 90s, I suspected crack. She fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand, and that lit a fire, burning her alive. I was struck by how the scene was in stark contrast to his tone. It disconcerted me. And shook me.
The final scene was the worst.
In a hospital bed lay a young girl—no older than 16. She was pregnant. We watched her give birth (in retrospect, it was terribly produced, but I did not notice at the age of 10), and once the baby was born, the person playing the doctor announced that she did not want the baby. Then, without hesitation, the doctor killed the baby right in front of us.
Yes, killed. I suspect that it was a doll. But that was it. I’d had enough. I could not take anymore. I wanted to go.
The guide led us onto a school bus and explained that what we had seen was what would happen if we did not live like Jesus wanted us to live. He asked us if we wanted those things to happen to us, then gave us an opportunity to accept Jesus into our hearts.
Again, I was shook. I wanted nothing to do with dead kids, driving cars or babies being killed because the mothers did not want them—so I gave my life to Christ. Right then, I said a prayer of salvation, and the guide was excited to welcome me into the Christian family. The only problem was that I was 10, and had no idea what I had signed up for. I spent the next few years of my life not thinking at all about the decision I made or changing my behavior. That experience stayed with me, though. It made me afraid of sin, but did not help me be a better me. I now see all the problems with my experience in a Hell House.
Hell Houses are evangelical creations that pop up around Halloween. Like fake haunted houses that people put on during the season, they are places where many Christian evangelical churches go and are shown scenes of depravity centered around different Christian ideas of sin. Things like failed abortions, drunk driving, and people dying of AIDS because of homosexuality are shown, and, at the end, the kids who attend them are evangelized and given the chance to give their lives to Christ.
In essence, it turns God into someone to be afraid of instead of an entity to pursue out of love. They paint God out to be a power-hungry and wrathful deity. They coerced me into saying I was a Christian, but it took years of searching before I learned that God wants us to choose him because we love him, and not because we are afraid of him.
If you pay attention, you will notice Hell Houses pop up every Halloween in the South. They are successful in creating converts out of young people who have no idea what they are walking into, and it is this numbers game that keeps them in business. In the eyes of most churches, having people say they have given their life to Jesus is more important than showing people the beautiful struggle that is a life dedicated to living out the principles of Christianity. Hell Houses are, essentially, scared straight for Jesus—and that is no way to introduce a person to God.
Hell Houses are a tool of evangelical Christianity that needs to die. Not because they are scary, but because they are places devoid of God’s love.