Thursday, October 27, 2016

Judgment House Will Drag You to Hell for $5 — and Maybe Convert You, Too

Posted By on Thu, Oct 27, 2016 at 9:44 AM

click to enlarge Christ Church, a megachurch in Fairview Heights, Illinois, offers a short trip to hell for just $5. - PHOTO BY JERED SCHNEIDER
  • PHOTO BY JERED SCHNEIDER
  • Christ Church, a megachurch in Fairview Heights, Illinois, offers a short trip to hell for just $5.

A piercing scream is the first thing to break the silence. It’s a scream not of excitement or fear, but pure agony. The source of the scream is writhing on the ground, bound by chains and surrounded by creatures with glowing eyes who seem energized by the pain they are inflicting.

Dropping into this room with no context, you might assume you're in a haunted house, but there are no ghosts here. This is a "hell house," and according to the Christians who run it, the experience is more scary – and more real – than anything you'll find anywhere else this Halloween.

For decades, rural and suburban churches across the country have hosted their own versions of haunted houses called judgment houses. Brought to pop culture consciousness in 2001 by the critically acclaimed documentary Hell House, these houses have become a yearly tradition for many evangelicals.

A judgment house, according to the official Judgement House organization website, “is a walk through drama displaying the joys of following Jesus Christ and the afflictions of denying him.” Participating churches use volunteers from the congregation to design, create, and perform in the event.

Christ Church, an evangelical megachurch in Fairview Heights, Illinois with an average weekly attendance of more than 2,000, is one of the area churches participating in this yearly tradition.

This event was no small undertaking for Christ Church. Dozens of volunteers spent weeks preparing and even working as late at 2 am in preparation for its opening last Thursday night — its first-ever Judgment House opening.

“It was a lot of work,” acknowledges Michelle Barncord, the church's special events coordinator.

Bamcord had never attended a judgment house in the past, let alone staged one. She explains that Christ Church had decided to host the event upon the prompting of a group of regular attendees who had been converted through the event at another church. Upon hearing this, the church decided it would be a worthwhile endeavor.

“Judgment House is a very good opportunity for people to see how the choices they make in life affect their after-life,” she says.

click to enlarge The youth group band kicks things off. - PHOTO BY JERED SCHNEIDER
  • PHOTO BY JERED SCHNEIDER
  • The youth group band kicks things off.

When I arrived at Christ Church's Judgment House, I was guided to the entrance of the Fellowship Hall that served as a holding area for visitors. I flashed my $5 Eventbrite ticket and was assigned to the red group.

On stage on the far side of the hall, the youth group's praise and worship band, made up of eighth graders in jeans and hoodies, strum along on acoustic guitars as the youth pastor sings intensely to contemporary Christian hymns. Even though the words to the songs were projected on a screen above the band, most of the crowd knew the words by heart.

My group included everyone from a ten-year-old in head-to-toe fluorescent yellow Under Armour gear to an elderly man, head to toe in denim. We were quickly called and guided into a holding area to be briefed before entering the show. The vibe was not much different than within a group waiting to enter a traditional haunted house; tense and anxious, a little excited about the fact that we were about to be scared. A tall, middle-aged Ms. Frizzle type named Susan announced that she would be our guide as we traveled through this story.

Traditionally, judgment houses follow the same basic story. The visitor is introduced to the main characters through a series of vignettes performed in different sets throughout the church building. The main characters fit into a several archetypes; a lifelong Christian, a converted Christian, a bad boy, and a good person who is not quite a Christian. The visitor follows these characters as they make different choices in their lives, almost always revolving around a conservative hot topic such as abortion, homosexuality, or pre-martial sex. Ultimately, these characters are tragically killed and must face their judgment in the afterlife.

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