what would jesus do

4 Ex-Evangelical Women on Their Memories of Hell Houses

Photo: CSA Images/Getty Images

In retrospect, growing up Evangelical was like growing up in a parallel pop-culture universe. Instead of Now That’s What I Call Music, we had WOW, an annual compilation of the year’s greatest Christian music hits. Instead of Stephen King, we had Frank Peretti, whose novels chronicled the spiritual warfare between angels and demons. And instead of haunted houses, we had Hell Houses. Halloween, but make it Christian.

These things took various forms, but they all followed the same trajectory: The crowd would file through elaborately decorated rooms in a megachurch, each of which featured earnest youth-group teens who acted out some horror of the secular world, like drinking or premarital sex. The teen characters would make choices, and face consequences, and, usually, die some horrific, bloody death (drunk driving and botched abortions were Hell House mainstays). The point of it all was, I guess, to bring new people to Christ, but the kind of kids who went to Hell Houses tended to be Christians already; most of us were only at this church-sanctioned activity because our parents wouldn’t let us do anything fun on Halloween.

Anyway, in honor of the season, the Cut spoke to four ex-Evangelical women about their memories of Hell Houses.

‘The room went black, and a gun noise went off’

We went several years in a row with my youth group, so I got to know it pretty well. But one year, they added a new scene.

I don’t exactly remember how it started, but I think at the beginning of the scene you were watching a guy talk to himself, or something. And after a couple minutes of this, it was like they broke the fourth wall — you could hear the cast and crew in the background talking louder and louder, and then people with headsets started to race through the crowd. And they’re going, “We’ve gotta get out of here! Somebody’s got a gun!”

It turned into panic, into pandemonium. And it felt real — this was in the late ’90s or early 2000s, so after Columbine. And we all thought this was really happening.

I was with my youth group, and I remember my youth pastor tried to get our group to circle up together in the middle of all of this, and hold hands and pray. Like, as a protection measure. Which, really? Okay. But I remember I couldn’t join the group, because I just couldn’t move. I was stuck. It was like the fight or flight response, but it wasn’t either of those, really, because I was just frozen. I was watching everything like it was in slow-motion.

And then the room went black, and a gun noise went off, with a flash. It sounded exactly like somebody had come in and started shooting in the room. People were crouching, and people were screaming. Because we all thought it was real. We all really thought we were going to die.

And then it was quiet. And a voice comes on overhead, that said something like: “What if this was real? Where would you be going, heaven or hell?”

I still can’t believe that really happened. At the time, I wasn’t angry or anything — all I felt was relief that I wasn’t going to die. I was so active in youth group, and I even went to a Christian high school, like, on my church’s property. This was my world. But now it’s like, how shitty, to do that to people! You couldn’t do it now, because of how prevalent gun violence is now. It would be so dangerous. But it was dangerous then, too. —Dayna, 35

‘It was always a girl in a hospital bed, with the sheets soaked in blood’

I vividly remember the abortion scene. Oh my God.

I went to so many Hell Houses, year after year, and there was always an abortion scene. It was always a girl in a hospital bed, with the sheets soaked in blood. It was so graphic. Blood everywhere. Everywhere. So, so bloody. You as the audience start to understand that she’s had an abortion, and it was not done correctly. And she’s crying, and she was very pale, and clearly about to die.

I still think about it, sometimes. This is a little bit TMI, but about ten years ago, I was in the bathroom at my restaurant job, and I had my period. And I was bleeding, like, an excessive amount. And this substance came out, who knows what it was. But that brought me back immediately to that scene in the Hell House: Like, Am I somehow having an abortion?! It was so scary. I’m okay, obviously, but that completely brought back that memory of the Hell House. I thought I was going to bleed to death. —Casey, 33

‘You could see blood and brain matter all over’

I remember this one scene of a girl killing herself. She was in her bedroom, and there was a little TV on her nightstand. It was supposed to be showing us her memories, and apparently she’d been having premarital sex. And there’s a pregnancy test on the bed in front of her, with a positive sign.

And then she kills herself. And I mean, she, like, blew her brains out. The light goes off, a gunshot goes off, and when it comes back on, you could see blood and brain matter all over — on the wall and the window and the bedsheets. I was terrified. To 13-year-old me, all the blood and everything looked so realistic.

That is one positive thing I can say about these things, I guess: the production quality was very good. Terrifyingly good. —Jaycee, 21

‘I can say now it was pretty fucked up, honestly’

The one that I remember very clearly, it followed one child. I think it was a teenage boy. So as you’re going through the Hell House, you’re following him, but sometimes branching off to follow his girlfriend or his friends or whatever. But all the scenes were interconnected with this one specific person, it all came back to him.

He grew up in an abusive home, and in what I think was the very first scene, you heard the abuse going on, his dad being violent and aggressive toward his mom, and toward him as well. You could hear it, but you couldn’t see it, really — it was all shown in shadows. I remember feeling like that was very scary, because I didn’t like yelling in my own family. At this point, the boy was younger than I was, and I was only about 10 at the time. And it was terrifying. I’m trying to think — did the dad kill the mom? If not, he at least very seriously injured her.

And it felt like, this was what set him on a bad path. You see him grow up, and now he’s a teenager, going to parties, drinking, drugs, having sex. Somehow a school shooting works its way in there, too, if I am remembering correctly? But the message definitely felt like it wasn’t so much that the dad was bad, it was that this situation is not okay. It was almost like it was saying that the kid shouldn’t have gotten himself into this situation. It just felt very victim-blaming. And the whole plot of the Hell House was, this kid had to deal with this domestic abuse, which made him turn to these other bad things, these bad life choices.

Not being a Christian anymore, I can say now it was pretty fucked up, honestly. Now I’m in grad school for counseling, and it’s like, you go through these shitty situations in life, and it’s pretty understandable if you would turn to substances and things like that, if you’re being abused and you’re not finding access to anything that’s giving you any sort of healing.

It went from that domestic-violence scene to him drinking with friends. He was a little older then, a teenager. And so this leads to the car-wreck scene: They took us outside, in the parking lot, where there was this wrecked car. It was so realistic looking. They must’ve got a junked car, one that had been into a wreck, and placed it against a tree, but it looked exactly like this car had crashed into a tree. There were a couple police vehicles out there, too, and police lights.

But what I really remember is all the bodies. It was just, bodies hanging halfway out of the car, and blood pouring out of them. There was blood everywhere. I thought about that recently, actually, when I was in my very first car wreck. I’m okay, and my car is okay, but I was hydroplaning for a second and this scene flashed back to me. It was so graphic. —Vanessa, 28

4 Ex-Evangelical Women on Their Memories of Hell Houses