Visions Of Hell

Worlds collided last month in Brooklyn. In a dark neighborhood of warehouses called DUMBO, in a theater usually reserved for edgy bands and performance artists, real actors performed, straight up and without irony, "Hell House," an evangelical Christian version of a haunted house. With a demon as their guide, visitors walked through a series of live tableaux, each one depicting a different way to stray from God. In one, a young woman commits suicide after being raped. In another, a gay man gets AIDS. At the end, audience members stand before Satan, who is horned and jubilant ("You think sin has no consequence!" he exults)--and finally before Jesus Christ himself, who calls on them to repent and be saved. On a recent night, audience members looked stricken as they listened to this appeal. When invited to join the Lord in prayer, all remained silent.

Around Halloween, hundreds of Hell Houses are staged in churches across the country, but this is the first time a secular theater group has presented one in seriousness, with the goal of attracting the kind of person who would go to the theater in Brooklyn but might not set foot in an evangelical church. It worked. "Hell House," which opened Oct. 1, played to a full house throughout its run. It was written up in The New York Times and The New York Observer. "I had a thrilling and terrifying emotional experience," said Lauren Saffa, a 24-year-old theater producer who lives in the East Village and saw "Hell House" during its opening week.

The production was the result of a strange marriage. In 2004, Aaron Lemon-Strauss and Alex Timbers, Yale grads and friends, 23 and 26 years old, respectively, were looking for projects for their new theater company, Les Freres Corbusier, and while in Los Angeles saw a Hell House spoof done by a group of comedians. "I thought, 'Wow, this could be very powerful if done straight up'," says Lemon-Strauss. So last winter he picked up the phone and called Keenan Roberts, the originator of the evangelical Hell House movement and pastor of a Denver church. Over the next few months, Lemon-Strauss wooed Roberts, speaking to him at least once a week, hoping to convince the minister that his intentions were good, that a Hell House in Brooklyn would be no joke.

Roberts was skeptical. He loves pageantry and he also, it almost goes without saying, wants to save souls. "Sin destroys and Jesus saves," he says. "That is the message that Hell House creatively imparts." Inspired by Jerry Falwell's "Scaremares" from the 1970s, Roberts launched the first Hell House in his church in 1993. Three years later, he created a Hell House "kit," now available for sale online, which contains a script, a sound CD and a 263-page instruction manual. The kits retail these days for $299; Roberts says he has sold more than 800 of them.

Having cooperated with the producers of the Hollywood version, Roberts felt burned by what he saw as the secular world's dismissive approach to his ministry. "I was worried the New York version would be tongue-in-cheek," he says. "I want the message to do what it's intended and designed to do. If you don't play it straight and with the right degree of passion and commitment and design, the whole thing loses steam." Lemon-Strauss convinced him in the end, and with his blessing Les Freres Corbusier put on the show.

Despite the mutual admiration of the two camps, the spirit of the Brooklyn "Hell House" was anything but conciliatory. It was a grotesque and shocking imagining of contemporary secular culture, an extreme version of the way some very conservative Christians may think the unsaved live. Reading "Harry Potter" turns a young boy into a school shooter. Going to a rave gets a young woman gang-raped. In its most graphic scene, "Hell House" depicts an abortion. Blood covers the walls, the woman screams in pain while her doctor smokes a cigarette. Tiny body parts are everywhere. Fifteen people fainted while watching that scene, says Lemon-Strauss. Even the diluted 2004 Hollywood version made Susan Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, so irate that she wrote an editorial for the Chicago Tribune: "Don't justify exposing kids to horror ... and tell me that's religion."

Roberts defends the gore as a theatrical opportunity to save souls. "A lot of the people in the audience never go to church ... We've got 45 minutes to push the pedal to the metal to make the most indelible imprint we can, because the rest of the year we do it with a milk-and-cookies kind of approach."

A sign hanging above the Brooklyn box office read, "This authentic description of a Hell House is meant to educate and inform about a particular religious movement, not to endorse any specific ideology." Timbers, the director, is unequivocal; he thinks the values represented in "Hell House" are "morally repugnant." But Lemon-Strauss is more undecided. He's pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, he says, but also he believes that Blue and Red Staters should be able to have a conversation about values. Is re-creating the horror of a Hell House the best way to start that conversation? "That's how it is in Topeka, Kans.," he says, "so that's how it is in DUMBO."

Both Roberts and the Corbusier frères agree that probably no souls were saved in Brooklyn this October, but both also see their collaboration as a success. According to Roberts, "Hell House" gave New Yorkers an opportunity to meet Jesus and to get acquainted with the risks of sin. And according to Timbers and Lemon-Strauss, it gave viewers a peek, albeit extreme, inside an unfamiliar world. This Halloween, instead of wondering whether "Hell House" authentically represents Christian values, seekers of bloody entertainment might do better to rent a "Chucky" movie instead.