The Fear is Real: A New View of Halloween “Hell Houses”

 

A 90-minute walk through the South Georgia woods, as part of this year’s Tribulation Trail offers violence, fear, and an Obama-like Antichrist

By Lucia Hulsether, Religion Dispatches

“Mom, is this going to be scary?” asked an elementary school-age boy waiting in line behind me at the Tribulation Trail in Stockbridge, Georgia. His mother brushed off the question: “It’s only scary if you don’t accept Jesus.”

But at Tribulation Trail fear was a theme from beginning to end. And if it wasn’t a traumatic experience for this child, it probably should have been.

For many right-wing evangelical Christians, Halloween season is defined not by haunted houses, but by hell houses. Why scare people with whimsical ghosts and vampires when you can produce the same fear by portraying the (true and foretold) torture of unrepentant sinners—and win souls for Christ in the process? This is the logic of fundamentalist Christians who participate in hell houses.

A Walk Through the Woods with the Antichrist

Last week I partook in Tribulation Trail’s brand of hell house pageantry, which brings participants—a total of 25,000 every October—on a 90-minute walk through the South Georgia woods. We observed intensely violent renditions of standard end-times scenarios: the rapture of believers; an ensuing period of torture and tribulation for the faithless “left behind”; a climactic battle between Jesus and Satan; and a final judgment in which Jesus orders a teenage church-girl to be dragged by demons into hell for “knowing me only in your head, and not in your heart.”

Unsurprisingly, scenes from the “tribulation” make up the majority of the walk. Our tour group was asked to imagine that we were in the days just following the rapture, and the Antichrist (whose speeches involved a lot of Obama-flavored language about “change”) had established a totalitarian government after duping the masses with his political charm.

Based on the Antichrist’s orders, our tour group was being initiated into something called “Citizen Change Camp.” A main part of our “initiation” was witnessing the execution and torture of people who refused to denounce their Christian faith.

Six out of twelve total Tribulation Trail scenes involved executions. During one scene we saw a middle-aged male soldier throw a preteen girl into a coffin and spray her with blank bullets. In another scene, soldiers played by teen boys forced a fellow teen to watch his younger sister beaten to death with a club. In yet another, soldiers executed a girl—played by a child who could not have been more than eight years old—in order to pressure her mother into renouncing Christianity. Between scenes, men and teenage boys wearing camouflage and carrying automatic rifles surrounded our group, pointed their guns at us, and herded us to the next station. Along the pathways, we heard the groans of child actors locked up in cages and people begging us for water.

What sense can we make of this violence? Of all the things we could be doing on Halloween, why enact scenes of torture? What does this say about the sponsoring church? About US religious culture?

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to these questions. However, as I drove home I thought about Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, who writes about the political and religious lives of working-class white Americans—i.e. the people make up the majority of Tribulation Trail’s cast and audience. Bageant argues that working-class whites have become a “growing permanent underclass” in a class war in which they are exploited by the elite right and neglected by the left. Given the violence directed at this group—whether physical violence inflicted against youth who are economically conscripted to fight in Iraq; economic violence inflicted by regressive tax policies; or psychological violence inflicted by a culture that tends to belittle poor whites—is it any wonder that Tribulation Trail enacts violent scenarios without directly deeming them “scary”? Is it any wonder that its vision of hope is located in something beyond immediate material realities?

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