“Weapons—guns, knives, brass knuckles, cigarette lighters . . . ” The young man’s voice trails off. If he were not waving his metal-detector wand at us, I might think that he was offering to sell us a gun or two, not asking us if we were carrying any. “No, they’re all in the trunk,” Chronicles‘ assistant editor, Aaron Wolf, cracks, and our art director, Ward Sterett, and Art Johnson, a friend of the magazine and local political scrapper, laugh.
“This is new,” I say to the security guard. “Did you have problems last year?” “Oh, yeah, we always do. Just last night, a guy came in with a really cool pocketknife. It’s mine now,” he says, a smile breaking across his face. “Go on in.”
We step through the entrance of the old IGA supermarket in Roscoe, about ten miles north of Rockford and a few south of Wisconsin. Two high-school girls take our money—seven dollars apiece—and hand us each a coupon for a dollar off admission to their sister establishment, in a barn outside of Belvidere. “After you’ve gone through both, you get to vote on which one was better.” After the discount, the other one is only $4.50. I already know which way I would vote.
We walk down an unlit hallway with walls of black-painted flakeboard, under a ceiling of black plastic wrap. As the light from the entrance vanishes, the hallway comes to an abrupt end. There seems to be no way out. “Seven dollars well spent,” Aaron concludes.
“There must be an exit,” the woman behind us says. “Feel around down by the floor. Maybe we have to crawl out.”
Suddenly, to my left, the wall opens, and a tall, hooded figure appears, lit from behind. “Welcome to the House of Horrors,” he intones, in the fake, monotonous British accent I remember from last year.
This is Aaron’s and my second time touring the House of Horrors; while we got in very quickly tonight, we waited at least 45 minutes to enter last year, when it was held at an abandoned Logli’s grocery store only a mile or two north of the city. The lines were even longer the first two years, when the House of Horrors was located in an old brick building in downtown Rockford. But that was before the local Gannett paper ran its exposé. The House of Horrors, you see, is run by the Master’s Commission, the youth pastorate training organization of Rockford’s First Assembly of God. It is not a traditional haunted house but a variant on the “Hell Houses” or “Judgment Houses” that Christian youth groups across the country have been running for almost a decade. While there are plenty of tight spaces, a few snakes, a legion of demons, and—for some reason—an incredible number of insane clowns, the point of the scenes in these Christian haunted houses is to scare the customers straight. So, for instance, this year as well as last, the House of Horrors has several scenes on the dangers of drinking—not excessive drinking, mind you; just drinking. In one, a demonic bartender (again, with a British accent) entices his customers to spend their last few dollars on more alcohol. Predictably, one barfly becomes violent and scuffles with the police officer who is attempting to escort him from the bar. The drunk throws the officer up against the wall, grabs his gun, and shots ring out, as our mysterious guide hurries us out of the room into the next scene. Here, one of the other patrons of the bar is standing in the middle of a relatively clean garage, complaining that his wife is too lazy to clean it up. As we move on to the next scene, he bursts into the kitchen, where his wife is cooking dinner while their child cowers in the corner. After the father screams at his family, he raises his hand to strike his wife, the lights go out, and we are hustled along to the next scene. (Last year, the husband had not even had a drink—he beat his wife up simply for refusing to bring him a beer.)
This year’s house is pretty tame. The first two years, the organizers were roundly condemned for including a grisly abortion scene, a staple of Hell Houses across the country. Even last year, they included a scene in an abortuary, where an abortionist gave a monologue in soothing tones about the quick, painless procedure that would set everything right. Noticing that Aaron and I snickered when he introduced himself as “Dr. Huxtable,” he called out to us, “You wouldn’t believe how few people catch that,” as we made our way to the next room, where a distraught teenaged girl bemoaned falling for the doctor’s lies and frantically slit her wrists. While this year’s house includes a suicide scene, abortion is never mentioned—the girl is simply upset that no one “understands” her.
After a Columbine scene (a tall, strapping young man complains about being mistreated by his classmates, before killing several of them) and a few more insane clowns, we crawl into another long hallway and emerge, through a bottomless coffin, into a rundown graveyard cum open-air chapel, where two figures dressed like the ghost of Christmas past tell us we have “one final choice to make” and to “choose wisely.” They then divide us into two groups (so much for choice) and send each group down a separate hallway. Both hallways lead to the same room, where stands yet another hooded figure with a fake British accent, a bushy goatee, and huge eyebrows. In his house, he tells us, there are no second chances. (So he’s Satan?) But through his long years of experience, he has discovered that, while man is on Earth, he does have second chances, so we should choose wisely. (So he’s not Satan?) As we are hustled out of the room into a long hallway with a pulsating light at the end, I ask him who he is supposed to be. He looks at me in bewilderment and walks away.
The light at the end of the tunnel is just above a door that leads to a spacious room with a large projection screen. After 20 or 30 seconds, a video starts, accompanied by pounding music. Words like “confusion,” “anger,” and “despair” fly across the screen, before a fuzzy image of three crosses on a hilltop appears. Then the video ends, and a young woman of about 19 steps into the room. “I’m here to tell you about Jesus Christ.”
The trouble with the House of Horrors (and similar haunted houses), the Rockford Register Star claimed, is that the organizers deliberately hide their intentions. Nothing at the House of Horrors indicates that it might differ from the few dozen other haunted houses in the area, and its website (www.screamhouse.com) simply proclaims:
W’c will show you the unspeakable [sic] horrifying events that have brought human torture to new depths of depravity. We will challenge your way of thinking as well as strike fear into your heart. A fear that you will remember forever |sic]. The HOUSE OF HORRORS will give you a new taste of terror. It is definitely not for the faint of heart! Is it for you?
Rut the Register Star need not worry because the Christian proselytism, though slightly stronger than last year, is still weak, muted. (Last year’s evangelist never once referred to Jesus as Christ, but talked about sitting around in his room, “rapping” with his Friend.) We are the sum of our lifestyle choices, the young lady tells us. We can act the way that the people in the haunted house acted, or we can ask Jesus to help us act differently. The choice is ours.
That is all well and good, and the young lady’s short speech does hint at elements of free will, prayer, even cooperative grace (though none of these are mentioned by name). But there is a little more to the Christian message than just that, and traditionally, Christian feasts around Halloween have emphasized precisely those elements of the Christian message that she leaves out. A few days after visiting the House of Horrors, I attend Mass at Rockford’s traditional Catholic parish, St. Mary’s, on the Feast of Christ the King (the last Sunday in October in the traditional calendar, the last Sunday before Advent in the post-Vatican II calendar). To the thunderous chords of Mark Dahlgren’s organ, we sing the processional hymn:
To Jesus Christ, our sov’reign King,
Who is the world’s salvation,
All praise and homage do we bring
And thanks and adoration.
Christ Jesus, Victor!
Christ Jesus, Ruler!
Christ Jesus, Lord and Redeemer!
Noticeably absent is any reference to Christ Jesus, Listener, Christ Jesus, Counselor, or Christ Jesus, Friend and Best Buddy. One of the traditional hymns for the Feast of All Saints (November 1) continues the strain:
By all your saints still striving,
For all your saints at rest,
Your holy Name, O Jesus,
For evermore be blessed.
You rose, our King victorious,
That they might wear the
And ever shine in splendor
Reflected from your throne . . . .
Then let us praise the Father
And worship God the Son
And sing to God the Spirit,
Eternal Three in One,
Till all the ransomed number
Who stand before the throne,
Ascribe all pow’r and glory
And praise to God alone.
Yes, Christ does help Christians to make the right choices in life; He is, after all, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. But unless we acknowledge Him as the King and Savior, Lord and Redeemer celebrated in the twin feasts of Christ the King and All Saints, we are missing an essential part of the Christian message.
It is undoubtedly no coincidence that Hell Houses have become popular among evangelicals at the same time that Halloween has come to be viewed as evil. Here in Rockford, local churches and homeschooling groups promote “Christian” alternatives (“Harvest Parties”) to the celebration of All Hallows Eve, and even some Catholics have gotten into the act, holding “All Saints’ Day” parties, where children are supposed to come dressed as their favorite saint or “one of God’s creations.” (While both ghosts and demons are God’s creatures, I doubt that a child who showed up in traditional Halloween garb would be welcomed.)
But what can we expect? From the eighth century on, the Feast of All Saints was considered one of of the major feasts of the liturgical year. Today, it is still a holy day of obligation for Catholics, but the pews have only a few more occupants than they do on a normal weekday, and most Protestants do not celebrate All Saints’ Day at all. As the feast and its message fade from the Christian consciousness, Halloween, the solemn vigil of the feast (also celebrated from the eighth century on, though not with trick-or-treating), loses its meaning, too. Traditionally, Christians saw the Feast of All Saints (as well as Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter) as a time when the barriers between Heaven, Purgatory, Earth, and Hell became a little bit thinner, and we could catch a glimpse of the other side. (Thus, the Christian belief that demons prowl the Earth more openly on Halloween than at other times of the year, and the English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, of which A Christmas Carol is only the most famous example.) Unlike Rockford’s House of Horrors, that glimpse is truly terrifying, but it is also more likely to lead to real conversion.