Hallelujah, y’all! It’s Halloween in the Bible Belt. Time to dress up as your favorite Bible character and ask thy neighbors the most important question on the planet. Nope. Not “Trick or treat?” That’s for all those God-hating, candy-loving liberals. The question I’m talking about is “Heaven or Hell?”
No matter how you answer, you’ll still find yourself in a dark room surrounded by grown man screams. Because this, my friends, is what we call Judgment Day. Folks on the outside know it as a Hell House. But where I come from, hell is a bad word. And bad words are for sinners.
I went to my first Judgment Day bad-word house when I was in sixth grade. It was a huge event, hosted by the biggest Southern Baptist Megachurch in town. I went to a little podunk church in the middle of a cow field and had to be bussed out for the festivities. On the way there, I remember asking if it was gonna be scary. “It’s only scary if you don’t accept Jesus.” I wasn’t sure what my youth counselor meant by all that but I knew there’d be candy. So I just focused on that instead. Because in case you’ve forgotten, I was in the sixth grade.
For those of you who’ve never been to a Hell House, it works like a haunted house in that its sole purpose is to scare the living bejebus out of you. And this ain’t no Freddy-Krueger-will-haunt-your-dreams kind of scary. This is a Holy-Ghosts-and-Goblins-will-haunt-your-daydreams kind of scary.
I’m talking about some serious mental brainwash stuff here, performed by highly attractive college students to highly impressionable children. The purpose of Judgment Day is to show how the fate of “sinners” (their words, not mine) plays out in the afterlife. So you might see one about abortion, same-sex couples, or, if you’re like me, a little drunk driving ditty. As you walk from room to room, the dramatic story unfolds.
Scene 1: The Frat House
This here’s college and two new faces just showed up to the party: Bad Friend and Good Friend. Bad Friend pounds a few brews and convinces Good Friend to take a sip. Gasp! Don’t they know drinking beer is a sin? God said so right in the Bible somewhere.
Scene 2: The Accident
It’s time to mosey on out to the church parking lot and stand in the rain for a few. There’s a horrendous car accident to look at. The scene comes complete with a crumpled up car from the junkyard, empty beer cans strewn across the lot, a real deal cop car with red and blue lights flashing through the dark rainy sky, and two bodies lying on the cold hard pavement wrapped in blood-stained sheets. An official police officer on official police officer business announces that the two victims were just at a party and the driver was under the influence of one beer.
Scene 3: The Pearly Gates
This room is so bright the back of your eyeballs hurt. But you watch anyway while Good Friend and two majestic angels with giant theatrical wings approach the podium of God. Good Friend nervously gives his name. “Good Friend. You accepted Christ before your death. But you have sinned.” Oh, right. He did drink that one beer. Good Friend immediately breaks into tears, begs for forgiveness and is allowed to enter the gates. Whew. That was a close one.
Enter Bad Friend…by himself. Dum, dum, dummmm. He gives his name and things get awkward pretty quickly. Papers are shuffled and reshuffled, checked and rechecked. God shakes his head no and two men in dark capes enter quickly to drag Bad Friend from the room, kicking and screaming. Afterwards, God makes a stern announcement to the room, “Children! It’s not your time yet. But remember. The unexpected happens every day and tomorrow you might stand judgment too.”
Scene 4: H-E-Double-Hockey-Stick
Across the hall, with no light to lead the way, everyone holds onto the person in front of them entering into the boiling pits of Satan’s lair. Suddenly, giant flames light up the room and loud, terrifying screams fill the air. Grown man screams. A red light glows softly in the corner, where Bad Friend sits curled up in a ball, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. We hear the Devil’s voice booming on loudspeakers around the room, saying really mean, scary things to Bad Friend. After an uncomfortable amount of time, a door finally opens and we’re allowed to leave.
Scene 5: Let Us Pray
The show is over and it’s time to enter the most important scene of them all—the church alter, where counselors wait in numbers to pray for Jesus to come into our little childlike hearts. If you stay and pray, you’re given candy. And it’s free, just like salvation. If you don’t pray, you’re taken back to the church bus where you sit and wait in purgatory.
I was so scared by the end of it all, I stuck around to pray. And I was given candy. On the bus ride back, I pushed all my fears into the dark depths of my brain and crammed all that free candy into my pie hole until it didn’t frown anymore. That was the first and last time I ever went trick or treating at a Hell House.
Seven years later, I fled the Bible Belt and sipped my first beer.
My family has been praying for me ever since.