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

“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?

Did your God find me a job today?”

And this brings us to a second theme at Tribulation Trail: the impact of the recession, particularly on the US working class.

Quite literally the recession was present from the beginning to the end of Tribulation Trail. In the second scene, Jesus returned to rapture a woman as her unemployed husband berated her for trying to convince him to go to church: “Did your God find me a job today?! I’m not ready for your God!” The Antichrist enticed recruits with offers of work and food. Before the first execution scene, we watched a video drawn from news broadcasts. It emphasized images of (white) US combat soldiers (in an army that is disproportionately working-class) and clips of floods ravaging people’s homes (in a year when thousands have lost houses to foreclosure).

Finally, the recession came up at the Tribulation Trail’s last station, called “Counseling.” As is standard practice for hell houses, a Southern Baptist pressed our group to accept Christ into our hearts. He said, “There’s some scary stuff going on back there, like we don’t have enough to be scared about with the recession. And now I have to be afraid of death camps and seeing my family members assassinated? That’s why we have to make a choice between fear and faith. When you choose faith, no matter what happens, there is nothing to be afraid of.”

Tribulation Trail is not solely about managing hypothetical fears of what may happen in end-times scenarios; it is about managing fears about the present and imagining a way out now. This “way out” is much more than metaphysical. It seems to fit with the material realities of what it is like to be a member of the working class of the U.S., by offering a sense of orientation and self-worth to people who have been demoralized and exploited in almost every other possible way.

It follows that for progressives to mock something like the Tribulation Trail for being purely misogynist, escapist, or a brainwashing operation by the Christian Right plays directly into the hands of those who capitalize off the culture wars by appealing to “America’s heartland.” Right wing elites do not attend events like the Tribulation Trail unless they are campaigning for political office, but they speak its language and appeal to its “values”—and then use the momentum they gain to stab its working class people in the back without losing their votes. Yet, as Bageant writes, it is not far fetched for a continually exploited group of people “to vote for the man who looks strong enough to keep housing values up, to destroy your unseen enemies abroad, and to give God a voice in national affairs.” And it is no coincidence that the Facebook page for Tribulation Trail “likes” Sarah Palin.

For me, the terrifying part of Tribulation Trail was not the mock executions or the automatic rifles that people constantly pointed at my head. Rather, it was thinking about the context in which all of these things were happening and who would ultimately profit most from this event. Hint: It’s not the people who actually were there.

So, yes, this is scary—for all of the reasons you might expect and many more.

lhulsether@agnesscott.edu'

Lucia Hulsether [@LuciaHulsether] is a Master of Divinity student at Harvard, where she is focusing on US religious history and culture.