Every Halloween, some conservative evangelical churches across the United States offer thrill seekers a faith-based alternative to the haunted house. Local teenagers and adults don costumes and demonic masks to enact what they see as the sins that land a person in hell. The scenes may vary, but these are common tropes: A devil ushers a gay man dying of AIDS into the fiery pit. A teenager who is raped at a drug-filled rave commits suicide and also goes to hell. A young girl hemorrhaging from an abortion repents at the last minute and so, although she dies, an angel comes and takes her to heaven.
For those who can't make it to one of these productions, a 2001 documentary directed by George Ratliff offers viewers behind-the-scenes access to the folks who put on and the audiences who attend these popular events.
Hell houses, as these productions are called, have been around since at least the 1970s. Jerry Falwell introduced the Liberty Univerrsity-backed "Scaremare" in 1972, which used conventional haunted house tactics to frighten teenagers into repentance.
The website for the 2014 Scaremare announces that it "presents fun-house rooms and scenes of death in order to confront people with the question 'What happens after I die?'" The website claims that the Scaremare, put on by Liberty students, has drawn over 300,000 attendees over the years. By the 1990s, hell houses had spread to many more churches, facilitated by ready-to-go kits put together by Assemblies of God minister Keenan Roberts.
It isn't difficult to see the politics behind hell houses. In the 1970s, the Scaremare dramatized the issues that would define Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and by the 1990s, the hell house-in-a-kit was a potent tool in the culture wars over abortion, homosexuality, and recreational drugs. But it wasn't primarily about right-wing crusaders who got a kick out of telling the rest of the population that they're damned. On a deeper level, hell houses are about a mindset that connects the personal to the political to the eternal. The impulse behind them is very, very old, and it stems as much from self-preservation as from condemnation.
For all their confidence that they were God's "New Israel," a people chosen to carry out God's will in America, the early English colonists were also terrified that they might, at an individual level, be destined for hell. By and large, they were strict Calvinists whose belief in predestination meant that individuals could never be sure if they were saved. Ministers held the authority to interpret the Bible and the will of God; ordinary women and men could do little but hope and pray that they were among the saved. For churchgoers to put on a pageant targeting specific sins would have been both preposterous and presumptuous in this context, where hell was the proper condition of the entire fallen human race.
But the inescapability of hell for all but the elect didn't sit well with everyone. As Enlightenment ideas about human ability filtered into the colonies, some began questioning a doctrine that seemed to say that whatever you did didn't really matter. 19th century minister Lorenzo Dow memorably complained that Calvinism taught:"You can and you can't--You shall and you shan't--You will and you won't--And you will be damned if you do--And you will be damned if you don't." Dow was an eccentric but enormously influential preacher who told his audiences that they had the ability and the responsibility to repent and be saved.
This kind of preaching resonated in a new nation that celebrated the can-do, self-made man, and a homespun American theology soon emerged, where individuals were told that they held their fate in their own hands. Now heaven, instead of hell, seemed the rightful destination of humans. It was theirs to lose, and ministers and reformers increasingly singled out specific activities, like drinking, Sabbath-breaking, gambling, novel-reading, and both slavery and abolition as especially hellworthy.
Not only could these sins spell the doom of the individual, they said: they could also spell the downfall of a nation of sinning individuals. Where the Puritans thought they were God's chosen people even if they were not all individually chosen, 19th century Americans were worried about the success of their national experiment. While final punishment of the individual would not happen until the life-to-come, punishment of the nation decidedly took place in this life. Americans had to look no further than their Bibles to learn what an angry God might do to a misbehaving nation. They could also look to their own history: ministers had no qualms about explaining war, drought, and disease as God's judgment on their land.
So it was imperative for believers to tell their compatriots what not to do. To make the imperative even stronger, ministers told believers that they would be held accountable for the "blood" of others' souls if they failed to spread the warning.
Their own welfare both in the here-and-now and in the hereafter depended on it: "Will not God remember to make inquisition for blood? Will not his soul be avenged on such a nation as ours?" The quote comes from a mid-19th century text, but it could just as easily have come from the contemporary culture wars. Take Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on 9/11 ("God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad"), or the Reverend Ron Baity on the recent Ebola scare. After a federal judge overturned a ban on same-sex marriage in his home state of North Carolina, Baity blamed this for the entry of Ebola to the US. "If you think for one skinny minute, God is going to stand idly by and allow this to go forward without repercussions, you better back up and rethink this situation," he said. "You think Ebola is bad now, just wait. If it's not that, it's going to be something else." But less dramatic examples are common.
This instinct is also why conservative evangelicals care so deeply about same-sex marriage and abortion even though they don't engage in those activities themselves. It's why people who are anti-big-government want the government to intervene in affairs that don't seem to have that much to do with their own lives. This is why some evangelicals take a laissez-faire view of the financial markets but a highly interventional view of the government's role in policing others' individual choices.
In those ways, ministers target the issues they think are not only going to damn their countrymen but also doom their country, and by extension, themselves. And their followers do the same. The hell houses are just one manifestation of the impulse to save one's self by "saving" others.
Kathryn Gin Lum is assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford University and author of "Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction."