Youth group teenagers laughed and chatted while wrenching their feet out of a trail of mud, freshly stomped in by the hundreds who’d come before them. They step onto the pliant wet wood porch of what appears to be a cabin in the woods. Volunteers shout warnings for liability’s sake while the group climbs the steps leading into the cabin. A bolt of lightning sets the clouds off like a flash bulb, as if God was taking pictures.
For the 28th year, these teenagers and thousands more are coming to see Trinity Church in Cedar Hill’s annual Hell House, a fall favorite tradition for some and an utterly disturbing experience for others. Basically, a hell house is a conservative Christian version of a haunted house. Naturally, there are no ghosts or ghouls in a hell house, only demons looking to take your soul.
“We’re a church, so believe what we believe or not, that’s not really here nor there,” John Michael Barajas, Trinity’s Hell House director, says. “But what we really believe is we all have an enemy, that the devil is active and we believe what the Bible says.”
Once inside, the group is ushered into a dark room with a large TV. A man representing the devil appears on the screen.
“Tonight I’m going to show you what life really is," he says.
As the video plays and the chatter of the group dies down, the theme of this year’s hell house is revealed.
“Life is not a bunch of random days smashed together,” the devil on the screen says. “Liars, rapists, killers, profiteers, abusers, they don’t just happen.”
Barajas explains it with far less theatrics, however. He says the message they’re hoping to get across is that bad people don’t become bad by mistake. They become bad because of the devil.
“Obviously he doesn’t have the power to make decisions for you, but he is consistently ... offering options to young people and you can see that from our society,” Barajas says. “People think that people just come up with things on their own; they don’t. We believe there’s a lot of spiritual warfare that goes on.”
When the video ended, masked extras herded the group into the first room of Hell House proper. A siren blared over high-pitched screams and laughs as members of the group gathered their bearings and filed into the room, instantly going silent. There were several teenagers laying in what approximated a bedroom, some with makeup indicating they’d been shot in the head. Two more teens were in the room, one made up as a demon and the other holding a gun.
“Oh look, Jimmy Boy, this one’s still alive,” the demon-painted teen says flatly. “Make her beg, Jimmy Boy. Make her beg.”
One of the teens on the floor lifts her head and begs to be spared. Jimmy Boy lifts his prop pistol and a loud bang goes off as the teen throws herself back on the floor. Most in the group jump at the sound. Jimmy appears to instantly regret his actions. The Demon recites the rest of her lines.
“Be a man, do the world a favor and take out the garbage yourself," she says as Jimmy falls to his knees and places the prop gun to his temple. Another loud bang and Jimmy Boy’s actor lays down.
When you actually see it in person, it’s a little bit more sobering.
“When you see the drunk driver and you hear, ‘My mom was in the car, my sister was in the car! You killed my sister,’ it’s more sobering and that’s kind of what we want," Barajas says.
Coming from the perspective that the devil is subtly attempting to influence all of one’s choices, on face value, is truly terrifying. Taken in a vacuum, that difference in worldview has created what is probably one of the campiest and most disturbing Halloween experiences one could ever imagine.
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Each room of the Hell House features a troupe of mostly teenage actors. Their varying degrees of talent obscenely contrasts with the intense scenes of real-world violence, death, suicide, self-harm, drunk driving, domestic violence, abortion and sexual abuse that they acted out. Seeing teenagers act out hanging themselves or getting pretend beaten by their parents, while nervously stumbling through lines, is uncomfortably funny at times.
And that's why it’s difficult to look at Hell House in a vacuum. If you view it just as a haunted house, it’s an intense, and at times, oddly surreal experience. But that’s not how Barajas sees it. At the end of the day, it’s a recruiting tool.
“We offer an opportunity at the end, we [have] a pretty clear salvation message from [the domestic violence scene] all the way through to the end, we offer a pretty clear ‘Here’s what we believe,’” Barajas says. “You don’t have to believe it, but, you know, we give the opportunity.”