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Aiming to Scare the Devil Out of You

Conservative Christians are finding alternatives to Halloween.

October 27, 2000|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Fullerton youth pastor Shawn Anthony, hell is a real place that is far scarier than any witch, ghost or goblin conjured up at Halloween. It's a place he has tried to evoke in a born-again Christian version of a haunted mansion he calls "Heaven-N-Hell House."

For $5, visitors can experience a cross between a horror house and a morality play in which actors play out fatal drunk driving accidents, gang shootings and drug overdoses. In a sort of modern-day Dante's Inferno, an actor portraying God, bathed in a blinding light and seated on a throne, passes judgment on other cast members, banishing the unrepentant to eternal damnation.

It's the second year Anthony has staged the production, and this time he's opening at 7 p.m. tonight outside the Block, a teen-friendly entertainment complex in Orange. The attraction is located in the same parking lot where an 18-year-old Santa Ana youth was stabbed to death earlier this month in what police called a gang fight.

Permission to use the lot was granted by a property management firm that owns the site. Officials of the Block said they have nothing to do with the event.

Forty-two Southland churches and more than 700 volunteers are helping on the production, which began in more modest surroundings last year at the Anaheim Swap Meet. "People come out crying and shaken up with what they had just seen," said Anthony, 29, director of Harvest Outreach, a national youth-oriented evangelical organization. "Some say it's more scary than regular haunted houses because it's reality, not make-believe."

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This year, Anthony hopes to attract more than 15,000 visitors, mostly teenagers, over its five-day run through Halloween.

Christian-themed haunted houses have become increasingly popular throughout the country--"spreading like wildfire on the East Coast," Anthony said--as conservative church leaders try to find alternatives to Halloween. "We're taking a pagan holiday and giving it back to God's Glory," the 29-year-old pastor said.

They go by names such as "The Nightmare," "The Judgment House," and "The Hell House," which has been staged annually since 1993 in a Denver suburb. In its seventh year, the latter production, by the Abundant Life Christian Center, has drawn annual protests from abortion and gay rights groups outraged by its graphic scenes. The production has also been repeatedly denounced by the Colorado Council of Churches and other Christian groups.

"I think it's appalling, utterly appalling," said Gary Collins, pastor at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. "Jesus' approach was never to instill fear and threat. Even when the rich man walked away from him, Jesus loved him."

Abundant Life pastor Paul Veliquette describes this year's abortion scene: A mother brings her teen son to a doctor's office and tells the doctor she wishes she had had an abortion prior to his birth. The doctor gives her a number of different ways to kill her son. She selects a gun, and the doctor shoots the boy. "The basic message there: What's the difference between killing him before he's born or after he's born?" Veliquette said. "He's a child once he's conceived."

Veliquette said his church didn't invent the genre--he believes a church in Texas did--but it did franchise the idea. Abundant Life has distributed 500 how-to kits to churches in nearly every state and internationally, and has developed a traveling road show to help organizations put on Hell House shows.

Anthony said he decided to sidestep any controversy with his Orange County house, so he's eliminated an abortion scene that was in last year's show. Nor does he take on homosexuality. "It's our jobs as Christians to preach and teach the truth," Anthony said. "And it can be done without offending anyone."

Still, the experience can be scary, just like its secular cousin. The "Heaven-N-Hell House" has no age limit, but printed on each ticket is the warning: "Parental Discretion Advised."

"I wouldn't let kids go in there unless they were adolescents," said Linda Roberts, an Irvine-based marriage and family therapist and adjunct faculty member with Pepperdine University. "Young children can't deal with abstractions and what [Anthony] is doing is a very concrete thing. At least adolescents would have better ability to think it through."

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Visitors are led through a 4,000-square-foot maze full of special effects: strobe lights, projected animation, fog machines, sound systems. Anthony also got film props on loan from the Trinity Broadcasting Network's "Omega Code" movie set to add to the realism. "After you walk out of hell, in the last but best room, Jesus walks out from the tomb and gives them the opportunity to accept Christ," Anthony said.

Once through the house, as many as 50 local pastors will be on hand in a nearby tent to counsel people or tell them more about Christian life.

Damon Cassell, youth pastor at Calvary Chapel of La Habra who volunteers at the haunted house, said the reality of the "Heaven-N-Hell House" is what makes it appealing to teenagers. "But just being scared for the fun of it doesn't do anything but give you nightmares," he said. "Proverbs says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What we want them to do is to start thinking about life."

Daryl Alison is a 13-year veteran of the Orange County Sheriff's Department and a speaker for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He provided the wrecked car for the drunk-driving scene. "I'm not opposed to showing people a little bit of what can happen," Alison said. "What these guys are doing is putting on life scenarios and showing what can happen. Are they exaggerated? I've seen a lot worse than what they show."

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