Stairway to Hell

Alabama's Judgement Houses offer an evangelical take on Halloween.

On a Saturday night, three teenagers stand before God in an upstairs room of the Lineville Baptist Church in Lineville, Alabama, while a gaggle of visitors and their tour guide look on. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling in white quilt batting, and God, played by a white man in his 30s with an angular jaw and strong cheekbones, wears a white choir robe behind a podium at least six feet off the ground.

“Lisa,” God says, “your name is not in the Lamb’s Book of Life.”

Lisa, a hard-partying teenager that has been taking pills to deal with the pain of her parents' divorce, died of an overdose earlier in the evening. “But God,” she says, “I was going to stop taking drugs.”

“I’m sorry, Lisa. It’s too late.”

While Lisa continues to beg for forgiveness, pleading that she can do change, a faceless demon (imagine the costume from Scream without the long white part of the facemask) drags her screaming from the room and behind a curtain of red light into “hell.”

Lineville is a town of less than 2,500 residents just outside of Talladega, infamous home of the Speedway and Nascar race, and hosts one of the South’s many Judgement Houses.

Judgement House (the way the organization prefers to be known despite the error in spelling) began in Clearwater, Florida in 1983. It is a church-sponsored event held in 20 states as a counterpoint to Halloween. In response to the oftentimes trivial nature with which Halloween presents death—dancing skeletons, mischievous ghosts, lumbering zombies—Judgement House serves to remind local citizens that death is serious and has devastating consequences in the hereafter for those who aren’t saved.

Judgement Houses are hardly the only evangelical response to Halloween. Televangelist Jerry Falwell is credited with popularizing Hell Houses, attractions that replace the horrors of a typical haunted house, like mad doctors at insane asylums and mummies climbing out of coffins, with the real horrors of a sinful and broken world. Scenes are said to include late-term abortions and gay weddings that end with homosexual spouses burning in hell. The most well-known proponent of today’s Hell House is Keenan Roberts of New Destiny Christian Center in Colorado.

Rather than tackling what are often considered political controversies, Judgement Houses offer a realistic version of life choices and consequences. If Hell House scares visitors with the atrocities of sin, Judgement House shows visitors how to avoid the terror of hell by making Christ-driven decisions.

Both a ministry and a product, the Judgement House website states that it reaches “lost souls;” it is marketed as a way to preach the Gospel. For a $599 one-year membership, churches get access to a script that they can use as many times as they’d like during that year. They can also use the Judgement House logo in marketing, and branded products are available for sale. The Judgement House ministry recommends 50 volunteers and six months of preparation to get an officially certified house up and running. Thirteen churches in Alabama alone offer versions of this particular Judgement House franchise, but similar dramas are common throughout the state.

At a Judgement House, a guide leads participants through seven scenes staged in different rooms of the church. Before the drama begins, the guide introduces the main characters and explains the clothes they will wear. Since Judgement House tours are often staggered in 15- to 30-minute intervals for a one-hour play, multiple actors play the same characters at different points in the drama. T-shirt colors remain the same so the audience can follow along as the actors change.

In the first scene, the main characters—usually a believer and a non-believer—are presented with a background and, importantly, a moral dilemma. In the Montgomery, Judgement House version of the story, three characters—Jamie, Taylor, and Bailey—are on their way to rob a video game store when they encounter Christians passing out free water. Both the Albertville and Lineville Judgement Houses center around a sibling pair—Ben believes in Jesus,  Lisa plans to go back to church when she’s older.

The non-believers in the story have an opportunity to accept Christ in the ensuing chapter. Lisa goes to an unchaperoned party rife with drinking and drug use despite being implored to change her life by Christian friends at her brother’s church talent show.

For those who seize the opportunity to embrace Christ, that acceptance will have immediate effects that are evident to others. Jamie wants to return the stolen video game to the store. Lori no longer drinks or does drugs.

Characters die—tragically, often violently—in the third scene. Montgomery’s version features a car from an actual accident, pulled into the loading dock of a former Circuit City in Montgomery. Both air bags are deployed in the wreckage, and the ground is littered with shards of broken glass. Three police vehicles pull up to the edge of the building with their lights on. While two firemen walk around the wreckage, one teenage girl sits on the ground wailing. In Albertville, paramedics pantomime CPR while the partygoers look on in horror.

After the staged accidents, those left on Earth process the death. A survivor questions why she lived, while another survivor kills himself because of his guilt. Lisa’s funeral includes a casket and fresh floral arrangements.

There is a reason that most of this narrative takes place after the deaths of main characters. What happens after death is much more important than life here. Most young people focus their attention on ambition and their future, but that’s the wrong focus for Judgement House. The only important task in this life is preparing for the next, by accepting Christ.

Following the actual “Judgement Room” wherein the dead come before God as judge and learn their fate is center stage. The Judgement Room is always white. God sits on a throne or behind a podium and looks up the names of the deceased in a thick book referred to as the “Lamb’s Book of Life.” Each time, He only finds the name of the actor who chose to be saved, and that character rejoices as he or she is welcomed to heaven by an angel. The characters that did not explicitly accept Christ earlier in the drama are taken to hell by demons dressed all in black.

The drama gets exceptionally personal in the Lineville Judgement Room. From behind his podium, God calls the name of every person in attendance (taken from the registration forms) and asks us to consider our fates. “Laurel…” His voice is authoritative and firm. While not quite frightening, it feels like being addressed by a cop during a traffic stop.

The lessons from the Judgement Room are twofold. One doesn’t have to be a Christian long to be saved. Characters who accepted Christ earlier in the play are rewarded in the Judgement Room. Being a Christian for two hours is better than never being a Christian at all, and the recently saved reap the same rewards as those who have been in the flock for years. In the world of Judgement House, you might die in a car accident on the way home, and because of that, it’s best to accept Christ right now than risk eternal damnation.

Also, being a “good person” isn’t enough. The self-described “good people” all go to hell. Any and all “works”—like getting a part-time job to help out the family—mean nothing in the Judgement Room.

The final scenes are hell and heaven, in that order. Hell is an office in Lineville complete with a desk, filing cabinets and list of Satan’s recruits, which include all of those in attendance. The Devil changes form three times by walking behind a bookcase to be replaced by another actor. When a female devil asks for a progress report, her minions describe the tools they use to distance humans from God: “stress, fear, money, sex and causes.”

Visitors weave through plastic sheeting with participants chained to the wall in Montgomery. In Albertville, the Devil counts his victories from a throne covered in red lights—marriages ending in divorce, cheating spouses, the end of prayer in schools. At the bottom of a plywood platform, volunteers dressed in black wave their arms in the air and yell for help.

Heaven is completely white with children playing the roles of angels. White Christmas lights wrap around pillars and sheer white fabric drapes the walls. A glittery gold path leads to Christ’s throne in Lineville, and Jesus doesn’t just address the crowd, he hugs and speaks with each person in attendance.

Depictions of both heaven and hell interpret the Bible very literally. In Lineville, garden gates with plastic beads wrapped around the rails stand in for the “pearly gates” of heaven. In Montgomery, stuffed snakes are scattered throughout hell. Heaven’s “banquet table” in Albertville is an actual dining room table with grapes, cheese, wine and bread. Two Judgement Houses pass out “robes” in heaven (shawls made from strips of bed sheets) to stand in for the “robes” that will be our new souls in heaven.

Heaven is the last scene in the drama before those who have watched the play have the opportunity to accept Christ as a personal lord and savior by praying with a counselor.

At the Montgomery Judgment House, nine of twelve participants ask to speak with a counselor after the drama. In Albertville, it’s two of 20 or so, and in Lineville, despite the most personal of the approaches, no one asks to see a counselor. (This is also the only Judgement House that doesn’t ask whether or not participants might want to “re-commit” themselves to Christ as opposed being saved.)

For some, the drama is very real. A woman near me cries after Jesus hugs her. We wait for a woman so scared of hell she has trouble rejoining the group in Montgomery.

In the end, it’s not the scenes from Judgement House that haunt me, but the voice of one of the guides. When speaking of what happens if we don’t accept Christ, she says, “I believe that maybe part of the torment that you’ll experience is replaying this night, when God gave you the chance, told you the truth and lovingly offered you heaven.”