I don’t usually jump into a story without an intro, but the Washington Post's lede on Judgement House is pretty vivid:
SOUDERTON, Pa. — She stepped into the pitch-dark room, illuminated only by eerie flames, as the sound of moans and shrieks rose over the ominous music. A hooded figure, dressed in black, leapt from the darkness to hiss in her ear.
Shadeilyz Castro burst into tears.
When the shaken 10-year-old left the room, clinging to her aunt, she was not talking about witches or goblins — she was talking about the Bible. "I have to read it more," Shadeilyz said. "With my brother. I have to talk to him. He doesn’t read it much."
Judgement House did its job.
The Post, in turn, does a more-than-decent job of telling the literally torturous story of Judgement House programs -- "all sorts of earthly tortures (kidnapping, child abuse, drug abuse, a hidden pregnancy)" -- through the lens of Immanuel Leidy’s Church, near Philadelphia. It's intense, maybe shocking -- and a bit flawed -- but not cynical.
The last is not unimportant: This topic is ripe for ridicule, if the reporter is so inclined. But WaPo tells the story, quotes the people on their feelings, and rejects the usual "trip to the zoo" contempt of many secular media:
A Halloween-time feature at evangelical churches all over the country, Judgement House aims to spook visitors as other haunted houses do during this time of year. But Judgement House aims to scare people for the sake of heaven.
The walk-through drama varies from church to church, but it always starts with a death. And then after death, visitors to Judgement House walk through the options: heaven for those who believed in Jesus Christ in their lifetimes and an up-close and terrifying hell for everyone else.
Churches have been counter-programming against Halloween for several decades. They’ve tried Creation Celebrations, injecting a positive note into the ghoulish goings-on. They’ve tried Trunk Parties, lining up cars with open trunks full of candy for the taking. And as the Post says, some have tried Hell Houses, trying to scare the hell out of people, and scare people out of hell.
Such alternative programs are very popular with senior pastors, according to a new survey by LifeWay Research. When LifeWay asked 1,000 of them what they encouraged among their church members for Halloween, 67 percent recommended those alternatives -- and only 8 percent said to "avoid Halloween completely."
Judgement House is more edgy than most, of course. The Post offers some peeks: a family arguing, a girl toying with tarot cards, people just going through the motions of church. They step into a restaurant and fall prey to a mass shooting (however, the audience just sees the aftermath).
Then comes the "judgment" part of Judgement House. Also come the largest flaws in the Post article:
That led to the judgment room — where Brittany was rewarded for her faith with entrance to heaven and where Mark was sent to hell even though he pleaded that he had been a hard worker, good student, loving brother and steadfast caregiver to his disabled father. He was a nonbeliever, and that was all that mattered.
The husband and wife from the first scene met different fates. Apparently the wife, though she went to church faithfully every Sunday, had just been going through the motions without actually believing in Jesus. An actor playing a demon tossed her forcefully onto the floor of hell, while her true-believer husband walked into heaven, beaming, without her.
No one ever mentioned the shooting — nor the little girl from the first scene, whose parents and grandmother had all just been killed.
Well now, those are good observations: a husband blithely parting with his wife, a plot hole about the child and grandparents. Good to ask the pastor and/or director and/or actors about that, no? But if the paper did ask, it doesn't report the answers. We're left to assume the church people don't have good answers.
Yet the Post does have access to church personnel. It has them explain the purpose of Judgement House and spell out the evangelical gospel, without denouncing or advocating the message. And the speakers sound earnest and rational.
"Hell, which we believe is a real place — that’s a scary reality. At this time of year, when people are talking about scary things, I’m presenting something that is real," Pastor Andrew Edmonds says. "We can give people a sense of what it’s like and use it, really, to warn them."
The newspaper also interviews "Satan," played since 2008 by church member Dave Doran. He says he became a believer after seeing a Judgement House 15 years ago. Even as the church janitor, "I never really fully committed to Jesus," he says. "I never really grasped it."
Although the Washington Post is a national newspaper, this article is written largely as local coverage. This despite the paper saying that churches in 22 states are producing various versions of Judgement House, apparently drawing from the group's website. But it doesn't interview anyone in the home office.
Even if WaPo didn’t have time to call, Judgement House's Facebook page could have substituted. It adds some worthwhile info; for instance, that an estimated 3.9 million people have attended a Judgement House since the program began in 1983.
The statement says also that 390,000 have professed a first-time commitment to Jesus, a conservative result of 10 percent. If Immanuel Leidy’s Church has been doing Judgement House at least 15 years, I'll bet they could offer some numbers, too.
Thumb: Judgement House logo, from the group's Facebook page.