Every Halloween, protesters regularly donned cloaks of indignation to complain about Hell House, the religious twist on a haunted house that featured tableaus of sinning teens and other bad characters meeting horrifying fates. "It's really an exposé on the blessings and consequences of our choices," explains Pastor Keenan Roberts, who introduced the first Hell House in metro Denver in 1996.
The ultimate moral of this morality play? You can find it in Romans 6:23, he says: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
But for the last few years, Hell has been on hold — at least here in Colorado.
Roberts knows he wasn't the first person to come up with the idea — Jerry Falwell's Liberty University has sponsored Scare Mare since the '70s, and New Creation Evangelism has set up hundreds of "Judgement House Covenant Churches" — but when he heard of the concept, while on staff at a church in New Mexico, he knew that he could use it as a way to reach young audiences. "It immediately seized my attention," he remembers. "I was raised in the church; my dad was a pastor. I like things that are timely as well as timeless — innovative and contemporary, but still help people understand what the Bible has to say." And he got the chance to put his interest into action when he became a youth minister at Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, creating a massive Hell House that eventually grew to 30,000 feet and a half-dozen skits, and attracted thousands of people a night to go inside — and almost as many people to protest outside. "The message was sacred, but the method wasn't necessarily sacred," he admits.
But in 2002, he moved to New Destiny Christian Center, a brand-new church in Thornton. And unlike Abundant Life, which was "an amazing facility, almost a tailor-made facility for an outreach the magnitude of Hell House," Roberts recalls, New Destiny doesn't have the same kind of space.
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The church held services in a hotel and set up a Hell House there, "which was a great outreach," he notes. But that didn't last. For a few years, Roberts partnered with another church. Now New Destiny has a home, but there's no room there for Hell House, and he hasn't been able to find an empty building willing to sign a lease with a one-month attraction.
In fact, there hasn't been one since 2009. "We're still very active helping other churches do it," he says. "Our vision is as bright as ever." That vision is contained in handy how-to kits that more than a thousand churches — in all fifty states and 26 countries — have purchased to create their own Hell House. Initially these kits were "hulking, three-ring binders" full of production nuts and bolts: scripts complete with a soundtrack, as well as tips on casting, costuming, set design and construction. "Churches get a great resource that helps them understand how they can really make it happen," Roberts says, noting that while today the kits are all digital, the basic content is the same. "I've written over thirty different scenes over the years," says Roberts. "We are as committed as ever to being vocal about abortion and homosexuality. The drunk-driving scene is always visually impactful, and we've dealt with the drug issue in many different ways."
While this year there were Hell Houses covering these topics in just about every state in the country, Colorado was Hell House-free. Roberts wouldn't have a problem selling a kit to another church in this state, he says, but none have asked. "I don't know if everyone's worried about all the media attention they're going to get," he muses. Though it certainly never bothered Roberts, who considered it just another way to get the message out. The kit even includes information on how to get the media to cover the Hell House, including "the tough questions and how I answer them," Roberts says.
But as he searches for a spot where he can resurrect his religious morality play, Roberts still doesn't have an answer to the toughest question of all: Has Hell House frozen over in Denver?