LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Visitors are led around the grounds of an abandoned brick orphanage, where bodies spill out of the wreckage of a grisly car crash, a young woman is laid to rest and a lashed and bloody Jesus Christ hangs on a cross.
Outside, they are invited into white tents, where students like Steve Cashman, 21, explain the meaning of it all.
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"Part of life is death," Cashman told a group of adults and teenagers sitting quietly on folding metal chairs last week. "It's an eternal death. It's hell. But the gift of God is life."
By tonight, 20,000 people from across the Eastern Seaboard will have made a pilgrimage here this month. Nearly all will have been scared senseless. And many say they will have been saved.
Put on by students at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, the show known as Scaremare is part haunted house and part sermon. In its 33rd year, it is also the more tempered ancestor of a growing Halloween-time tradition for evangelical Christian churches: elaborate performances -- some graphically depicting the consequences of abortion and homosexuality, others death by terrorist attack or cancer -- that aim to literally scare the hell out of nonbelievers.
This evangelistic tool has flourished in hundreds of Pentecostal and Baptist churches across the Bible Belt, but it has also sprung up in California, Michigan, Canada and even Japan. Here, in school buses and church vans, visitors have come for the past three weekends and waited in line for as long as six hours for a brief, terrifying tour and an even briefer message about salvation.
"We had two saved last year," said Sylvia Dickens, a youth minister from Sanford, N.C., who brought a group of teenagers for the second year. "It makes them think, if they die tonight, where will they go?"
Paul Guede, 17, a British exchange student living with Dickens, said Scaremare was worth the two-hour drive, four-hour wait and $7 admission. "It gets its point across. It tells you what hell is like."
Churches tout the shows as alternatives to Halloween, a holiday many denominations shun for its pagan roots. And thanks to the tutelage of two companies that market instructional manuals and training on how to stage the shows, many of the Christian-themed haunted houses share the slick lighting, special effects and huge budgets of a Hollywood horror flick.
Over the past decade, the most extreme fire-and-brimstone productions have sparked protests by abortion- and gay-rights groups and more liberal churches, which have denounced what they call an emphasis on intolerance and God's wrath. "Hell House," a Colorado pastor's version, has even inspired a satirical stage version in Hollywood this year.
"Education doesn't take its best root through fear and intimidation," said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA. "That's not only not the best way to teach the Gospel's lesson of love; it's incompatible with the Gospel's lesson of love."
A Sterling church abandoned its version in the 1990s after it was met with criticism. Montclair Tabernacle Church of God in Dumfries has temporarily shelved its Hallelujah House while it builds a bigger church but promises the show will return in 2006.
Organizers of the houses contend that they are simply showing reality -- which can be shocking, they say.
"There's no question that people need to fear what is their eternal destiny," said Steve Vandegriff, a professor of youth ministry at Liberty who directs the project. "So here's the objective truth about hell, and there is a very simple . . . answer to not going there, and that would be faith in Christ."