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Faith Through Fright

Compared with some of its offshoots, Scaremare -- a $50,000 production -- is fairly light on the hell but heavy on the death. Some years, it features scenes of drug overdoses and teen suicide, Vandegriff said. It scrapped a school shooting scene a few years ago after receiving complaints, he said.

After his message last week, Cashman asked those who were accepting Christ for the first time to make eye contact with him. In the first two weekends of Scaremare 2004, about 10 percent of visitors made that commitment, Vandegriff said.

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Other models heighten the eternal damnation rhetoric and report similar salvation rates. Across town from Scaremare, Heritage Baptist Church last month staged Judgement House, scripts marketed by a Florida company that show characters perishing and being judged by God.

With the permission of the company that sells Judgement House scripts, Heritage Baptist penned a play with an up-to-the-minute theme: homeland security. The church pitched it through billboards, television ads and radio spots, and drew 3,000 visitors.

The play told the story of a schoolteacher who shares her faith with her students just before being killed in a terrorist attack. Students who mocked her message descend to hell, where demons sit around a table and laugh about "how they've been effective at things like getting prayer out of the schools . . . and terrorism attacks," said Allen Waldrep, the outreach missions pastor at the church.

Waldrep said the church heard no complaints about the theme, which, he said, "was something that people could relate to."

Perhaps the most extreme incarnation is Hell House, a morality play featuring a gay man dying of AIDS, a lesbian suicide, drunken driving and a botched abortion -- and the reeking, fiery hell that is the consequence of such sins, said the Rev. Keenan Roberts, pastor of Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God near Denver.

Since 1996, Roberts has sold 600 $299 Hell House how-to kits that include scripts, detailed suggestions on music, costumes and props -- including how to select the best cut of meat to depict an aborted fetus -- and tips for dealing with skeptical journalists.

Roberts, 39, said he spreads a message of God's love most of the year. But he said Hell House and other variations on the theme work -- especially for teenagers raised on violent movies and video games. About 13,000 people have been converted at Hell Houses, he said.

"Graphic is relevant," he said. "You've got to do something that really gets their attention."

Against that backdrop, Scaremare is fairly tame. Vandegriff said some students have suggested an abortion scene, which he has vetoed. Even Falwell -- never one to shy away from controversy -- said he supports that decision.

"We don't try to push the envelope," Falwell said in a telephone interview. The Baptist television evangelist attends Scaremare each year.

Last weekend, Scaremare seemed to make its point well enough. Descending a dark set of stairs, a group of adolescent girls gripped hands and chanted, "I like Jesus. I like Jesus. I like Jesus."

Outside, Femi Akerele of Columbia, a 17-year-old student at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., said he had already accepted God. But Scaremare, he said, "was inspirational."

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