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.
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.
Here at Immanuel Leidy’s Church in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Judgement House has been a great success as a form of evangelism: 61 people raised their hands at the end of the tour last year to say they wanted to commit themselves to Jesus for the first time.
More than a hundred church volunteers, in this congregation of about 500 teen and adult members, are back at work this year, putting on show after show in the hope of saving souls.
“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,” said Andrew Edmonds, the church’s youth pastor. “We can give people a sense of what it’s like and use it, really, to warn them.”
Judgement House is not anti-Halloween, per se. Some attendees — such as Shadeilyz’s aunt Dianhery Castro, who brought her niece and her 13-year-old son from Allentown to go through Judgement House — say they will not celebrate Halloween, because they think its celebration of all things otherworldly does not jibe with their religious beliefs. But others are fine with going to Judgement House one night and a more typical ghosts-and-goblins haunted hayride the next.
Edmonds urges members to invite their friends and co-workers, especially nonbelievers. This year, the church also placed paid advertisements on Facebook. More than 1,000 visitors attend each year; last year set a record, at just one visitor shy of 1,400.
A Judgement House is often a top-of-the-line production. Some churches spend as much as $15,000 on their shows. A typical church putting on its first Judgement House spends $3,500 to $4,000, according to the Florida-based organization that provides the Judgement House scripts.
The organization offers two dozen options to the churches in 22 states that have signed on to host a Judgement House. Unlike Hell House — a similar ministry that has drawn controversy by depicting characters going to hell for having abortions or for being gay — the point of every Judgement House script is that anyone can go to heaven but that the only way to get there is by believing in Jesus.
Along the way, Judgement House has put its characters through all sorts of earthly tortures (kidnapping, child abuse, drug abuse, a hidden pregnancy) and has killed them off in all manners (a car crash, cancer, a burglary, military service, carbon monoxide, a tornado).
This year’s show at Immanuel Leidy’s introduced three sets of characters to the visitors who proceeded through the immersive theatrical experience, walking from room to room in groups of about 20 people at a time. Each tour lasted an hour, and the church volunteers launched another one every 20 minutes, moving as many people as possible through the attraction each night.
Each tour group started this year’s show standing inside a very realistic family living room, meeting a couple and their young daughter about to take Grandma out for a birthday dinner. Then inside a bedroom, the group listened to a young man named Mark argue with his evangelizing little sister, who sees his casual interest in tarot cards as “dangerous” and wants him to turn away from the “occult” and toward the Bible. Then in the kitchen, a teenager named Brittany discussed breaking up with her boyfriend because he does not share her Christian faith.
A church volunteer then led the visitors outdoors, taking them to the restaurant, where all three sets of characters were headed to dinner. The audience stepped into the restaurant scene and gasped — they were standing amid the apparent aftermath of a mass shooting. Tables and chairs were toppled. Bloodstained actors lay all over the floor. Brittany’s boyfriend sobbed, heartbreakingly, over her lifeless body.
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.
At the end of that scene, before the audience toured both hell and heaven, the white-robed judge called out the first name of every person on the tour. “It’s not your time yet,” he said. “You’re dismissed — for now.”
One woman stood rooted to the spot, murmuring, “Oh my.” A companion had to drag her away.
After the show, a pastor asked the audience to bow their heads and close their eyes, asking anyone who wanted to accept Jesus as their savior for the first time that night to raise their hands. Nobody on any of the tours on Friday night did so. But over the many years that Immanuel Leidy’s Church has put on this production, it has kept careful records of hundreds of visitors who have indeed made decisions to believe in Christ at Judgement House.
Dave Doran was one of them.
He was already a churchgoer and this church’s maintenance man when he attended Judgement House about 15 years ago. But when he got to the end of the tour, he felt different. “I never really fully committed to Jesus. I never really grasped it.”
When the preacher asked for new commitments to Christ at the end of the tour, Doran raised his hand. Volunteer counselors whisked him into a private room to speak about his new decision. Their guidance led him to start reading the Bible every day. “That cracked the door open for me,” he said.
Ever since 2008, he has had a new role: He plays Satan during Judgement House.
He wrote most of the lines for his hell scene himself this year. He talks about the maggots that will eat you alive while you burn in hellfire; he talks about skin set aflame, “the way it blisters up and rolls back; the miracle that there’s always another tender layer waiting underneath to burn.” He rattles the cage as visitors stand in it.
In his gruesome makeup and piercing unnatural-white contacts, Doran as Satan was the one who made Shadeilyz cry.
He also, in that same makeup, leads a prayer among all of the actors in the hell scene before each and every tour group comes through. “There’s got to be some strange prayers going up during Judgement House. Lord, there’s a guy asking to be as evil as he can be,” Doran muses.
This is not just a Halloween spook.
Perhaps, he believes, if he can make his fake Satan as bloodcurdling as possible, he can prevent some soul from ever meeting the real one.