And now, Scary-Crayon reviews... Overdose: Judgement House 2012 @ Immanuel Leidy's Church

Even if you're new to Scary-Crayon, you probably won't be surprised to learn that I love Halloween -- the site has the word "scary" in the name and a layout that's totally in keeping with the season. However, if you're first experiencing the site during the Halloween season, you probably don't know that SC looks like this year-round (except for when I remember to make the layout even freakier for April 1st hijinks): if I had a personal soundtrack, Ministry's "Everyday is Halloween" would definitely be on it.

Unfortunately, while I would be delighted if stores kept Halloween displays intact and squeaky rats on the shelves throughout the year, it's only during September and October that I get to enjoy that spookified flavor in the outside world (horror film viewings and visits to the goth club notwithstanding). I can get distracted with stuff and cowed by high prices, but I make a point of checking out at least a couple of Halloween-themed attractions during the season.

Cool mask, but I'm not frightened.Usually, however, I'm a little disappointed. Haunted attractions are probably more fun with groups and for folks who scare easily, but I tend to go alone and am not the least bit frightened by costumed employees -- who I know aren't even permitted to touch me, let alone harm me -- jumping out at me. In fact, the expectation of surprise actually heightens my awareness: I typically spot the employees crouched in dark corners and anticipate frights before the "monsters" make their moves.

But I do find certain aspects of haunted houses to be interesting. They may not scare me, but I can appreciate great costumes, set design, lighting effects, and so forth -- and I love the segments of the attractions with narrative elements. I've always been fond of the "electric chair" portions of haunted houses in which the crimes of the condemned are recounted as he snarls defiant threats at the crowd. Among my scattered childhood memories is one of a haunted house at my elementary school; during one part of the event, a mad scientist hosted a dinner party and gleefully noted the sources of the organ- and eyeball-filled casseroles he had cooked up for the occasion. And one of my favorite haunted attractions in recent years was the Crime Museum's Fright at the Museum, as it was led by a tour guide who occasionally set up scenes, introduced characters, and offered backstory for the events unfolding in the "asylum" setting of the attraction.

If I had the opportunity to design my own haunted event, I have often mused, it would consist almost entirely of these kinds of scenes. A guide would lead attendees through a series of exhibits, each of which would depict a short, horror-themed sketch. Sure, it wouldn't be as scary to many attendees as the "boo" frights of most haunted attractions, but it would be an interesting and hopefully memorable experience.

After I first had that idea years ago, I took to the 'net to see if haunted attractions of that nature already existed. I didn't find any secular haunted houses described as such, but I did stumble upon hell houses: haunted attractions run by evangelical Christian churches in order to "scare" attendees into devoting themselves to Jesus. And, more interesting to me, these attractions were described as "walk-through dramas" -- precisely the kind of thing I wanted to see and experience.

Alas, while hell houses might be prevalent in the South and Midwest, I live in Maryland -- and despite my interest in attending a hell house production, I wasn't up for traveling over four hours away for the privilege. This season, however, the Judgement House website noted one such attraction within three hours of my location... which was totally acceptable to me! So last Sunday we hopped in the car and drove to Immanuel Leidy's Church in Souderton, PA.

I'll discuss the event in a bit, but first I want to note a distinction between hell houses in general and the Judgement House attraction in particular. I'd been using the terms "hell house" and "judgement house" interchangeably, having seen them used that way in the articles I read online, but there's a notable difference. Whereas hell houses often feature controversial topics like abortion, homosexuality, and rape, Judgement Houses employ less sensationalized subjects to promote their message of salvation. The differences are noted more fully on the Judgement House website, but I didn't read those beforehand -- believing that hell houses and judgement houses were one in the same (and knowing what I know about the general approach), I skipped the detailed info and went straight for the site's list of locations. I'm actually kinda glad that I didn't research the Judgement House attraction proper in greater detail before I went: I was expecting to see controversial and graphic stuff, and, had I known in advance that the presentation would be comparatively tame, I might not have driven all the way to Souderton for the attraction. And that would have been a shame, because I was really intrigued by and impressed with what I did see.

Now, another caveat: I am not a Christian. Admittedly, I have various issues with certain Christian beliefs and interpretations of the Bible -- I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, and I find most of the responses to such concerns as the problem of evil and the problem of Hell to be unsatisfying and even unsettling -- but there are also Christian traditions (and those of other religions) that I find largely unobjectionable. (I also imagine that, if I were a devout Christian, I might accept answers that fail to persuade me now -- or shrug and admit that, despite my questions, I have faith in God and the righteousness of His plan.) Ultimately, I am not a Christian not because of my philosophical disagreements with Christian teachings, but because I do not have that faith. I am not a hardline atheist and remain interested in and (somewhat) respectful of religious traditions, but my interest in Judgement House was less because of its evangelistic character and more because I believed it was a strange, sensational Halloween event that followed the walk-through format of my ideal haunted attraction.

Naturally, I found the ministry to be unconvincing (to me; I imagine it might prove persuasive to more receptive viewers) and took issue with certain parts of the presentation. That a complacent Jesus could sit on a throne while demons actively torture people in a nearby room is not a notion that sits well with me, and I bristled at the assertions that God should be manifest in the classroom and government. But -- the lack of sensationalism notwithstanding -- the Judgement House presentation at Leidy's Church both met and exceeded my expectations. So rather than focusing on the disagreements that sprang to mind as I viewed the Judgement House (which are ultimately issues I have with the teachings of many Christian denominations), I want to describe my general experience at Leidy's Church and the execution of the Judgement House presentation in the remainder of this article.

When we finally arrived in the church parking lot shortly before 7:30 PM, we were a little confused. Although a sign off the road indicated that we were at the right place for Judgement House, we didn't know where to go from there. Leidy's Church has several large buildings on the premises, but none of them really screamed "church" -- and with multiple buildings with multiple entrances, it wasn't entirely obvious where the attraction began. After crossing the parking lot and wandering around for a bit, though, we came across some signs directing us to the Judgement House entrance and proceeded accordingly.

Inside, we found a registration table -- where folks could sign up for the attraction and leave donations (technically the attraction was free, but donations were encouraged) -- and a large recreational area that served as a waiting room. The Ten Commandments hung high on the walls; a retail space sold t-shirts and very affordable refreshments (after the long drive, I was thankful for the 50-cent cup of coffee); ping-pong tables kept children occupied while (I assume) their parents participated in the Judgement House activities. A blackboard in front of the stage noted the title of this particular Judgement House production: Overdose. And on the stage itself, Associate Pastor Andrew Edmonds described the nature of the event and gave instructions for navigating it. The attraction was surprisingly well attended -- the waiting room seems empty in my photos, but several groups showed up with reservations and thus didn't need to wait very long -- so we were sitting for nearly an hour before being called onto the stage ourselves.

Judgement House, Pastor Edmonds explained, is a walk-through dramatic presentation intended to introduce us to several characters and illustrate the consequences of their life choices. We would be led through a series of scenes -- each supported by opening narration from our tour guide -- and watch the story unfold, after which we would be presented with a choice. Edmonds then introduced our tour guide Donna -- and made sure all of our registration cards had been collected -- and the tour began!

We followed Donna out of the building, across the grounds, and into a house. There, standing in an area marked by masking tape on the floor, we watched as Lisa and Ben, two teenage siblings, revealed how they had been affected by their parents' divorce. Whereas Ben had sought relief from his pain by devoting himself to Christ, Lisa had taken to skipping school, partying with friends, and sneaking their mother's prescription drug pills (and apparently reading Les Misérables at the breakfast table) as methods of coping. The next scene saw the characters at a high school basketball game (the home's garage made for a very convincing gymnasium, especially with the bleachers and Falcons team decorations), where Ben successfully convinced another friend of theirs -- Dan -- to let Jesus into his heart. Lisa and a girlfriend, however, resisted Ben's conversion attempts and left to go to an afterparty... which was incidentally being held at Dan's house. As such, Dan was obligated to go.

Donna led us back outside and into another building -- the one we started in, albeit via another entrance -- where we viewed the third scene: the party itself. Despite the lack of actors (with only six attendees, it looked like a pretty lame party), the party was also fairly realistic. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but the room even smelled like a house party (the pervasive aroma of sweat and feet and Ruffles had me tempted to walk over to the cooler and break out a beer myself). At the party, Dan -- having just given himself to Jesus -- wasn't really interested in hanging, so he decided to go to bed... but Lisa and her friend, looking to have a good time, had popped some pills they had pilfered from their parents. (Yay alliteration!) Unfortunately for Dan, they'd also slipped pills into his drink in the hopes that he'd lighten up. Then, like Dan, Lisa then slipped away -- suddenly she wasn't feeling so well and just wanted to lie down for a bit.

Then came screams, and the remaining partygoers ran frantically through the exit route that Dan and Lisa had taken. We followed, passing through a bathroom -- and here I was again impressed by the attention to detail; there was vomit in the toilet (never has cream of chicken soup looked so unappetizing) -- and into a bedroom where Dan and Lisa were passed out on the bed and floor, respectively. The partygoers continued screaming and shook them in vain; paramedics burst into the room and started shouting instructions; moments later Ben entered and began begging Lisa to wake up and hollering at the friend for encouraging her destructive behavior. We were then quickly ushered out of the room and down a hallway, and as we stood outside the door to the next scene Donna gave us tragic news: despite the paramedics' efforts, both Dan and Lisa had died from drug overdoses.

The next scene was Lisa's funeral, where one of the cooler interactive elements of the presentation came into play. We were there to pay our respects, and, in a single-file line, we shook the hands of the actors playing Lisa's parents and Ben while offering condolences for their loss. Now, the production up to this point already ranked among the more affecting ones I've attended. Whereas even interactive community theater productions usually have designated seating areas and larger "stage" areas that give the audience some distance from the production, our proximity to the scenes in Judgement House really made these events more difficult to dismiss as fiction. We were literally standing on the sidelines, often as close to the actors as they were to each other, and the attention to detail and the actors' skill (some of them, particularly during the opening scene and the party drama, were really compelling) thwarted my attempts to identify the seams in the production and made me feel as if what I was watching was really happening. The funeral scene heightened that sense even further: in shaking hands and pretending to share in the family's grief, I actually felt somewhat grieved for the characters. My observation of Lisa breathing and shifting slightly in her coffin helped to break the spell, but I was still very impressed with the staging of that scene.

Following the funeral, the production was less affecting -- not because of any significant flaws with the execution, but because the story abandoned its tragic realism for more fantastic developments and largely relied on familiar images. The next scene consisted of Dan and Lisa's judgement. Here, Saint Peter -- clad in white, standing behind a lectern, and reading from an oversized book of names -- accepted Dan into Heaven for his late conversion and banished Lisa to Hell for her dismissal of Jesus (but not after she spent minutes insisting that she deserved to enter Heaven for being a good person and all that jazz). Then came Hell, where a demon dragged a terrified Lisa to the foot of a snarling Satan, who raved about his evil plan like a cartoon supervillain and boasted of his success in secularizing our society. Finally, Dan entered Heaven -- a predictable white throne room with a bearded Jesus seated in the center and flanked by robed angels with multicolored wings.

As I said, I didn't find these latter scenes in the drama to be particularly compelling, but there were some impressive touches in them -- most notably in Hell. Whereas the more well-known depictions of Hell are populated by horned red demons, the demons of this production were naked, bald humans with gaping wounds on their bodies. (They also had teeth painted over their lips, which, given that lips are more animated than teeth, sort of reminded me of Skeletor in the old Filmation cartoon.) Instead of placing us in a red-tinged volcanic setting, our time in this Hell had us standing in a large, dark room between two caged areas: Lisa started out cowering alone in one and was dragged screaming past us into the other, which forced us to turn around to continue watching the drama. (Unfortunately, since we had been standing with the shortest people -- like me -- in front, this made the remainder of the action more difficult for me to see.) Hell was lit not by fire but via blacklight, which made Lisa's white outfit stand out in the dark and caused the demons' eyes and teeth to glow an eerie green -- which added an additional bit of discomfort when they moved very close to our faces. And in a final impressive flourish, Satan (no doubt utilizing the registration cards we filled out earlier that evening) declared that he was coming for each and every one of us and even called us by name! I imagine that the personalization might give true believers a bit of a fright, since they might be inclined to give the depiction and concept of Hell more legitimacy than I did.

Following the scene with Heaven, we were led to a meeting room with folding chairs -- this was the first time we were invited to sit since before the tour began -- and addressed by an old man who briefly recapped the presentation. He then asked us to bow our heads and close our eyes... and then asked people to raise their hands if they were ready to commit themselves to Jesus. "Remember," he said, "Hell is a real place -- and it awaits all who do not find salvation through Christ." After repeating the question again, and asking people to raise their hands if they wished to meet one-on-one with a spiritual counselor, the man told us to raise our heads and open our eyes. We then filed out of the room and out of the Judgement House.

If I had to sum up the production in a few words, I'd describe it as being like a live-action Chick tract (albeit one of the less patently offensive ones). That's not a criticism, mind you. Judgement House's avoidance of extremely controversial topics notwithstanding, I knew what the event entailed and wasn't at all shocked or upset by the storyline developments. But what did surprise me -- as I've noted above -- were the attention to detail and the affecting nature of the drama.

Another thing that I found interesting was that, in each of the scenes described above, the characters were played by different actors. As a Doctor Who fan, I've been intrigued by that sort of casting for a long time and have thought that it might make for a neat gimmick in other shows, so I was very surprised and excited to see it in practice. That said, I don't think it worked as well as it could have. The characters were denoted by the same outfits in different scenes, but the outfits were somewhat complex -- Lisa, for example, wore a short gossamer scarf, a white sweater, dark jeans, and boots -- which (for me) made them harder to identify on different actors, especially when the scenes sometimes had the actors sitting down (thus hiding parts of their outfits). In addition, the actors playing the same characters sometimes looked very different. This not only made them more difficult to recognize as the same characters despite their wearing the same outfits, but also had the effect of making the outfits look different as well: Lisa's girlfriend was played by young women ranging from rail thin to fairly curvy, and her pink blouse and black skirt looked notably dissimilar on these different body types. And sometimes the script even called for wardrobe changes; Lisa's girlfriend and Ben, for instance, dressed differently during the funeral. The characters were all ultimately identifiable from the dialogue, but those initial moments of trying to figure out who's who at the beginning of each scene did detract from the otherwise largely seamless nature of the production. Perhaps something like entirely color-coded outfits or even large nametags would make the characters easier to identify -- though admittedly such obvious costuming might make the production seem less realistic and potentially less emotionally stirring.

Been there, done that... got the t-shirt!Nevertheless -- and despite my disbelief in the overall message of the story -- I was really impressed with the Judgement House production. I can very much see how it might be an effective evangelistic tool: if not for converting agnostic/atheist attendees, then for strengthening the commitment of Sunday morning Christians. The drama effectively touched on the struggles of some teens (which could apply to people of all ages) and noted how lives can be tragically cut short in an instant, but all of the characters -- even Lisa and her girlfriend -- had some admitted belief in, if not complete devotion to, the Christian God. Lisa even noted that she just wanted to have fun now, in her youth, and commit herself fully later on. Accordingly, for Christians who share that line of thinking, seeing the need to dedicate oneself to Jesus now (especially given that that later day might never come) might actually prompt that desired response.

For someone who doesn't believe in the God of the Bible or Christ the Savior -- and who finds stereotypical depictions of Hell and Heaven to be sort of ridiculous (though fun and potentially interesting as fictional settings) -- I doubt the production will elicit a religious commitment. Even so, if you've ever been the least bit fascinated by a Chick tract or thought about any of the haunted house or theater-related ideas discussed in this article (I'm not a theater person, so those with a background in the area might be well familiar with what I've only pondered), I strongly recommend checking out a Judgement House production. It'll let you observe a compelling human drama, it'll take you on a journey through Hell and Heaven... and it'll urge you to decide where you'll spend eternity (if you believe in that sort of thing). If nothing else, it'll be an excellent conversation topic.

-- Wes --
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