National Trauma, Church Drama: The Cultural Politics of Christian Fear
Issue #72, February 2005
Red states and blue states, the heartland versus the decadent city. Like many, I'm wary of these too-easy distinctions for the political effects they create, and the illusion of a homogeneous religious movement based on so-called "family values." But, living in central Virginia for the past few years, if in the admittedly "blue" town of Charlottesville, I knew that the politics of the Christian right were very real, and very serious factors in people's visions of what America should be. If I wasn't sure what places were not being claimed as part of the far-right religious and colonial project, I could be sure of some places that were. So, along with two friends, I went to Lynchburg, Virginia, a buckle in the Bible-belt, where Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is but one of many far-right religious institutions.
Among outreach programs sponsored by evangelical Christians in recent years, there has been a proliferation of entertaining religious performances. These performances provide enjoyment and titillation for church members, and a kind of outreach to non-members, or, as they refer to the non-born-again, non-Christians. While many of these performances are locally based and produced on a modest budget, there's also a booming industry of evangelistic Christian corporations that capitalize on the growing sense of crisis in late modern American life. Among these corporations is "Judgement (sic) House," (a trademarked name) developed by Clearwater, Florida-based New Creation Evangelism, Inc. Begun in the early 1980s, Judgement House's stated goal is to appeal to teenagers, who according to their website, are "the targets in an intense spiritual battle where eternity is at stake."
Judgement House® is an eight-scene walk through drama which tells the story of several young people and their daily challenges. A guide leads small groups from scene-to-scene as the story unfolds. One teenager chooses to accept Jesus Christ and another chooses to reject Him. Dying in a common calamity such as an automobile accident or natural disaster, the individuals are catapulted into their respective eternal destinations. The consequences of the choices they made are revealed as some are doomed for Hell and others are welcomed to Heaven by Jesus.
At the end of the tour, after seeing the actors face horrific death, and then salvation or damnation, audience members are invited to be born again by proclaiming Jesus as their savior, and to join the sponsoring church. They, like the characters of the drama, are presented with a choice: if you die tonight, will you go to Heaven or Hell? Will you take Jesus as your savior?
Judgement House is but one element in this growing trend, and the structure of the walk-through drama described above is broadly typical. In addition to the final choice presented to audience members, a similarly generic feature of these haunted houses is to play on - and generate - deeply held fears, based upon racial and on gendered terms. And the politics they desire are rooted in longing for a heterosexual, male-led family.
The sponsoring churches reflect a transformation of the use of fear in American politics and religion. They have revised the broad fears of "godless Communism" and nuclear annihilation during the Cold War into the late modern anxieties of the contemporary age. In the late 20th century, these were uncertainty in the economics of flexible accumulation; uncertainty about allies and enemies in an age of multilateral neoliberalism; uncertainty in gender roles since 1970s feminist and gay rights movements; uncertainty in racial hierarchies since the Civil Rights Act and de jure desegregation; uncertainty in national borders in an age of global capital and migratory flows. Many white Americans have felt all of these uncertainties as assaults on their "way of life," and the privileges they believed were national rights. In the midst of this swarming multitude of fears, longstanding Christian fundamentalist certainties have grown in their appeal and political impact. Many have, transformed their anxiety into a growing sense of assault, and of victimization by numerous sources. These were the fears of the Christian Right on the eve of the new millennium.
But when the unthinkable happened on September 11, 2001, and the United States (or, more accurately, its centers of financial capital and military adventurism) was actually under attack, endtime fears were solidified. For evangelical Christians, new fears demanded new needs for certainty. As the 2004 election demonstrated, these many fears explain many evangelical Christian's support of an authoritarian, faith-based presidency. At the same time, those fears called for the resurgent "certainties" of well-defined heteropatriarchal relations in the home through Constitutional prohibitions on gay marriage. Fear has become a righteous tool for spreading Jesus' word and Republican politics. It's also a great moneymaker.
Modalities of Fear
There are at least three kinds of Christian haunted houses, which, for convenience' sake, I'll broadly call Hell Houses. Though each follows the basic premise described above, (and there are basic scripts available from Hell House and Judgement House) each is also a very local production, and has different inflections and emphases, based on the congregation's desire.
Trinity Assembly of God Church, Cedar Hill, Texas
The first, and perhaps best-known of the Hell Houses is documented in George Ratliff's 2003 film Hell House. Judging from the many Hell Houses across the Bible-belt and described on church websites, this is the most common style of Hell House. Sponsored by the Trinity Assembly of God Pentecostal Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, this tour describes a panoply of Christian Right fears, primarily based in reaction to 1960s and 1970s feminist and youth movements. In Trinity's Hell House, church members/actors portray graphic incidents of school violence, suicide, domestic abuse and murder (after a women is caught cheating on her husband), rape, drug use, botched abortions, and AIDS from gay sex. All of these lead to a bloody and painful death, as demon tour guides jeer, cackle, and explain why they suffer to the audience. We, the audience, are at risk of all of these and more from the "immoral" choices we make, particularly about our sexuality and our pleasures.
This kind of Hell House focuses on teenagers' and women's control of their bodies. In Lauren Berlant's description of New Right politics in the 1990s, these are the politics of the intimate public sphere, where the most private aspects of American lives are put on display, and effectively displace the public politics of poverty, racial dominance, and sexual inequality. These are the stock-in-trade of most Hell Houses, where the threats to American life come not from politics, hunger, or war, but rather from the politics of sexuality.
Using stage effects, real guns loaded with blanks, and plenty of fake blood, viewers are taken on a tour of these horrors by church members dressed as ghouls and demons (who face tough auditions to play these coveted roles). Fear is evident on the faces of the viewers, as is the anger of many who disagree with the presentation. And real enjoyment comes from the church members who play the ghouls and demons, acting out the transgressive roles they are denied under ordinary circumstances. Without question, these Hell Houses provoke deep reactions by those who participate in them, as audience or as actors.
Heritage Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia
If most Hell Houses focus on young people and women's control of their bodies, in the midst of the 2004 election season, Lynchburg, Virginia's Heritage Baptist Church transformed the object of fear to international terrorism and the horrors of September 11th. The tour was called "Judgement House: Homeland Security."
Unlike the generic tour described on the Judgement House webpage, which is quite similar to Trinity's Hell House, Heritage Baptist's Judgement House: Homeland Security takes place in an alternate universe in which America is under constant attack from "the terrorists." These terrorists are unnamed, lack political ideology, and are denuded of any sort of history. Much as the Bush administration has claimed, they are simply an extension of evil in the universe.
The protagonist in Heritage's Judgement House is a young woman schoolteacher. Our guide tells us that despite having lost her unborn baby to complications, the teacher maintains faith in Jesus' plan for her life. Nor is she concerned about the state of violence in the world. She tells her husband that she isn't afraid of the terrorists, because she has Jesus, "the ultimate Homeland Security." Her students, with whom she discusses faith in Jesus, are the ones who do, or do not, opt to be "Christians," and are the ones from whom the audience learns the terrors of Hell and the joys of Heaven.
In one scene of the drama - at "the café," a play on Starbucks culture - young people sit around tables, chat, and work on computers. An adult man plays guitar and sings in the background, while people order drinks from the faux counter in back. The teacher is front and center. The protagonist students sit at other tables. They discuss homework, and the teacher soon joins the students to talk about Jesus. Over the course of the conversation, the teacher coos over a baby and a young mother walking through the café, clearly reminded of her lost child. She tells the students again that she has faith in God's plan, and that she knows her soul is saved. The students rehash their characterizations: One is a good girl interested in God, another is good and kind "but doesn't have time for Jesus"; the boy is "angry at Jesus" and the world for dealing him such a hard life. He has "rejected Jesus," and no amount of advice from the teacher will convince him. Nor can she convince the girl who is too busy for Jesus that there is no time to waste.
For the protagonists, time is short indeed. As we, the audience, were led out of the café, we were told that the terrorists have struck the café, and that many were killed in the explosion. We walk through double doors, and enter the most frightening scene of the drama. Even more than the Heaven room, it is the centerpiece of the tour.
It is the street outside the café. Lights flash and sirens wail, blue police lights circle. Children and teenagers are screaming full voice holding wounded, bloody limbs: "My arm! Help me, it hurts...." Firefighters and paramedics carry stretchers, and the swaddled infant, out of the building. Sheet-draped bodies litter the scene. A camera crew films the destruction, so we, the audience members, know that the public is seeing this in the same way that most of us experienced the collapsing World Trade Center. A man in a Sheriff's uniform tells the camera, and the viewing public, that this is the latest terrorist attack today and more are expected. He tells the camera that he cannot guarantee anyone's safety. Terrorists can strike anywhere, at any time. No public place is safe; he urges the viewers: Go to your homes. He, the representative of the State, tells us the streets are dangerous, and that home must be the place of their, and our, protection.
While the Sheriff urges everyone to go home, the teacher's husband, dressed in a business suit, bursts through the audience and is restrained by officers. He screams in pain when he learns that his wife has been killed in the explosion. He falls to his knees, fists in his eyes, yelling. This image - the white man screaming over the assault on his wife - is the one chosen by the Heritage Baptist Church to adorn their business card and the billboards advertising this tour. No less than the trope of the assaulted, virtuous white woman is at play here. As in white supremacist movements a century ago, the virtuous white woman - or child - must be assaulted, or even die, to justify the righteous political vengeance of white manhood.
As a participant and audience member of the tour, I couldn't help but be affected by these young actors' screaming; for their volume as well as for the affect of simply hearing a person across a room from you performing pain. Despite reminding myself of my skepticism about the event, and its ham-fisted emotional manipulation, I couldn't help but imagine my own wife's death, the threat of dead children, the idea of losing loved ones to violence. I'd be lying to say that this was not an affective strategy and performance. It was. The screams, the camera crews, the flashing lights, all conjured the fears I felt and the mass mediated trauma of 9-11. This was surely deliberate and effective.
The central message at Heritage Baptist's Judgement House was that Family, and the Home, and the Nation are under threat from nameless terrorists. Furthermore, the public sphere is hopelessly dangerous. If terrorists can strike "us" at any time, and even the State, doing its best, cannot protect us, "we" must be ready to reckon with God. As the tour continued, the teacher, because she was born again, went to Heaven, while the students who had not actively chosen to take God, were sent writhing to Hell. Like the sinners in Trinity's Hell House that were killed in a car wreck because they'd drunk alcohol, or the gay man who died of AIDS (the direct result of being gay, it seems), they screamed in agony for not having proclaimed Jesus as their savior. In Hell House and Judgement House, the themes of fear and terror were appropriated into Christian spectacles that furthered specific political and religious messages of proper sexual relations in the home, and the correct uses of pleasure.
Scaremare: Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia
Liberty University's Scaremare follows a different track than either Trinity's Hell House or Heritage Baptist's Judgement House. In contrast to the lengthy narratives and heavy-handed fear tactics of eternal condemnation, Scaremare has much in common with secular haunted houses. Scaremare was a thrilling, carnivalesque event, though, like the other two, it maintained the final room where pretense of drama was discarded, and visitors were implored to proclaim Jesus as their savior.
Unlike Heritage Baptist or Trinity, there was no guide, and no narrative. No stories, no supposedly sympathetic and/or funny characters to lead us into godliness. Instead, Liberty students, dressed as ghouls and demons shouted and screamed, jumped out of hidden corners. Their faces painted black or white, some with stage blood dripping, some with blackened eye sockets in white faces. I vividly recall seeing one sneak up on my friend in front of me and shout right in her ear-with alarming enthusiasm. This Hell House was scary, because the performers took the facepaint, and the "evil roles" they played so seriously. I recall seeing a muscular student slamming a shovel into a tree, noticing that the tree was worse for wear for the hits it had taken. My perceptions are my own, and were shaped by my situated, and disoriented perspective, but I sensed no small amount of adrenaline and even rage in the students. I thought that the one with the shovel could really hurt someone by mistake. He, like many of the students, seemed fully jacked-up on adrenaline and on the power and pleasure of scaring people.
We were led along a path through the woods, young women draped in white robes singing creepy dirges, as we passed through fog-machined fog seeping from pipes buried under piles of leaves or mounds of dirt. Howling wind sounds were pumped along with the smoke, mingling with the screams of the student performers. It was a surreal experience, quite deliberately so. As a ritual event, there was no formal structure, or at least no message or pedagogy; no stories about botched abortions, or finding Jesus as the ultimate homeland security. Instead, people in hooded robes screamed at us. A yelling, hockey-masked Jason type waved a chainsaw, revving it wildly, laughing and shrieking as he chased around us. Others slumped on the ground as if dead or dying; some said "Take me with you;" some were just silent, watching us walk past in the swirling machine-produced fog.
After walking through the woods, we came to a building where the uncertainty, and lack of narrative continued. The house was dark, and the passages inside were winding and steep. The tour alternated between these dark, claustrophobic passages barely wider than my shoulders (actually a relief - I could feel if there was a space where someone might jump out at me) and blazingly-lit rooms full of students dressed in frightening outfits. Our eyes could hardly adjust to the bright or the dark before a new screaming face appeared. The rooms were generally nonsensical and not terribly biblical: a room of mummies with outstretched arms, followed by dark and twisting passageways; a room of deranged prisoners screaming, followed by more twisting dark passages; a bright light shining in your eyes, then a strobe light, then scary clowns cackling on teeter-totters; adults dressed in oversize children's clothes and doll make-up, laughing and crying "Come play with me! Hee HEHeeee! Come play with ME!" And out pops a human jack-in-the box, amid more screams.
The rooms started to blend together. I remained nervous, startled, and jumpy throughout, laughing to release some of tension and fear Scaremare created. In the hallways that were too dark to see, I held onto my friend's clothes in front of me, and the woman behind me held my jacket. I kept myself vaguely oriented by touching my shoulders or elbows along the walls. But I also understood that it would be very easy for someone to have a panic attack in those hallways. I'd barely noticed that the warning signs said that people who were claustrophobic or who had anxiety attacks shouldn't enter.
While Scaremare lacked any real narrative, it did have the same clean, well-lit rooms at the end for the guided Evangelical speech, and the same choice to take Christ as savior. But compared to Hell House and Judgement House, this was a half-hearted attempt at "salvation" or "rededication." People who came to Scaremare were there for the thrill of it, for the fun of being out with friends late at night, for the adrenaline rush of a rollercoaster or a slasher flick. Liberty University used it as a fundraiser - at $7 per head, they did very well for themselves. It was also a fun event for the students who put it on, who could show the community that they were "cool Christians," playing in a kind of Christian Rock 'n' Roll or Hellboy. Its non-narrative form, and its carnivalesque raucousness made it much more open to irreverence, and to alternative uses than heavy-handed preaching. And that's surely why we waited in line more than two hours to go through, while the wait for Heritage's Judgement House was just a few minutes.
Without doubt, the greatest testimony to the alternative uses available in Scaremare were made by the young, openly lesbian, bi-racial couple who, by chance, took the tour at the same time we did. When we all emerged, laughing and shaken from the House, and approached the brightly-lit, white tents where we would be offered the opportunity to be born again, they ran off through the woods and back to the parking lot. A Liberty student shouted after them, "We won't try to scare you here," but they knew all too well what was coming, and left before the real preaching could begin. They had attended for the sheer pleasure, for the sensory thrill of the event. While they may have been the best example of people going just for the affective thrill and not the religiosity, all who attended certainly had similar feelings of exhilaration, fear, and relief.
The terror these Hell Houses express are multiple. On the one hand, for serious religious participants, they are the terrors that the best-selling Left Behind book series play on, and which Amy Johnson Frykholm recently commented on in her book Rapture Culture: What if I am not among God's chosen? What if I am doomed to eternal suffering? On the other hand, these fears are themselves historically located in broader New Right obsessions: the erosion of political and economic power in the here-and-now of postindustrial America, the uncertainty of gender roles in an age of women's rights and gay rights. These fears, and the reactionary nationalist politics that claim to rectify them, are the common currency of the New Right.
These fears are recreated in the Hell House experiences, channeled in specific ways into national political projects of remaking patriarchal authority in government and in the home. The power of the politics is that it motivates New Right actors in more than just rational self-interest, but on an ideological level that surpasses ordinary politics. As many on the left lament, the white working poor all too often vote against their class interests, on the basis of the "culture wars" and an ethnoracial nationalism that literally demonizes immigrants as a national threat, working class African Americans as irredeemably criminal, and unruly teenagers as a threat to themselves and God's dominion. The Hell House and Judgement House productions are attempts to come to terms with a proliferation of fear in late modern America, fears of the sexual decadence leftover from the 1960s, fears of economic insecurity, fears of destruction by Muslim terrorists, fears sewn by mass media and in a reconstituted nationalism.
That fear has, in Hell House, become a reactionary-nationalist form of enjoyment. Moving beyond Benedict Anderson's characterization of the nation as a textually-constructed imagined community, in Tarrying with the Negative, Slavoj Zizek helps us understand how subjective feelings of enjoyment generated in Christian haunted houses, mingled with fear, operate politically. "A nation exists only as long as its specific enjoyment continues to be materialized in a set of social practices and transmitted through national myths that structure these practices." Analyzing nationalism as simply resulting from textual practices, he argues, "is thus misleading: such an emphasis overlooks the remainder of the real, nondiscursive kernel of enjoyment which must be present for the Nation qua discursive entity-effect to achieve its ontological consistency." (Tarrying with the Negative, 202)
In these psychoanalytic terms, Hell House productions, especially as they link to right wing politics, are an expression of the eruption of the real of economic insecurity, political violence, and the real of existential indeterminacy - into symbolic life. Whether these traumas are the collapsing postindustrial economy, the degeneration of American society from City-on-a-Hill into Satan's Gomorrah, or, most saliently since 2001, the falling World Trade Center towers, evangelical Protestantism taps into these persistent, irrepressible, and constantly renewed anxieties. It channels the fears of a chaotic world into a coherent historical and moral narrative, and locates all of us within it. According to Zizek, thanks to the symbolic system designed to mitigate - but which also, in Hell House, produces - fear, "what had been experienced a moment ago as traumatic, incomprehensible loss, became readable, obtaining meaning." (Sublime Object of Ideology, 97). In an age when master narratives were believed to have faltered, tales of Good and Evil predominate and provide imperial comfort once again.
*Thanks to Shae Garwood and Clare Terni, with whom I watched Hell House and attended Scaremare and Judgement House: Homeland Security. It is from our conversations - trying to narrate our own disoriented experiences - that many of my thoughts on these events have emerged. Thanks also to Matthew Hedstrom for insight into contemporary religious studies, and to Tyrone R. Simpson, II, and Jesse Weaver Shipley for key discussions on the politics of fear.
Ethan Blue is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Western Australia. He lived in Charlottesville from 2002 through 2004, where he was a Fellow at the University of Virginia's Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies.