Halloween outreaches at which churches truly try to scare the hell out of people are drawing crowds and making headlines across the country.
Among the several hundred churches putting on "Hell House" programs this year is Victorious Life Church in Waco, Texas, which has been criticized for including a 9/11 Ground Zero scene along with others depicting suicide, abortion, and domestic violence.
According to "The Waco Tribune-Herald," the 45-minute performance features a scene in which a young woman shows up early for an abortion appointment "because I start a new job today and I need to get to work in the Twin Towers." The program also incorporates news footage from the terrorist attacks.
"If it's horrific, it's because this really happened," youth pastor's wife Kim Chiolero told the newspaper. "We don't try to shove our message down anyone's throat. We're saying you have a choice where you are going to spend eternity, so please choose wisely."
Chiolero said the presentation was intended to memorialize the attacks "in a strong, positive light." She added: "This is for entertainment value, but we hope it makes our youth think." It certainly impacted at least one recent young visitor, whom the "Tribune-Herald" said gagged at the sight of shelves of jars full of aborted "fetuses."
New Beginning Christian Center in Merced, Calif., has also been criticized for putting on what the local newspaper called an "unnecessarily brutal and insensitive" event. Pastor Mike Duckworth defended the outreach to "The Merced Sun-Star": "We're going to scare the hell out of people and, at the end, show them there's a way out--Jesus Christ. We're bringing controversial issues to the forefront and then giving an antidote."
Earlier this month, a Christian radio station in Fairfield, Ohio, pulled ads promoting Kings Point Church of God's presentation after complaints that the spots inviting listeners to "come see the funeral of a homosexual AIDS patient" were "blatant gay bashing," said "The Cincinnati Enquirer."
"The Pentecostals have always been good at putting on a show," Ratliff told National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition." "... These are very nice people. The people at this church needed this church, and they needed this community. If they were in New York, they would have therapy. But they don't have therapy."
"The Boston Globe" considered the film "a candid and often fascinating documentary," while "The Oregonian" found it to be "often hilarious, well-shot and, importantly, entertaining." "The Chicago Tribune" described it as "fascinating psychological fare."
Meanwhile, the man who started the "Hell House" movement isn't taking part this year. Keenan Roberts, who launched the outreach at Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colo., in 1995, told the Associated Press: "It's not gone away; we're just taking a year off."
Roberts - who has just founded a new Assemblies of God church in Broomfield, Colo., - said his "Hell House" idea was now used by more than 500 churches in 14 countries.