Cassie Bernall 'Martyrdom' Hoax:
A Christian Haunted-House Theme!?
by Cliff Walker

October 24, 1999

Correspondent Conrad Goeringer reports that Christian "Hell House" Hallowe'en attractions are extremely popular this year. Masquerading as the traditional "Haunted House," "Hell Houses" lure unsuspecting youngsters, charge a fee, and play up the Hallowe'en theme to justify frightening youngsters into considering the Christian religion.

Various "Hell Houses" have enacted, for example: the flaming casket of a gay man, dead from AIDS; a woman in an abortion clinic, lying on a gurney and screaming; and many, many depictions of the long-awaited apocalypso, carried by the popularity of the Christian thriller film, Omega Code and the disgustingly brisk-selling Left Behind book series.

Although his report didn't mention which churches are doing this, he said that some are reenacting the supposed "martyrdom" of Columbine massacre victim Cassie Bernall. In one scene, two men in trench coats storm the school library, shout, "Any Jocks or Christians in here?" and start firing away. A gunman then grabs a young woman, points a gun to her face and says, "Do you believe in God?" The woman says, "Yes," and the gunman then shoots her in the face.

Even if the Bernall "martyrdom" had actually occurred, these antics would be shameless and despicable exploitations of Cassie's memory. But the story simply is not true. Call it hoax or call it urban legend, the Columbine investigation team casts serious doubt on the whole "martyrdom" tale. Even allegations that the killers hated Christians are doubtful.

Emily Wyant, the young woman who was with Bernall when she died, denies that it happened and tells a much different story. Craig Scott, who started this whole tale, was asked to show where he heard the conversation take place; he pointed to under a table where Valeen Schnurr -- not Cassie Bernall -- had been. Meanwhile, Schnurr says the gunman heard her praying loudly and asked her if she believed in God. Valeen Schnurr said yes. The gunman then spared her life, rather than take it. Nobody at Columbine was shot for being a Christian.

We asked Conrad Goeringer to provide the names of some of the churches desecrating Cassie Bernall's memory by dramatizing this lie. He told us: Arvada Colorado Abundant Life Church; Dade City, Florida, Family Worship Center; St. Louis Gateway Tabernacle; Sterling, Virginia, Community Church; Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Florida, operates the "Judgement House."

This was reported to American Atheists, and Positive Atheism hasn't the resources to confirm the reports. However, if the Cassie Bernall "martyrdom" tale is being staged in any Hallowe'en venue, we denounce it in the strongest terms.

The "martyrdom" story is a falsehood being spread to further the agenda of the Christian religion and to stereotype and stigmatize Christianity's critics.

Graphic Rule

Spooking the Public for God?

Church Groups Operating
Halloween Hell Hoaxes
by Conrad Goeringer

October 24, 1999

Halloween ...

It is a time of year that conjures up images of carved pumpkins, kids trick or treating, and people of all ages dressed up in outlandish, spooky costumes.

For some, though, it is a much darker occasion, like the two men dressed in trench coats who charge into a library, their guns firing.

"Any Christians and jocks in here?"

A victim is selected, a young girl. One of the gunmen grabs her and demands to know if she believes in God. She replies, "Yes!"

"Kill her!" A shot echoes throughout the room.

The scene is eerily reminiscent of what some say took place in Columbine High School last April, when two student gunmen went on a rampage and murdered 13 people before committing suicide. One of the victims was Cassie Bernall, a 17-year old who allegedly was confronted by a shooter and asked if she believed in God. Bernall was reportedly shot in the face after saying that she did. A subsequent investigation raises doubts about whether this confrontation took place as claimed, but for many in America's religious community, Cassie Bernall has become a modern-day martyr for her Christian faith.

Now, what some say are the circumstances for her death has been transmogrified into a dramatic tableau being reenacted each night in hundreds of Christian "Hell House" performances throughout the country. Other exhibits depict abortions, gays burning in the fires of hell, the consequences of drunk driving, the temptations of premarital sex, the lure of the occult and the eternal reward of heaven. What is remarkable, though, is that this holiday pageant-noir is sometimes presented as a "haunted house" event similar to those staged by commercial vendors or community groups raising money for philanthropic activities. The hard shell religious message is often masked until people have paid their money and begun the tour of "Hell House" events.

The hell houses have also been criticized for their stereotyping of gays and lesbians, single moms and others. The man responsible for promoting the hell house fad, pastor Keenan Roberts of the Abundant Life Church in Arvada, Colorado, is blunt in defending this latest tool for religious proselytizing. "We're not doing this to win a popularity contest," he told National Public Radio. "We're saying look, sin is hurting our nation and Jesus Christ is the answer to what you're going through."

Roberts crafted the script for the congregation's first Hell House seven years ago. The idea was borrowed from Jerry Falwell who put on a similar display in the late 1970s at his church. Since then, the Halloween spectacle has thrived, and hundreds of "Hell House Outreach" kits have been sold to interested religious groups. Each includes a lavish 263-page manual on everything from media publicity to casting and costuming, a video of the Arvada Hell House in operation, and a "special effects" CD which includes "the voice of suicide, the voice of God, and the bone-chilling demon declaration of 'HELL HOUSE' in the opening scene..." The latest version of the "Hell House Outreach" package sells for $199 plus shipping.

In 1995, "Hell House" received its first boost of national publicity when Roberts appeared as a guest on the "Phil Donahue Show," paired with another evangelical pastor along with a lesbian cleric and a representative for Planned Parenthood. (Roberts insists that a "Holy Ghost glass enclosure" protected him during the taping.) The London Times, New York Times, Newsweek and Ms. Magazine were among those soon dispatching reporters to cover the annual Arvada Hell House show, and since then the popularity and controversy surrounding the Halloween spectacle have mushroomed.

Last year, as many as 450 "Hell Houses" were operating throughout the United States. One production staged by a charismatic youth congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma attracted such interest that it resulted in mile-long traffic jams. In London, Kentucky, over 2,100 trekked through the Calvary Baptist Church Hell House. In Salt Lake City, an Assembly of God production added scenes about gang warfare, while a Texas Hell House included a segment depicting a crack house. In another Hell House presentation, a man argues with his wife and is supposedly left vulnerable to the seductions of his secretary.

Other Hell House presentations can vary, but most include thematic presentations about AIDS, suicide, drinking, sex and drugs. In a Vacaville, California Hell House, visitors are led into a darkened room where a casket sits on a stage surrounded by faux flames. A "demon" leading the tour says that it is a funeral for a gay man who died from HIV. In an adjoining "abortion room," a woman lies on a hospital gurney screaming. "A small TV shows videotaped footage of a real fetus inside a womb, until at the last moment when doll parts are discarded into a metal bowl and the screen goes blank," noted an AP story.

The pastor of the Hell House church declares, "If showing a simulated abortion keeps one young lady out of the back seat of a Camaro with her boyfriend, we've done our job."

But there's competition for the job of scaring people back to church. The "Judgement House" is operated by Calvary Baptist Church of Clearwater, Florida, and like its "Hell House" counterpart, sells a kit for those hoping to terrorize their neighbors back to church. Offered by New Creation Evangelism, Inc., Judgement House "is an 8 scene drama that makes people aware of the reality of heaven and hell." It promises to "show them the joy of having a relationship in Heaven with Jesus," and that "hell is the ultimate haunted house, which is where they will spend eternity if they do not accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior..."

Groups signing up for the Judgement House package become known as "Covenant" churches. The $250 tab includes a new script each year "that has been fully tested and includes color photographs of each scene, prop and costume, along with a set diagram," and a how-to manual with instructions.

Many churches freelance their Halloween presentation offering variants of Hell House and Judgement House. In Pell City, Alabama, the Eden Westside Baptist Church offers "Revelation Walk," which a spokesperson describes as "an outdoor drama that will show what the end times will be like for those who are left behind when Jesus 'raptures' the church." Themes of the apocalypse are attracting more public interest, especially with the success of the "Christian thriller" movie Omega Code, and the popularity of the "Left Behind" series of novels by Tim LaHaye which portray the final days and Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Jacky Connell of Eden Westside Baptist told the Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper that the goal of "Revelation Walk" is to "evangelize the sinner, to edify the saints and to exalt the savior."

The 12 scenes in the "Walk" are supported by over 180 members of the church's congregation who handle everything from parking to set construction. According to the Post-Herald, one segment depicts a traffic accident illustrating the chaos that will occur when Christ "raptures" millions of Christians, whisking them off to heaven. Other scenes depict the rapture event, hell, heaven (with Jesus sitting on his throne) and even the Antichrist.

While many church leaders see "Hell House" and similar presentations as effective tools for evangelizing families, the Christianized spook shows are not without critics. The recreation of the Columbine shooting seems to have piqued even some former supporters of these Christianized Halloween displays. Pastor Dave McPherson who has been close to the Columbine tragedy as pastor of West Bowles Community Church in Littleton told the Dallas Morning News that the latest "Hell House" drama is "too close to home."

"But even though it's not my style, I can see it can serve a purpose," claims McPherson.

Rev. J.T. Tucker, director of Youth Ministries at Northway Christian Church in Dallas, Texas is more direct. "I detest those things," he said, referring to the "Hell House" exhibitions. He suggested that any shock value wears off quickly in a society saturated with violent images.

"Trying to scare people into a decision is very wrong," he adds. "If you consider all the money, along with ministry hours ... if they would refocus those areas on missions in urban Dallas, I think they would have a lot bigger return..."

Other critics, including the Human Rights Campaign, point to the frequent demonization of gays and lesbians that have become stock-in-trade for Hell House and Judgement House dramatic performances, such as one operating in Florida. There, visitors encounter a "demon" who prances around the coffin of an AIDS victim, declaring "I tricked him into believing he was born gay! Have you ever heard something so silly?" The demons adds how the dead man's soul is now suffering in hell.

HRC spokesperson Wayne Besen calls such displays "pornography for the soul."

"It's poising the minds of people," he told the St. Petersburg Times newspaper. "It's especially hurting gay and lesbian youth who are already under pressure."

"You look at the attitudes, the pack mentality and what happened in Wyoming to Matthew Shephard. They want to say they aren't responsible when their rhetoric gives someone license to commit these horrendous acts?"

Appeals for moderation, though, often fall on deaf ears, and "Hell House" promoters continue spreading their message of fear and damnation in hopes of harvesting souls for Jesus. One pastor declared, "It's what we believe, and we don't make any apologies. Satan is The Tempter, he is real, and it's so easy to fall prey."

Graphic Rule

"Hell" Houses Feel the Heat:
Columbine Slaughter Scene Pulled

"Hell Houses" Denounced
for Bigotry, Poor Taste
by Conrad Goeringer

October 29, 1999

Even for groups which demonize gays, women seeking abortion and other groups, it's good to know that there are limits, especially on Halloween.

With the popular fall holiday just hours away, over 600 Christian "horror houses" across the country are being operated by religious groups intent on conveying a hard shell doctrinal message by scaring people to church. Dubbed "Hell House," "Judgement House" or a similar designation, the presentations usually feature a guided tour through a series of tableaus. In one scene, a woman intent on getting an abortion is forcibly detained on a hospital operating table when she suddenly changes her mind. A monitor records the death of the fetus. Another room depicts the casket of a dead man who perished from AIDS. A "demon" dances frantically around the coffin, proclaiming "I convinced him he was born gay ... have you ever heard of something so foolish?" Other scenes claim to depict the car wreck of a drunken driver. Another traffic pile up informs visitors of what to expect at the moment when Christ returns to Earth and raptures the faithful.

The popularity of these religious horror houses has mushroomed in recent year, partly due to the aggressive marketing strategy of Rev. Keenan Roberts, a pastor at the Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colorado. His is one of two groups selling a packaged "kit" for congregations interested in putting on Christianized Halloween displays. Hundreds of churches have ordered the kits, which including a "hot to" manual and sounds effects CD.

Now, "Hell House" operators are divided over including a controversial scene in this year's Halloween show which claims to depict the April 20 shooting at Columbine High School. Roberts' church has decided to pull the reenactment of the slayings. He told APB news, "After Columbine, I had an immediate witness that it would be the compassionate decision not to include it while this community is still healing."

That is not stopping many of an estimated 433 other church and ministries which are believed to be operating "Hell House" presentations this year from omitting the gruesome spectacle. (Other Christian groups are operating "Judgement House" or similar freelance presentations which include some of the themes from the Arvada pageant.) The "Hell House" operated by Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas is being criticized for its skit, which features actors in trench coats reenacting the Columbine slayings. The presentation ends with the two gunmen consigned to hell.

"I'm repulsed by it," declared the parent of two Columbine students in a recent interview with the Denver Rocky Mountain News. "I don't know what purpose it serves. My family will live with this forever."

Tim Ferguson, a youth minister at the church, defends the dramatic -- some say tasteless -- depiction of school violence.

"To me, to say that we're glorifying violence by being insensitive would almost be like saying Saving Private Ryan is insensitive to World War II veterans. It's the totally oppose effect you get." He told the Ft. Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram newspaper, "I hope it ("Hell House") not only points them to Christ, but as much as that, it's to think about what you're doing."

Another critic of the Columbine reenactments is Dave McPherson, minister at the West Bowles Community Church in Littleton, Colo. "This doesn't sit right with me because I know the parents and I feel like it's too close to home," he said. "I'm not sure exactly what point they're trying to make."

Critics Of "Hell" Houses Speaking Out ... While the number of Christian Halloween horror houses has increased, we detect a growing wave of questioning and even criticism of these peculiar evangelical outreaches.

In New Mexico, for instance, a "Hell House" sponsored by the Grace Outreach Center is drawing criticism from a local gay religious congregation for its depiction of homosexuals and AIDS. Grace Outreach distributed over 12,000 fliers in the Albuquerque area, promising those who took the "Hell House" tour would "get rocked." Rev. Ken Barnard said that over 200 members of his congregation were working on the Halloween presentation, and declared that the "Hell House" depicts "sinful choices, according to the word of God, that lead to hell."

The presentation uses the kit from the Arvada Abundant Life Church, and includes an AIDS victims displayed in a coffin.

Rev. Pat Langlois of the Emmanuel Metropolitan Community, an Albuquerque church that accepts gay and lesbian worshippers, criticized the "Hell House' display.

"Portraying a gay man's funeral who died from AIDS with the accompanying dialogue denigrating the man for his lifestyle only plays into the continuous stereotypes that are perpetuated by misinformation," she told Associated Press.

Dr. Lonnie Kliever of the religious studies department at Southern Methodist University is also critical of the evangelical horror house fad, and told the Star-Telegram that he opposes the use of fear and terror as a way of teaching religion.

"My own view is that religious appeals to fear are counterproductive," he said. "It seems to me a stronger approach to the preaching of the Gospel and the offer of salvation is to appeal to higher emotions than fear."

Such violent imagery may have even played a factor in what happened at Wedgwood Baptist Church near Ft. Worth, when a gunman recently burst into the sanctuary and began a shooting spree. News reports at the time noted that many in the congregation thought it was one of the numerous reenactments they had grown accustomed to.

"It does seem to be the very fact that a church uses these cameos of violence as a way of attracting people to the Gospel says something about our society and its insatiable sort of thirst for violence," said Kliever.

Pastor Al Meredith of the Wedgwood Baptist Church says that the tragedy was "a confrontation on a spiritual level between the forces of light and the forces of darkness." Even so, he questions the use of "Hell House" drama to scare people into belief. He says that youngsters from the church will not be visiting the local house this year, and that the shooting is "a raw wound in our heart."

Criticism is also coming from the secular community.

Madkukar Trivedi, a psychiatrist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told the paper that he questioned the use of such violent images. "The message is correct, I just have a question about the method in which it's being done," he said.

Back in Colorado, the toned-down "Hell House" at Abundant Life Church is taking flak as well. James Taylor of the Colorado AIDS Project, told reporters, "The haunted house's message is ignorant and judgmental and implies that all gay people get AIDS and are automatically going to hell."

With their themes of demonization and religious terror, though, the "Hell House" formula for recruiting believers continue to sell, declares Rev. Roberts. He notes that while the bulk of the kits have been peddled to fundamentalist Baptist congregations, he has also sold to Methodist churches , even Catholic youth ministries in the U.S. and countries overseas.

"Every time a story appears -- good or bad -- we get hundreds of phone calls and faxes from people who support what we're doing," Roberts said. "And the testimonials from kids whose lives have been changed is enough to keep us going."

For more information:

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