ARVADA, Colo. — For most children, Halloween means trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins and getting frightened by pretend ghosts and goblins.
But for a growing number of Christian youth, the holiday involves something Protestant minister Keenan Roberts hopes will scare them even more: graphic depictions of abortion, and scenes of people living in hell for partaking in abortions.
His project is controversial, to say the least. Roberts, of the Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colo., began staging Hell House, a seven-stage haunted house staffed by some 250 volunteers, in 1995 in Denver. Since then, the fundamentalist Bible church has shipped 475 Hell House Outreach Kits, priced at $199, to churches and Christian youth organizations all over the world. Roberts says at least one multistage Hell House will teach children about abortion and other sins in every state this year.
A haunted Hell House in Kingsport, Tenn., last year attracted about 9,000 visitors and an abundance of controversy for the Higher Ground Baptist Church. Along with the scene of a teen-age girl who dies after having an abortion, actors portrayed the tragedies of drunken driving, suicide and teen rebellion.
Parents in a Washington, D.C., suburb denounced the use of deceptive fliers, posted last year by an evangelical church, that invited the public to a “Fright Night” event. Instead of Halloween goblins, visitors paid $5 to see depictions of abortion, a gang murder and a young man dying from AIDS.
Roberts won't reveal the names of organizations that have bought the kits. However, he said they have been sold to organizations representing nearly all Christian denominations, including Catholic organizations.
This year, the Denver Hell House opened Oct. 19 with a less graphic portrayal of abortion than in some ealier years. The scene, repeated for groups of 25 to 30 people at a time, features “Jennifer,” a woman who aborted her child. Jennifer is shown being haunted by visions of her aborted daughter, Tara.
“She [Tara] comes out on what would have been her first piano recital,” Roberts said. “She comes out on what would have been her sweet 16 party; she speaks to her mother on what would have been her wedding day; and then she speaks to her mother as an older lady who was destined to become a first-grade teacher.”
In one scene, Tara accuses her mother of murder while a demonic tour guide cackles. Tara makes her final appearance in the seventh and final Hell House scene — heaven.
Children as young as age 10 are allowed into the haunted house if accompanied by adults. Roberts and his volunteers say they hope children who visit Hell House will make better decisions about sex and abortion during their teen-age years.
“Youth know more than we think they know earlier and earlier now,” says Rachael Gowins, the 24-year-old Abundant Life parishioner who portrays Jennifer.
In Denver alone, Roberts estimates more than 33,000 people have toured Hell House since 1995, many of them Catholic.
A Parent's View
“Yes, it is shocking and graphic,” said Louise Hernandez, a Catholic who has taken three of her children through the Denver Hell House for the past three years.
“But my children have no misconception now about abortion and what it means,” she said. “They will grow up surrounded with a lot of lies about so-called reproductive choice, which tries to confuse the issue. These acts and images will stick with them no matter what anyone says.”
Officials with the Archdiocese of Denver neither condemn nor condone Hell House, which has made headlines in Denver for seven straight years. Greg Kail, spokesman for Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, says he knows of no Catholic organizations in Colorado that have ordered a Hell House Outreach Kit.
Although Kail has never toured Hell House, he has read about it and understands that the haunted house tries to communicate an anti-abortion message in a context of fear. He hopes the message doesn't backfire.
“It's important to remember that, in communicating morality, what's intended is not always what's received by the listener,” Kail says. “And if we're trying to convert hearts, what's received by the audience — not just what we intend for them to receive — matters tremendously. So when your intent is good, you have to be sure your approach isn't counterproductive, or the message may be dismissed out of hand.
“Shocking people isn't always effective. The truth about abortion is shocking enough, if one just pauses to think about it.”
Kail says the Denver Archdiocese encourages Catholics to be gentle and loving when teaching the immorality of abortion. However, he's careful not to criticize the tactics of those who take a more direct or confrontational approach.
“Abortion is a real tragedy,” Kail says. “A lot of people are out there doing very heroic work to end abortion. We're just saying the way people receive the message is critical to making a real difference in the world.”
The Abortionists' Response
In direct response to Hell House, a pro-abortion group in Fort Collins Colo., called Life and Liberty for Women, is staging a “pro-choice” Halloween play in Denver. The play, “Abortion's Silenced Legacy,” features graphic scenes of women dying from back-alley abortions.
And Dr. Warren Hern, founder and director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic in Boulder, Colo., responds to Hell House by characterizing all pro-life activists as violent. Hern, who advertises “specializing in late abortions,” spends his personal and professional life behind multiple layers of bullet-proof glass and blames people such as Rev. Roberts for spreading anger.
“This is the American brand of theocratic fascism, and their message is ‘do what we tell you to do, or we will kill you,’” the late-term abortionist told Boulder Weekly.
But Nat Hentoff, a pro-life columnist for the Village Voice in New York, says Hell Houses serve an important role in teaching the truth about the atrocity of abortion. He says America tolerates free speech, precisely so people like Rev. Roberts can be shocking and direct.
“You can teach in any which way you like,” Hentoff said. “That's the whole thing about free speech. Nobody's forced to come, right?
This is not a society like China, where the rulers decide what you can see and what you can't see. We have the exact opposite, I hope.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.