The new morality plays

*Evangelical Christians in America have long decried “evils” from homosexuality to teenage pregnancy. Now, they’re giving a 21st-century twist to medieval damnation tableaux – drink-drive carnage, rapes, abortion scenes – in a bid to terrify teenagers into their Saviour’s embrace. Welcome to the “hell house”, Texas-style

Cedar Hill, Texas, 9.30pm – a gaggle of 20 teenagers shuffle in tear-stained horror through a dark, claustrophobic trailer. Led by a tour guide dressed as the Devil, they watch wild-eyed as their peers act out, among other scenes, a Columbine-style classroom massacre, date rape, abortion, suicide, child molestation and a drink-driving accident. By the end of it, they are visibly shaken; many curl up on the grass to cry. It’s not quite the Hallowe’en treat they’d been expecting.

Every weekend evening in the six weeks leading up to Hallowe’en, the Trinity Church orders in the requisite buckets of theatrical blood and prepares for America’s biggest “hell house”. The audience, most of whom are between the ages of 10 and 18, have paid $10 (£6) each to experience the vignettes, each constructed around a hellfire-and-damnation theme with a far-right Christian message.

Like medieval morality plays (which grew out of the mystery play tradition specifically because religious writers sought a more directly didactic and disciplining type of drama), the aim of the show is simple: to scare its audience into the arms of God. And, over the past 15 years, it’s proved surprisingly successful: last year, visitors to the Trinity Church hell house numbered more than 10,000. It is now estimated that some 3,000 hell houses are presented by American evangelical churches every year, with “How to Put on Your Own Hell House” manuals, costing some $300 (£180), exported to Canada the Philippines and South America.

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