Jordan Green explores religion’s approach to All Hallow’s Eve
Youth pastor Thomas Whited coaches the actor, Carolyn Beckman, on how a good Christian girl should convincingly behave in a tour of hell. It’s not that she herself is necessarily facing the prospect of eternal damnation; rather, some close family and friends are going to be left behind in the fiery flames.
‘“Everyone you ever loved is going to be dragged away into the deepest depths of hell you’ve ever seen,’” says Whited, the 22-year-old associate youth pastor at the Mix Youth Church, a ministry of First Assembly of God in Winston-Salem. He wants her to appreciate the finality of it so she can invest the appropriate emotion in the scene.
‘“If you could really cry, that would be great,’” he adds.
In the scene, Beckman, a 17-year-old Cavalry Baptist High School student, encounters her aunt, a non-believer, who is bound by demons and lamenting that she died without being saved. There are no demons at the moment, however ‘— the first and only performance will take place in seven days ‘— and the actor who plays Aunt Lisa is absent.
So Whited reads Aunt Lisa’s lines with convincing agony: ‘“Carolyn, why? Why didn’t you tell me? Help me please. I just needed to know it was real. I saw your life and I knew there was something different. Why? Why?’”
Then the devil gets his due with one last gleeful line: ‘“The spirit was willing, but the flesh was a little weak!’”
Terance Mitchell, the 21-year-old youth pastor for junior high students at First Assembly, plays Satan. He appears to be having some difficulty personifying damnation, commenting: ‘“My last line will be so cheesy.’”
‘“That’s all right,’” says Shayne Walters, the 31-year-old student ministries director and the author of the play. ‘“Just go with it.’”
The other unforgivable sin that brings eternal damnation, according to the play, is suicide (the theory being that the sinner doesn’t have time in her last moments before death to repent).
‘“See, her mom and dad were getting a divorce and Julie felt so alone and hurt,’” Beckman says in a monologue. ‘“She began by just cutting herself a little here and a little there, nothing more. She just wanted to feel loved and accepted, that’s all! I did everything I could to tell her how much God loved her, but she kept rejecting Him and I pleaded with her to listen, but she wouldn’t and one night her cutting went too far. And she’… she died.’”
In at least two instances flames will shoot up. ‘“That’s going to be awesome,’” Beckman enthuses. The pyrotechnics will take place once when she encounters Satan and once when she meets her lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
There are some logistical challenges to be sure. For one, after the damned aunt gets dragged kicking and screaming back into the depths of hell Beckman has to somehow get back into her casket without attracting too much attention from the audience.
There is much to do to prepare for the first and only performance of ‘“To Hell and Back’” on Wednesday, Oct. 26, but Whited can see it vividly.
‘“We’re talking about a girl who is a seventeen year old,’” he says. ‘“She gets into a car accident, and it’s about what happens when she dies. It will start with the viewing of her body in the founders’ room. Carolyn’s parents will be there to receive the mourners. Then they’ll come back in the cafeteria. The stage will be set up as a funeral. The whole room will go black. It’s kind of like they’re time-warping into hell, like they’re in bondage or in prison.’” (The script calls for a Linkin Park song, ‘“A Place For My Head,’” to play as the audience enters the cafeteria, and according to the script, ‘“Students will hear rattling of fence and people screaming and weeping behind the fence.’”)
Audience members will also watch a video produced by Whited to set the scene. The video shows the youth pastor dressed in a fedora, thick glasses and a suit and standing in front of a weird Matrix-style backdrop full of gray static and electrical shockwaves. Whited serves as narrator, giving a hyper-intellectualized spiel that’s a cross between a PBS ‘“Frontline’” documentary reporter and Maury Povich on ‘“A Current Affair’”. (Example: ‘“The future seemed limitless for this North Carolina teenager’… She never imagined she would be sharing the road with a drunk driver’… Now, she stands on that great precipice between two lives, two realities. Will it be heaven or hell?’”)
Beckman says many audience members who watch the play on Oct. 26 will have seen her sing before at Wednesday and Sunday services, so it will be jarring for them to see her lying in a casket instead. Likewise, Walters, who ordinarily preaches during services, will play himself as a youth pastor giving Beckman’s eulogy.
‘“I’m just so excited that I get used,’” Beckman says. ‘“It’s going to speak to a lot of people who have told people about Jesus and a lot of people who haven’t. It’s really applicable to what people are going through today ‘— people who have fears about witnessing about Jesus. For non-Christians, people will get a glimpse of hell and [they’ll think]: ‘That’s not a place I want to go.””
The author of the play insists he’s not trying to scare young people into getting saved.
‘“We wanted to show what is a reality of hell in our belief,’” Walters says. ‘“Through that, lives will be changed. The point of all of it is not to scare students, but to offer a vision of hope.’” (After all, Jesus appears in the final scene and Beckman runs to him, crying: ‘“I believed in You, Jesus. I believe!’”) Then the pastor will make what’s known in evangelical circles as an altar call, and those who are ready to accept Jesus in their lives may come forward.
If there are Christians who see Halloween as the work of the devil, Walters is not among them. ‘“To Hell and Back!’” will be performed five days before the Halloween holiday. He merely sees the holiday as an opportunity to convey an important message.
‘“There’s people who take it and make it a demonic day,’” he says. ‘“Another side of it can be fun and entertaining ‘— kids having fun getting dressed up. And everyone loves candy.’”
While the teenagers and youth pastors at First Assembly of God in Winston-Salem are putting on their fright drama for theological purposes, other Christians work in the haunting industry to make a living.
God has to be in it
Enter Ed McLaurin, owner of Greensboro’s Woods of Terror haunted attractions, which include The Tour of Terror, Backwoods Slaughterhouse, Redneck Hayride and Heavy Metal Nightmare, among others.
McLaurin, 34, ran his first haunted house in 1992. He got the idea to get into the business when a friend complained that he got paid only $40 for helping a man produce one in Julian that netted $19,000. McLaurin wasn’t particularly religious back then, and he saw a good business opportunity.
‘“Things had gotten to be haywire,’” he says. ‘“My mom and dad got divorced. That kind of got me out of the church.’”
Later he got back into the church in a heavy way. He came to a crossroads.
‘“I had to make a decision,’” he says. ‘“For me, if I don’t put God in it I’ve got to quit.’”
Still, he found he just couldn’t agree with churches that put on Halloween-season morality plays ‘— he calls them ‘“Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames’” shows ‘— where the devil takes away sinners.
‘“I don’t want to depict that having an abortion, being a drunk, committing suicide will make you go to hell,’” he says. ‘“Okay, suicide is a touchy subject. But with abortion, you can be forgiven. That’s a pretty trying thing for a young lady that was forced into that decision. She needs to know that God can forgive her. God can save you and God loves you. I don’t want it to be twisted.’”
So he came up with an alternative. He produced a video that he shows to everyone who visits his haunted attractions in which he talks about how being saved was the best thing that ever happened to him.
‘“It’s professional entertainment; it’s not Satanic,’” he says. ‘“In a hundred years nobody is going to remember my haunted house, but if I make any kind of difference it will be telling someone about Jesus Christ.’”
A fascination with origins
For Rev. Alexis Smith, a Church of God chaplain, the origin of Halloween is a source of fascination. While she believes it can be significant and meaningful to Wiccans and Latin American Catholics, she says the observation of Halloween isn’t compatible with her own personal beliefs as a Christian.
‘“I’ve worked in a lot of hospitals,’” she says. ‘“When there’s a death I do believe that ritual can help. That’s why we have funeral services. Funerals and death rituals are very important to people in having closure.
‘“I don’t want to seem to condemn people who have different views of what the holidays mean to me,’” she adds.
An amateur researcher, she says she accepted a challenge from a friend to find out the origins of Halloween. She relied on the research of a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who is a practicing Wiccan and British professors of Celtic spirituality and history for an essay she wrote called ‘“Halloween: Its Origins and Customs’” that is circulating on the internet.
Of the ancient Celtic holiday Samhain, she writes: ‘“As a feast of the dead, it was believed the dead could, if they wished, return to the living for this one night. As a feast of divination, this was the night to peer into the future. The Celtic view of time was cyclical. At this time, between the old and new year, the natural order of the universe dissolves into primordial chaos, preparatory to re-establishing itself in a new order.’”
She notes in her essay that Roman Catholics also celebrate a ‘“Day of the Dead,’” on Nov. 2.
‘“How did a Christian holiday get grafted onto such a pagan festival?’” she writes. ‘“Originally, the Romans observed their ‘day of the dead’ as the festival of Feralia. Participants made sacrifices in honor of the dead, offered up prayers for them, and made oblations to them’… When the church couldn’t get the people to give up the pagan celebrations, it accommodated the people.’”
So is Halloween, as practiced in 21st century America, a meaningful ritual, an evil seduction, or merely a cheap entertainment. Maybe all three; maybe none of the above.
‘“It reminds me of a Stephen King quote,’” Smith says. ‘“Horror is popular for the same reason that people chase ambulances: because we have a fascination with our own deaths.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org