On Saturday, October 29, Dr. Gunderson's "Development of Hell" class visited a Hell House (a Christian-themed haunted house) to think about constructions of religious horror. Over the course of the semester, students have been exploring the idea of “hell” through Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources.
Read about students' experiences below!
Through our "Development of Hell" course, we were able to experience a “hell house” firsthand. Before going in, all that I had heard about it was that it could be described as the usual haunted house affair followed up with a short theological message. With a new lens, the experience became a fascinating conversation on the intertwined relationship of religion and social fear/relief. We were able to see how modern conceptions of the afterlife have evolved from familiar fire-and-brimstone depictions as religious institutions have adapted from them in response to a changing cultural landscape and moral sensitivities. The social dynamics of proper conduct and belief in God remained a heavy subtext within the event’s greater message concerning how religion should view its relationship with society, all in engaging with the allure of a good Halloween fright.
Visiting the "hell house" with other students was an entertaining way to think more deeply about hell and the way that people perceive it in our modern culture. The experience itself was what I expected a haunted house to be, but there were some historical subtleties that I picked up on because of what we were learning about in class. People have written, painted, and otherwise depicted "hell" for thousands of years, so it is fascinating to see a more modern depiction of this sort of horror. The most interesting thing to me is the way that horror is developed. In class we discussed the different ways that hell depictions have horror in them to access a different type of fear in people. The fear is visceral rather than intellectual, which alters its impact. When hell is depicted, it is meant to incite fear because that gives people a reason to want to escape, but in the hell house you wanted to escape physically, not just because of an intellectual fear. This experience has helped me to think differently about hell and the motivations that those who have depicted it historically may have had.
– Hope Berns
The "hell house" was a horrifying experience that focused on instilling the understanding that death is inevitable and can happen to anyone at any time. The separation of this event from the holiday of Halloween was evident at the end of the experience when the members of the church that created it took the time to show us a video on how belief in God can lead to a good afterlife. The nightmarish visions throughout the trail created an atmosphere of fear and death with the ending and introduction to Jesus offering a glimmer of hope for a better future and afterlife. Combined with the welcome message at the beginning of the experience that emphasized the inevitability of death, the message we received when finishing it highlighted the community’s understanding of hell and how they do not fear death because they know they will be taken care of. This interpretation of the afterlife is one that we have talked about in class and is based on texts like Luke 16's story of Lazarus and the Rich Man––a text that the hell house's website specifically appeals to as their influence for the event. Like Jesus used terrifying imagery in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man to teach about ethical behavior, so too does this event use horror to teach. Luke's depiction of death and the afterlife is less apocalyptic than in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and represents not an emphasis on the future coming of God's kingdom, but on what Bart Ehrman calls "vertical dualism"––an emphasis on God's kingdom above. The message at the end of the hell house imparted this same emphasis.
– Meg Merillat
November 11, 2022