Hallowed Hell House


The year was 1989, and I was a jack-o’-lantern. Wearing the costume equivalent of footed pajamas and a hat with a stem and felt leaves, I gripped my dad’s hand as we walked down the carpeted hallways of our apartment building. I remember the weight of my plastic candy bucket as I held it outstretched toward Frankenstein’s monster, witches, and ghosts sporting penny loafers and house slippers. Later that night, I sorted through my sugary loot and decided that Halloween was my favorite day of the year.

The following year, I was a witch. I wore a cape and striped tights. I trick-or-treated with my dad, adjusting my pointy black hat and practicing my cackle before we knocked on each door. I sunk my teeth into spider-shaped cookies alongside my neighborhood friends while our parents chatted and the flicker of crudely carved jack-o’-lanterns cast shadows against the wall. I bobbed for apples with a princess and a Ghostbuster, unaware that this Halloween would be my last.

Something changed in the months that followed. My parents started going to church again. They rededicated their lives to Jesus and became followers of the Word of God. They weren’t merely “religious.” They became devout. We attended church every Sunday and spent Wednesday nights at prayer meetings. My Disney VHS tapes were replaced by *The Greatest Adventure* series. My dad started listening to gospel music instead of jazz, and my mom got rid of her Nefertiti necklace in order to adhere to the Second Commandment. They explained that all of this would bring us closer to God, that it would allow for us to guard our ears, our eyes, and our hearts from worldly distractions and sin. Their reignited passion for Jesus meant that I would attend Christian school. It also meant that Halloween was no longer a day of fun. It was unholy, pagan, a doorway to the occult.

> Their reignited passion for Jesus meant that I would attend Christian school. It also meant that Halloween was no longer a day of fun.

Soon after, I started kindergarten at a Fundamentalist Baptist school. I learned the pledge to the Christian flag and memorized Proverbs by writing them in cursive. As September eased into October, there was a division among my classmates: those who would spend the 31st as trick-or-treaters and those who would not. Before that I assumed all Christians had the same stance on Halloween — it was a blasphemous day. When I asked my parents about it, they reminded me that not everyone lives according to God’s will. “Their ways are not our ways,” my mom said before quoting Philippians 4:8. Despite what they told me, I still didn’t see any harm in carving pumpkins or going out to trick-or-treat.

The next day, my dad handed me two cartoon Tracts, “Boo” and “The Devil’s Night,” telling me in a warm but stern voice, “This is why.”

Both books recounted the history of Samhain, an ancient tradition described as “a night of terror,” filled with “human sacrifice” and “death demons” that could only be warded off by the light of jack-o’-lanterns. “Satan loves Halloween,” read “Boo” ” draws little kids into his camp.” I put down the comics and sighed. _My parents and teachers are right,_ I thought. Halloween was evil, which meant that I couldn’t love it anymore.

For the rest of elementary school, I spent Halloween at late-night worship services. I sang hymns and read Bible verses about righteousness and the importance of being set apart from “the world.” When friends offered to share their trick-or-treat candy with me, I declined, using the moment to share with them the true meaning of Halloween. I told them that their deeds glorified the devil and that their actions put them in league with him and his followers. Each year when the streets filled with trick-or-treaters, I silently bowed my head and prayed for their immortal souls. _Father forgive them, for they know not what they do._

> Each year when the streets filled with trick-or-treaters, I silently bowed my head and prayed for their immortal souls.

Despite my pious passion, my distaste for worldly distractions faded as junior high drew nigh. Being a proselytizing outsider since kindergarten had taken its toll on me. After years of Christian school, Bible study, and going to church from sunrise to sunset, I’d had enough. I was tired of being a square and tired of not being able to go to the same movies and listen to the same music as my non-Christian neighborhood friends. The looming threat and immortal danger of secular culture made it all the more fascinating to me and eventually, like the Old Testament’s Eve, I reached for the forbidden fruit.

By the time I was in eighth grade, I had developed a crush on a mall goth and fallen in love with “the darkness.” I hid copies of Stephen King novels behind my Bible during study hall, started watching _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_ , and drew hexagrams on my homework. I listened to _Antichrist Superstar_ instead of hymns. I became a backslider, and my parents noticed. They attempted to shake some sense into me. So that Halloween, I was dropped off at church to attend a hell house, the evangelical version of a haunted house, with my youth group.

> I became a backslider, and my parents noticed.

Squished beside my church friends, I pressed my forehead against the minivan’s backseat window as we drove through winding country roads toward a mega-church that our youth pastor, Stretch, enthusiastically swore had the best hell house in the state. Once we were inside the gymnasium-sized sanctuary, Stretch waved his arms to get our attention. “All right, kids,” he shouted. “Follow me!”

I fell in line with the rest of the group as he led us into a dark room. Then I heard the click of the door. Eerie music swelled as an angel appeared. She told us that she would be our guide, that we would witness the horror of a life without God. “Remember,” she told us, “the wages of sin is death.” She led us to a series of rooms where we watched a girl and her boyfriend drink beer, a group of kids play with a Ouija board on All Hallows Eve, and a group of jocks take hits from a communal bong. I rolled my eyes.

> “Remember,” she told us, “the wages of sin is death.”

Then our angel guided us toward the last scene of the play, her crooked wings tilting with each step. The final destination was a red-lit room. At each corner stood men wearing monster masks. They hissed as we passed them, their hands gripping plastic whips and Styrofoam chains. We were reunited with the pot-smoking jocks, the boozy lovebirds, and the Ouija-board-toting campers. Their faces were covered in soot, and their hands were shackled.

Nearly in unison, they bellowed, crying out for their parents, pleading for salvation. “Behold, the fruit of the flesh,” the angel stated, gesturing toward the shackled sinners. Soon after, the devil emerged. Painted red from head to hoof, he stalked through the room, laughing at his prisoners. “Welcome to Hell,” he shouted, walking closer to the audience. “Your God can’t save you now! It’s too late!”

As he inched near us, the girl beside me started to cry. Our angel kneeled beside her. “Remember,” she whispered, “we are called to be in the world but not of it. Resist the devil and he will flee.” She stood, the lights came on, and we were ushered out of the room into a parking lot filled with concession stands, youth pastors, and pamphlets on the dangers of drugs, sex, and Halloween.

I sat on the ground, eating funnel cake with my friends as Stretch devoured a hot dog. “So, did you guys learn anything?”

> “So, did you guys learn anything?”

During high school I became a full-blown doubting Thomas, and, as my mom would say, I hardened my heart toward God. I listened to death metal and hard-core, watched R-rated movies without guilt, and ate my meals without saying grace. At this point in my life, the divine love of Christ didn’t feel like it was powerful enough to soothe the sting of my teen angst. I got sick of turning the other cheek and following the golden rule. For years I’d put up with racist behavior from classmates and prejudiced judgment from my teachers. My faith had been a source of hope—but it had begun to leave me feeling hollow and cold. I hung up my halo, and Halloween became a catalyst. It wasn’t just an act of rebellion, it was self-preservation.

A decade later, I’m standing in line at a crowded Spirit Halloween Superstore. “The Monster Mash” plays in a loop from a crackling pair of speakers. I place a glow-in-the-dark plastic skull, a tube of black lipstick, and a bag of witch fingers on the counter. I smile at the cashier before asking if they have a student discount. They answer, no. After making my purchase, I head back to my apartment to help my roommate cover our walls in fake spiderwebs and orange string lights. We listen to _The Exorcist_ soundtrack on vinyl and discuss our plans for costumes. That weekend, I dress as a zombie one day and Wednesday Addams the next. I go to parties, eat candy, and drink beer out of plastic skull cups until the witching hour. On my way home from the subway, I spot a Tract on the ground. It’s printed on orange paper with a clip-art image of a witch on a broomstick hovering above its title, “The Truth About Halloween.” I pick it up, brush it off, and smile before cramming it into my bag between candy wrappers and a plastic hand.

* (1) is an assistant at Lenny.*

1) (https://twitter.com/diancalondon?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor)