Chattanooga's Oakwood Baptist Church offers alternative to haunted house

Chattanooga's Oakwood Baptist Church offers alternative to haunted house

October 31st, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Bethany Contarino dances the part of an angel at Oakwood Baptist Church's Judgment House on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

Grady Dishroon playing the part of Jesus looks on as angels mill about at Oakwood Baptist Church's judgement house on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

A hundred nervous actors, tour guides and security officers scatter throughout the labyrinth of hallways and Sunday school rooms at Oakwood Baptist Church.

In his office, music director Shane Mitchell, set to play a portly Satan in a black velvet cloak and glasses, puts the finishing touches on a set of blue horns on his forehead. Nearby, a mother touches up her son's demon hair.

The five teenage boys who take turns playing the lead character in the Judgment House production, a troubled youth named Russ who commits suicide and is sent to hell for never turning to Jesus, run through lines and laugh about how hard it is to swallow a mouthful of Tic Tacs.

When the crowd outside swells and it's time to start, they bow their heads to pray.

"We just want to be used," one man prays. "Regardless of whether the lines be perfect or smooth, it's whether the message gets out."

The Russes wait for a knock on the door, letting them know when to rush to their scene. A new group comes through every 15 minutes until 10 p.m., and this year they are booked solid.

By Halloween night each Russ will have died and gone to hell more than 30 times.

At least every other year, Oakwood Baptist runs a Judgment House as a faith-based alternative to the monster masks, fake blood and plastic vampire fangs resurrected every October. They get the script from a nonprofit called New Creation Evangelism, practice all month and pray for saved souls.

Depicting damnation and heaven at Halloween has gone out of vogue at a lot of churches. But Hannah Sheetz, a 20-year-old who guides groups through the drama, said it reaches people, especially those who are going to church but need a spiritual shakeup.

Every story is different, but the overall plot is usually something like this: One person rejects the message of Christianity, then somehow dies and is sentenced to hellfire and brimstone for eternity. Another person dies, too, but because he accepted Christ, he goes to a heaven with gold carpet and dancing angels.

This year, the church picked suicide and bullying as a theme because there has been so much about it in the news, said Pat McClendon, 55.

Zachary Owens and Pat Clarke act out a scene between a concerned grandmother and an emotionally troubled teen in front of an audience at Oakwood Baptist Church's judgement house on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

"We try to scare them out of hell," she said.

In the suicide scene, watchers see Seth Goggans, playing Russ, flail on a bed and scream after downing dozens of prescription pills -- actually Tic Tacs.

Then the wide-eyed families shuffle into the church's sanctuary for the judgment scene, where a demon in a black leather trenchcoat takes a screaming Russ to the underworld.

"One day you will stand in judgment," Jeff Atherton, playing God, says to the group, slamming down a gavel.

The audience walks through a hallway covered wall to wall with black sheets. The industrial-strength heater used to drive up the temperature in hell makes some of the kids sweat. Howling and thunder play on a tape in the background.

Everyone crams up along the edge of a metal fence as the Russ character, still played by Goggans, is pulled into the black room and taunted by Satan and his demons.

"Are you guys scared?" one boy says to his friends. "I'm scared."

Russ screams. Satan laughs.

"You are all alone, Russ," says Satan, grabbing at Russ. "You've never known torment, not until now. But now, Russ, it's all you'll ever know."

"Please!" Russ screams as he's dragged off. "Somebody! ... Stop it! ... Stop it! ... Somebody!"

Pastor of Worship and Creative Arts Shane Mitchell prepares himself for his role of the Devil at Oakwood Baptist Church's Judgement House on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

Satan comes up to the fence and looks straight at the audience. His voice comes out in a growl.

"Are you lonely? Do suffer from depression?"

No one speaks.

"Good!" Satan booms. "Then I have done my job very well. Get out of my domain."

Away from the heat, some of the boys shove each other and joke about the scene.

"I thought he was going to jump out and kill me," one says.

As the group is herded to the final scene, the tone changes. Older women put white sashes over their shoulders. Inside, heaven is scented with the smell of freshly baked cookies, and everyone wears white robes and smiles.

Jesus, played by youth pastor Grady Dishroon, greets each person in the group passing through the gates of splendor, touching their shoulders or their cheeks.

Some of the teenagers look terrified when Dishroon moves close enough that they can feel his breath and whispers in their ear that he loves them.