Haunted houses of the holy

After four years of living in a conservative community, I still can't get used to the idea that Halloween and Christianity may not mix. The church in which I grew up thought nothing of letting us kids run around the grounds in full pitchforked regalia on the Sunday before Oct. 31. As suburban-liberal Presbyterians, we probably would have welcomed Anton LeVey as a member had he tithed regularly and not worn the same cape to worship services two weeks in a row.

The parishioners of the First Baptist Church of Oviedo haven't banned Halloween outright, but they've certainly put their own spin on it. Now in its second year, their Judgment House has revamped the concept of the basement spook house into a smoothly run, didactic fantasia of sin and retribution that's deigned to scare the bejeesus into its patrons, not out of them.

Personally I need an "alternative" to the traditional haunted house about as much as I need a can of Sela Ward Repellant. But the town of Oviedo seems to disagree: The church parking lot was full of cars for Saturday night's performances, signaling a brisk business that had taken some 1,400 customers down the highway to hell over the previous two nights alone. "From this point, your wait time is approximately 30 minutes," a sign inside the door announced.

Any resemblance to Skull Kingdom ended there. "Judgment House" was a journey through the trials of a morally challenged high-school basketball team and their kindly Coach Wyatt, who helped them get right with God just in time for a catastrophic tornado to claim most of their lives. In the storm's aftermath, the athletes who had turned to Jesus were granted a one-way trip to heaven, while the spiritual holdouts found themselves hopelessly consigned to that Other Place.

Suspension of beliefs

All nine scenes appeared to take place in a scripture-happy never-neverland, one in which Coach Wyatt was allowed to push his religious beliefs on his adolescent charges without drawing anyone's wrath for tap-dancing all over the line between church and state. A funeral director likewise put the Baptist touch on a pair of grieving parents and was rewarded with two freshly saved souls, rather than the belt in the mouth he'd likely incur in the real world.

For all the production's incongruities, its technical aspects were pretty damn good. (Forgive me, Lord.) A guide shunted our group of 20 gawkers from one setup to the next, delaying us just long enough for the actors to pull off lightning-quick costume changes. Another tour party came through every five minutes, forcing new casts to take over the vacated spaces without missing a beat. There are professional theatrical companies in this town that couldn't maintain such a pace; then again, they aren't facing perdition's flames if they screw up.

Some of the sets were truly breathtaking, including an ethereal limbo where the muted black light and eerie altar were pure David Lynch. The "Hell" scenario, though, was disappointing: Warned that the environment might be too intense for the younger set, it was merely a pitch-dark, overheated room in which candles burned while taped voices cried out in torment. I guess the First Baptist folks didn't want to misapply their art directors' talents by making damnation look too cool.

Disaster and servant

The pièce de résistance was a post-tornado tableau that turned the area outside the church into a Boschian collage of crashed cars, bloodied victims and even a burning bus. It worked too well: Listening to the disturbingly realistic cries of the injured, I was ready to sign on with any denomination -- Baptist, Scientologist, Jew for Jesus -- that would get me the heck out of there. If I had lost a loved one in either of the recent hurricanes, however, I might have contemplated a different course of action ... like calling my lawyer about an emotional-distress suit.

After the show, Minister of Evangelism Herb Long shrank from the suggestion of opportunism. The weather theme had been devised a year ago, he said, making any similarity to Florida's upheavals a coincidence. And conscience had caused the creative team to abandon its previous plans based on a school shooting. "We're opting to go with disasters we have no control over," he explained. In my insurance policy, they're called "acts of God."

The scare tactics seemed to have the desired effect, with at least six of the folks in our party declaring their desire to be born again when an actor in the final scene invited us to do so. Still, I found it easier to subscribe to the theology espoused by another member of our group -- a teen-age girl who had busted out laughing when she saw one of her friends simulating drunken carousing in a cautionary "pregame party" scene.

"I am going to make fun of her forever," the little heathen chortled.

As the Baptists say, it's never too early to make plans for eternity.

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