Hell House II is open for a five-night stand in a bowling alley. Its mission is, quite literally, to scare the hell out of people.
This takes place in a jerry-built haunted house operated by the Christian Retreat Gospel Crusade.
Instead of witches and ghosts, this house features a host of other demons _ abortion, drugs, drink and the occasional human sacrifice. For contrast, it also throws in a syrupy version of heaven.
Reviews were mixed at the final dress rehearsal, Wednesday evening. Hell came off as happily as any demon could wish _ full of fun and chills and excitement.
Heaven, sad to say, was bland in comparison. Heaven, clearly, needs work.
Parishioners of Christian Retreat do the acting; their spiritual leaders pull the strings.
The Rev. Rob Sandefur is directing a seduction scene. "This is our safe sex girl and she looks pretty good now, but wait 'til you see her later." He points to a young woman standing with her back to the audience.
The "seducer," a callow teenager in a baseball cap, begins his spiel. "Come on . . . please . . . I love you . . . it won't hurt."
Oddly enough, this approach seems to work. The female turns slowly _ and suddenly is a creature from hell, with a twisted demon face. The boy shrinks from her.
Mockingly the demon repeats his spiel. "I love you . . . it won't hurt." He falls back on a bed. She bends over him, intent on some unspeakable, soul-destroying rite which, fortunately, the audience is not to see, as the scene blacks out.
Christian Retreat has rented a 2,000-square-foot chunk of Galaxy Lanes (behind the Manatee Civic Center) and partitioned it into a "haunted house."
There are a dozen scenes. It takes about 30 minutes to see them all. The show will run from 7:30 p.m. until midnight, through Monday; $5 adults; $3 students.
On dress rehearsal night, hell was a relaxed place. Angels socialized casually with demons.
"It's an honor to be an angel," said Sharilee Rudolph, who wore a white dress and a beatific smile. "Two years ago, at our first Hell House, I was a sacrificial victim."
Was it a rich, full experience? "Not rich, not full. I struggled. I screamed. After all, nobody wants to be sacrificed! Finally they held me down and stabbed me in the chest with a retractable knife."
Farther along the exhibit, Sharilee's husband, Earl Rudolph, robed and horribly masked, leaned over two cowering young females.
"I control you," he roared at them. "You wouldn't accept Jesus, so you went to hell. You belong to me!"
This went on for a while, then he stopped and a spectator (who also happens to be the wife of the reporter) asked: "Do you mean everybody who doesn't accept Jesus goes to hell?"
Still masked and in character, Rudolph shouted, "Yes, it's in the Bible."
"Do all Jews go to hell?" asked the woman.
There was a silence. Behind his mask perhaps Rudolph was realizing that even for demons, life isn't always a bowl of cherries. "The Bible says it," he repeated. The room grew silent and tense.
Suddenly the demon tipped his mask back, revealing a round, uneasy face. "I don't want to get in a doctrinal dispute," he said.
The woman walked away, saying she knew more about the Bible than he did, that she once won a Bible for memorizing the most Biblical verses of any kid in her Baptist Sunday school. The demon looked after her worriedly, then pulled his mask back over his face. By and by he could be heard roaring at sinners again.
Farther along, there was a boy sitting up in a coffin while someone applied white powder to his face.
"Hey, this is okay," said Cory Faneca, 13. "Coffins are comfortable."
A few partitions down they were getting ready for a scene in an abortion clinic. An adult, Laura Jones, stood at the foot of the bed wearing a nurse's uniform. "We're showing kids there's nothing glamorous about having an abortion," she said.
The patient, a lively young citizen named Marya Rascoe, said, "I'm 17, and a lot of my friends at school say, "I wish I was like you and still a virgin.'
The Rev. Sandefur gathered all the actors into one big room for a prayer that sounded like a football coach trying to inspire his team: "Lord Jesus, we just ask you to believe us this week and bring people in and touch their lives. . . . Lord, we just lift you up right now and we just pray to do your work. . . ."
What the message lacked in eloquence was made up in sincerity. Sandefur seldom smiles, has longish, blondish hair, and a face out of a medieval religious painting.
"We just pray to get in character to save souls," he concluded, "and when we leave here Monday we just pray we don't take any of this evil character with us."
His boss, Pastor Phil Derstine, is a more contemporary figure. "I like to go where the people are," he says. "We take our ministry to the race track, to the inner cities where the homeless are. Now on Halloween we're putting on a haunted house exhibition where the youth like to go."
Derstine's Hell House exhibitions (this is his second in three years) have taken a lot of criticism, mainly that scaring people into faith is not sound theology.
"It's hard to accept the criticism when I see the fruit," he says mildly. "And it's not just scare tactics. There is a message: that there is always hope of forgiveness and change."
Finally it was time for the first full run-through.
Leading the way, and acting as a sort of combination emcee and insult-all-customers doorman, was the Death Monitor. He was played by a tall masked man named Ken Arts.
Fittingly, the exhibit begins where so much human wickedness begins: in a bar room. Three people are sitting at a bar, presided over by Dianne Larson, a mature woman who really looks as if she might have tended bar. She is making drinks for customers and the Death Monitor leans over them, persuading them to drink faster.
Next we see a young couple arguing over drugs. A pusher comes with their fix. A money quarrel begins. Death Monitor whispers in their ears, suggests they shoot one another. Soon the young boy does just that, then falls grieving over his girlfriend, whom he has just killed. Death Monitor tells him to shoot himself. He does.
The scene is crude, the acting amateurish. Nevertheless the spectacle is as frightening as the good churchmen intend it to be.
Farther along, the boy in the coffin is less amusing, now that he is lying still and a woman playing his mother is leaning on the coffin crying over him.
The abortion scene is outrageous. It takes place in a clean, modern clinic, not in a back alley. The procedure has been performed, the girl is lying there, apparently sedated, and the Death Monitor sneaks in and begins choking her. The nurses don't see him. They don't understand. They think her procedure has gone fine.
The Death Monitor keeps choking the girl. She screams, threshes about. The nurses are useless. Finally the girl dies. Was it a botched procedure? Some sort of spiritual death? All the audience can tell is that she died horribly.
After a few more killings and screams and devilish chortles, the exhibition ends on an upward note. Way upward.
We walk into heaven.
Angels stroll about. Everything is clear and bright. Moses is there, Jesus, of course. Nobody seems to be doing much of anything.
Maybe that's why it's such an anti-climax after the excitement of hell. One visitor was reminded of a passage in the classic novel, Studs Lonigan, by James Farrell.
Studs, a small-time Chicago hoodlum, has been to church and heard a sermon about heaven. Studs had never given heaven a moment's real thought; he had simply taken it for granted he would like to go there some day.
Now he suddenly realized how much he would miss in paradise. No saloons, no brothels, no gambling dens, not even a pool hall. He realized heaven was no place for Studs Lonigan.
Will Hell House visitors have such an epiphany? Perhaps the Studs-like ones won't get the chance. For the Hell House Jesus is a judgmental Lord. He keeps a huge book on his lap, and looks up the records of all petitioners for entrance.
Pastor Phil Derstine approaches the throne. Jesus looks him up in the book, then slowly shakes his head, and two demons lead the pastor back to hell.
Is he demonstrating humility, or just filling in for another actor? Either way, the descent to hell lacks conviction.