Halloween will be here in just a couple of weeks, which means it’s haunted house time. If you’ve been reading my column for a while, you know Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. My wife and I have a tradition of watching horror movies to prepare for the holiday and I’ve made Halloween soundtracks over the years to listen to throughout the month of October. I love picking out pumpkins with my wife and boys, drinking pumpkin-flavored beer and looking at the latest trends in costumes. And last year, both of our boys were finally old enough to start trick-or-treating. But there’s one tradition I don’t have anything to do with—going to haunted houses. And there’s a reason for that. It happened about 15 years ago.
For years, Tennessee Temple University, the Baptist college located in the Highland Park neighborhood, put on its own version of a haunted house during the month of October. Only this attraction featured no ghosts, chainsaw-wielding serial murders or zombies trying to eat your flesh. It was a production put on by Temple students chronicling the lives of two individuals and the choices they made when it came to getting saved. As you can imagine, one person’s story had a happy ending while the other person’s was not so happy. Actually, I remember the depiction being pretty twisted; clearly meant to scare any unsaved audience members into submission.
It was called Judgment Day.
Being Jewish, I, along with my two Catholic friends at the time, thought it would be hilarious to check out.
So we did. And we got much more than we bargained for.
When we arrived, the parking lot was crowded with teenagers and young adults meandering around, talking and laughing. It looked like the typical haunted house setup. The line was long and the wait time was at least 20 minutes. Student volunteers welcomed us with bright smiles as we were finally ushered in.
We sat on bleachers and as the play began, I started to think about my own religious beliefs. Though I was Jewish, I had stopped going to synagogue after I graduated from high school. I didn’t think much about organized religion and whatever connection I had once felt to a higher being faded over the years. I had become bitter toward all of it after several instances of attempted conversion, in sometimes not-so-nice ways, from gentile friends, classmates and even strangers. I had been told I was going to hell more times than I could count. To me, it all became a joke.
When the play was over, we were led to believe that was the end of the Judgment Day experience. Instead, the crowd was herded to a dimly-lit back room. In it was a circle of chairs. And behind each chair stood an ominous-looking person, arms crossed across the chest, waiting. We were ordered to sit down. And then, a man began testifying to the crowd about the dangers of not getting saved. He screamed, cried, and pleaded with us. He talked about how his father was now burning in hell for eternity for refusing to accept the spirit. We were all given the chance to repent for our sins, to give in to what the man just knew was the only way to salvation. But nobody spoke. Nobody moved. I clung to my chair, afraid to breathe. I had never seen this much intensity, this much anger, this much fear. It was the first time I had truly been afraid inside a haunted house.
But I wasn’t scared of going to hell. I was afraid of the tactics this guy was using to spread his religious beliefs. I was afraid of how far he might go one day to score one for the home team.
When the man finally gave up on his quest, we were shuffled out the door into the parking lot. My friends and I didn’t talk much on our way to the car. I was still shaking as we pulled out of the lot, heading home. I laughed it off but I never forgot how I felt that night.
Looking back on it now, I know the guy, and everyone involved in the Judgment Day haunted house, believed deeply that what they were doing was right. I get that. I don’t agree with it and the scare tactics they used, especially since they used Halloween—a night devoted to fear—as an excuse to do it. But I get it.
But it has caused me to do some soul searching when it comes to my own religious beliefs. As I grow older I want my boys to know about their Jewish heritage. I want them to know that it’s okay to believe whatever they want to believe and that, instead of chastising others for different beliefs and opinions, they should be tolerant, even embracing. We’re all different. And no amount of fear tactics is going to change that.
By the way, if you're looking for a few good haunted houses and attractions in the area, may I suggest these:
Halloween Costume Photo Challenge
I tried this last year with little success but I feel like we’ve bonded over this past year, dear readers. I feel like we’ve grown, we’ve learned, we’ve laughed and we’ve cried together. I’ve put myself out there for you. And now it’s time for you to return the favor. I want your favorite Halloween costume photos. Is there a costume you’re particularly fond of from Halloweens past? Want to relive those happy memories by sharing them with me and other Chattapop readers online? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post them in my Oct. 28th column.
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