Visitors are led around the grounds of an abandoned brick orphanage, where bodies spill out of the wreckage of a grisly car crash, a young woman is laid to rest and a lashed and bloody Jesus Christ hangs on a cross.
Outside, they are invited into white tents, where students like Steve Cashman, 21, explain the meaning of it all.
"Part of life is death," Cashman told a group of adults and teens sitting quietly on folding metal chairs last week. "It's an eternal death. It's hell. But the gift of God is life."
By tonight, 20,000 people from across the Eastern Seaboard will have made a pilgrimage here this month. Nearly all will have been scared senseless. And many say they will have been saved.
Put on by students at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, the show known as Scaremare is part haunted house and part sermon. In its 33rd year, it is also the more tempered ancestor of a growing Halloween-time tradition for evangelical Christian churches: elaborate performances — some graphically depicting the consequences of abortion and homosexuality, others death by terrorist attack or cancer — that aim to literally scare the hell out of non-believers.
This evangelistic tool has flourished in hundreds of Pentecostal and Baptist churches across the Bible Belt, but it has also sprung up in California, Michigan, Canada and even Japan. Here, in school buses and church vans, visitors have come for the past three weekends and waited up to six hours in line for a brief, terrifying tour and an even briefer message about salvation.
"We had two saved last year," said Sylvia Dickens, a youth minister from Sanford, N.C., who brought a group of teens for the second year. "It makes them think, if they die tonight, where will they go?"
Paul Guede, 17, a British exchange student living with Dickens, said Scaremare was worth the two-hour drive, four-hour wait and $7 admission. "It gets its point across. It tells you what hell is like."
Churches tout the shows as alternatives to Halloween, a holiday many denominations shun for its pagan roots. And thanks to the tutelage of two companies that market instructional manuals and trainings on how to stage the shows, many of the Christian-themed haunted houses share the slick lighting, special effects and huge budgets of a Hollywood horror flick.
Over the past decade, the most extreme fire-and-brimstone productions have sparked protests by abortion- and gay-rights groups and more liberal churches, which have denounced what they call an emphasis on intolerance and God's wrath. "Hell House," a Colorado pastor's version, has even inspired a satirical stage version in Hollywood this year.
"Education doesn't take its best root through fear and intimidation," said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA. "That's not only not the best way to teach the Gospel's lesson of love; it's incompatible with the Gospel's lesson of love."
A Sterling church abandoned its version in the 1990s after it was met with criticism. The Montclair Tabernacle Church of God in Dumfries has temporarily shelved its "Hallelujah House" while it builds a bigger church but promises the show will return in 2006.
Organizers of the houses contend that they are simply showing reality — which can be shocking, they say.
"There's no question that people need to fear what is their eternal destiny," said Steve Vandegriff, a professor of youth ministry at Liberty who directs the project. "So here's the objective truth about hell, and there is a very simple ... answer to not going there, and that would be faith in Christ."
Compared with some of its offshoots, Scaremare — a $50,000 production — is fairly light on the hell but heavy on the death. Some years, it features scenes of drug overdoses and teen suicide, Vandegriff said. It scrapped a school shooting scene a few years ago after receiving complaints, he said.
After his message last week, Cashman asked those who were accepting Christ for the first time to make eye contact with him. In the first two weekends of Scaremare 2004, about 10 percent of visitors made that commitment, Vandegriff said.
Other models heighten the eternal damnation rhetoric and report similar salvation rates. Across town from Scaremare, Heritage Baptist Church last month staged Judgement House, scripts marketed by a Florida company that show characters perishing and being judged by God.
Modern, increasingly graphic themes
With the permission of the company that sells Judgement House scripts, Heritage Baptist penned a play with an up-to-the-minute theme: homeland security. The church pitched it through billboards, television ads and radio spots, and drew 3,000 visitors.
The play told the story of a schoolteacher who shares her faith with her students just before being killed in a terrorist attack. Students who mocked her message descend to hell, where demons sit around a table and laugh about "how they've been effective at things like getting prayer out of the schools ... and terrorism attacks," said Allen Waldrep, the outreach missions pastor at the church.
Waldrep said the church heard no complaints about the theme, which, he said, "was something that people could relate to."
Perhaps the most extreme incarnation is Hell House, a morality play featuring a gay man dying of AIDS, a lesbian suicide, drunken driving and a botched abortion — and the reeking, fiery hell that is the consequence of such sins, said the Rev. Keenan Roberts, pastor of the Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God near Denver.
Since 1996, Roberts has sold 600 $299 Hell House how-to kits that include scripts, detailed suggestions on music, costumes and props — including how to select the best cut of meat to depict an aborted fetus — and tips for dealing with skeptical journalists.
Roberts, 39, said he spreads a message of God's love most of the year. But he said Hell House and other variations on the theme work — especially for teens raised on violent movies and video games. About 13,000 people have been converted at Hell Houses, he said.
"Graphic is relevant," he said. "You've got to do something that really gets their attention."
Against that backdrop, Scaremare is fairly tame. Vandegriff said some students have suggested an abortion scene, which he has vetoed. Even Falwell — never one to shy away from controversy — said he supports that decision.
"We don't try to push the envelope," Falwell said in a telephone interview. The Baptist television evangelist attends Scaremare each year.
Last weekend, Scaremare seemed to make its point well enough. Descending down a dark set of stairs, a group of adolescent girls gripped hands and chanted, "I like Jesus. I like Jesus. I like Jesus."
Outside, Femi Akerele of Columbia, a 17-year-old student at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., said he had already accepted God. But Scaremare, he said, "was inspirational."