'Hell House' finds new home on stage at Denver church

Scenes of sins and punishment will now be a sit-down show

Rocky Mountain News/September 15, 2003
By Jean Torkelson

It's back: After a year without a home, Hell House is planting its stake at Vision Fellowship Assemblies of God Church, 9191 N. Washington St.

Pastor Ray Smith announced Sunday to his flock that their church will host the controversial morality play - and crowds possibly in the thousands - during the last two weekends in October.

The church is in a former shopping center that lends itself better to a stage play, not a series of walk-through vignettes as Hell House had been since debuting in 1995, said the Rev. Keenan Roberts. He's the former youth pastor who launched Hell House at the Arvada church where he formerly worked.

Roberts leads a startup church, Destiny Fellowship, which had no room for a major production because it meets in a rented room at a school in Broomfield.

Roberts said that a Vision Fellowship auditorium meets codes for an audience of about 600 per show. In past years, an average of 800 people came through Hell House every night, about 6,000 people per season.

The plan is to hold several 45-minute sit-down performances each Thursday through Saturday.

"I'm really excited," said Roberts, 38. "This is our chance to reinvent the personality of this thing."

Seven years ago, in the sprawling hallways of Abundant Life Christian Center, Roberts launched a national phenomenon with the help of Limburger cheese, smoke machines and roaming demons.

Crowds paid $7 apiece to stroll through a series of harrowing scenes that depicted the message that people who indulge in behaviors such as premarital sex, abortion, drugs, drinking and suicide are headed for hell.

Protesters likewise headed for Hell House to decry the concept as judgmental and intolerant.

The conflict provoked widespread discussions about U.S. culture as Roberts defended his faith vision to reporters and appeared on national programs such as The Phil Donahue Show.

Roberts, who said he merely updated a concept popular in churches in the 1970s, also sold hundreds of $200 Hell House kits to churches and ministries across the country.

Coincidentally, Smith bought one of the kits for his former congregation in Salt Lake City. The two men already knew each other as fellow Assemblies of God youth pastors. Smith joined Vision Fellowship in June as its senior pastor. He cleared the idea with the church board before committing to the production.

Roberts said he wants to open with a bang by putting on the most popular and controversial scenes of past years.

"We're going with a lot of the biggies," he said. Those include scenes of a gay wedding, a mother talking to her aborted child, a drug-filled rave party, kids dying in a drunken-driving accident, suicide and domestic abuse, as well as the destinations of hell and heaven.

One special effect probably won't survive - the sulphur-like stench of Limburger cheese that filled the room depicting hell. A sit-down audience probably couldn't stand that touch, Roberts said, "unless we hand out everybody's personal strip of Limburger at the door."

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