Originally published in The Queer South anthology, ed. Douglas Ray (Sibling Rivalry Press)
Morningstar Baptist Church is about as far to the east as you can drive down highway 90 and still be in Tallahassee. I’m in the car with Nathan who is one of the most widely read people I know, not to mention a former Satanist and recovering speed addict. He quit that life when it became too chaotic, close friends started ending up in jail, and his former roommate decapitated her own fiancée with a samurai sword during a bender. I’m utterly fascinated by him.
These days, Nate’s merely an atheist, the occult nothing more than an academic affection. For me, it’s quite different. I want to bend reality. I want to channel spirits—but I’m busy reading a book a week for grad school at Florida State and trying to find a boyfriend, so I’m not exactly a diligent occultist. Perhaps if Nathan and I were lovers, it might be different. We almost hooked up the night he introduced me to LSD.
“Why this drug went out of style, I will never understand,” he said, placing the tiny gelatin squares in my mouth—but even at a higher dosage than I’d intended, sex with Nathan seemed like an initiation ritual for which I wasn’t remotely prepared.
Instead, I’ve developed a tail-wagging attachment to Nathan due to his knowledge and his collection of rare books and films. It’s not a one-sided relationship, but I’m a blithering neophyte and a bit selfish, and I know that there are days I like his library more than I like him. We bicker, we insult one another, and now that we’ve started an electro-punk band, we also argue about that. What keeps us together are our mutual obsessions with all the little disquieting things life has to offer: John Waters and David Cronenberg films, books written by the disturbed, fetishes no one else has heard of or wants to. This is what brings us to a church on a Saturday night, the chance to experience the particular brand of hysterical mysticism that only Southern Baptists can provide.
When a hell house popped up in Tallahassee, we were on it. Hell houses originated in Texas as church-sponsored, Christian versions of haunted houses. Some congregations plan from January through October to prepare for them. The original Hell House claims to have converted thousands of people and has featured such horrifying scenes as school shootings, hospitals in which young people die of botched abortions or AIDS (just the gays), and raves that lead to drug overdoses and gang rape. The rape victims, unable to face the “consequences of their actions,” commit suicide and of course end up in Hell.
The pinnacle of existential horror is, of course, Hell itself. Each church that hosts a Hell House tries to make its version of Hell so scary that it will compel visitors to bend their knees right there and give their lives to Jesus. This reaction is not at all rare. For more information and the vicarious experience, you could check out George Ratliff’s 2001 Hell House documentary.
Nathan had heard that Morningstar Baptist’s version, located in one of the more liberal counties in the Bible belt, paled in comparison to the Texas shitkicker version. In fact, they don’t even call it “Hell House,” but rather “Judgment House.” This tactic emphasizes the option of going to Heaven instead, not a bad rhetorical move at all, but it definitely takes away from the anticipation. From descriptions that our friends had given us, there would be no preaching against abortion or homosexuality and barely any violence. How disappointing. Instead of going to Baptist Hell, we’re going to Heck, a place that really, really sucks but where you might still find decent conversation, like Dante’s early circle where all the virtuous pagans who can’t go to Heaven can nonetheless avoid being set on fire and torn apart by chainsaws or whatever.
“Maybe they’re really a Satanic church, masquerading as Baptist? Lucifer is represented by the morning star,” I tell Nate as we pull into the parking lot, as though he didn’t know. “And the morning star is actually Venus. Maybe they’re a Roman sex cult.” We should be so lucky.
Nathan stretches out of the car, 6′ 2″, Palestinian background, and built like a bull, while I hop onto the grass all bright and bushy. In our short-lived band, Eros & Thanatos, I’ve conceptualized us as a fox spirit and a minotaur. Nathan’s friends calls us “Ego & the Sheik.”
I am not the Sheik.
John and Liam pull into the parking lot right after us. John is gay, but not metro-gay. He’s more of the type, Hi, my name is John and I design websites while listening to The Smiths. All. Day. Long.
John looks tired. Liam, on the other hand, practically sparkles, adorable in a way that only someone unaware of his own beauty can be, like a shaved satyr covered in dew. I figure he’s probably straight, but his quiet aloofness leaves just enough margin for speculation. He wears a nondescript navy blue hoodie on top of toast-colored hair. He greets Nate and me with the usual, “Hey.” I want to chew his jeans off like a goat. John comes bopping up next, zonked from another sleepless streak of web development and uppers but more excited than I’ve seen him in weeks. He and Nathan will soon be dating.
“Allison and Mike are on their way,” he informs us. “What name d’you want Saint Peter to call you?”
At some point in the performance, we will be called before Saint Peter. This is relatively standard practice for a hell house, right before you tour Hell and Heaven. Before we go in, we have to fill out little cards so that the actor playing Saint Peter knows what to call us, an interactive whoa! moment as chintzy as E.T. thanking you by name on the Universal Studios theme park ride.
Though it’s past Halloween, the heck house is staying open an extra weekend to save as many sinners as possible. It’s cold out and getting colder as Allison and Mike arrive. They are the classic nerdy straight couple: he’s short and slim with glasses and braces, and she’s a plump college radio dj with a Betty Page cut.
John decided that on this night, when Saint Peter calls him, his name will be “Tudor.” Allison is “Cosette,” and Mike is “Andre.” I’m hoping that Nathan won’t write his name down as “Oliver Clozoff” or worse. “Fisty Crisco” is not beyond him. He instead picks “Tzvetan.” I choose the name “Kevin,” lacking any inspiration. Liam is just “Liam.”
We wait in the pews until the guides come for us. The only other people in our party are another young straight couple, a deaf woman and her boyfriend, who signs the information for her. Before the guides take us into the scenario, they inform us that in each scene, the actors will change but the characters remain the same. The character of Kelly Parker will wear a pink shirt at all times. Her older brother Matthew Parker will be wearing a white t-shirt and camouflage hat. Their younger brother Peter will always be wearing a green shirt.
Peter Parker. Spiderman’s secret identity. I wonder if this script is intentionally geared toward kids.
A compound made up of portables and wooden walkways adjoins the church. Each portable contains a different scene, and the first few are pretty boring. The story focuses on family values rather than sensationalism (dang it all to Heck). It goes like this: Mr. and Mrs. Parker neglect their kids. Kelly, their only daughter, has recently been attending Bible study with friends and is ready to give her life to Jesus. Matthew, the oldest, thinks this is stupid. When the parents go out of town on business, Matthew throws a keg party at home. Kelly urges him not to, but Matthew won’t be deterred. Meanwhile, Peter has taken up smoking cigarettes.
We don’t converse amongst ourselves during the walk from scene to scene. There’s a certain reverence for the location, despite the fact that we’re only here to gawk. Our guides, dressed in sweaters and jeans, fill us in on what happens in between scenes. In Texas, the tour guides wear black cloaks and speak in ghoulish voices, but I keep reminding myself that we’re not in Texas and that I should probably be thankful for that.
As the teens get drunk, one of Peter’s cigarettes starts a fire in the house. This scene works incredibly well (we discover later that this production is staged from a starter kit available over the internet). The exterior of the house is realistic and the lights inside mimic flames convincingly. All three of the Parker children are injured to varying degrees. The teens fleeing the house were smeared with soot, which seems like a very Hollywood affectation. Perhaps all the drama is not lost.
Before the next scene, the guides inform us that we are about to enter Kelly’s hospital room. As we walk in from the cold, my stomach squirms. The actress playing Kelly has been made up to look severely burnt. The realism of the makeup is so effective that I have to look away at first. Those campy elements I had been looking forward to have been replaced by the charred face of a teenage girl. This isn’t what I was expecting. No buckets of blood in the abortion clinic, no abstinent teens dressed in glow-in-the-dark rave gear. I squat on the ground and focus on the parents and the nurse character.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Parker. We’ve done all we can for her,” says the nurse, without a trace of overacting.
The parents start to wail as the nurse pulls the sheet over Kelly’s raw face. At this point, I’ve had it. This is serious tragedy, and I do start getting teary. Nathan hears me sniffle and looks down indignantly. Allison rubs my shoulder.
“Why is this happening? First Matthew, now Kelly!” the parents bawl.
The nurse tells them, “You have to be strong now, for Peter.”
From behind a curtain, another nurse pushes a wheelchair into the room, in which sweet Peter is literally still steaming. Did they do that with clouds of talcum powder?
“Where’s Kelly? Where’s my sister?” He looks so much like one of Jerry’s Kids that the sheer maudlin absurdity dries my tears. I now have to pinch the bridge of my nose and chew my tongue to keep from bursting into inappropriate laughter. Now we’re cooking with Hellfire.
“I don’t want to die without giving my life to Jesus. I want to see Kelly again when I die, and I’m going to be a Christian, just like my sister!” the boy says.
Mercifully, we’re ushered off to the next scene.
Aluminum foil coats the far wall. In the center is a podium, behind which leans a man who looks like Colonel Sanders.
“I thought Baptists didn’t believe in saints,” I whisper to Nathan.
“Saint Peter’s an exception; you can’t pray to him. He just tells you if you go to Heaven or Hell. Someone has to be the bearer of bad news.”
Two characters named Peter, I think cattily. I should write scripts for hell houses.
On one end of the room, there is a portal draped with strips of silver mylar. It looks as though a drag queen will burst through at any moment and start lip-synching “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel.”
The opposite side bears a gaping black hole in the wall, outlined in jagged bricks. It’s either Hell or a leather bar.
“Let me see here.” Saint Peter peers down at a list. He even sounds like Colonel Sanders. “Kelly Parker, come stand and be judged.”
The actress runs up to the podium, barefoot. This Kelly is chunky, and it makes me happy to see that large people go to Heaven, too. I never really doubted this, but the whole sin-of-gluttony issue makes me wonder if fat people are considered sinful. Then again, this seemed to be a relatively progressive group of Baptists. Something to google later.
“Kelly Parker, you are a sinner! But you have given your life to Jesus. For this reason, you will be welcomed into the kingdom of Heaven!”
Saint Peter slams his gavel, and I notice that rather than finding a judge’s gavel or making one, Morningstar Baptist Church has provided their Saint Peter with—it can’t be, but just as sure as you’re born, it is—a crab mallet. That’s so Florida.
Kelly joyfully runs through the mylar gates.
“Now, what have we here? Matthew Parker!”
Apparently, no one in the afterlife wears shoes. This Matthew could be a teen model. The actor’s glossy black hair, tight white t-shirt, and Mediterranean face have me wondering if he’s eighteen yet. I keep checking Matthew out as Saint Peter lists the sins he has committed, but then I look to Liam and return to pining for him.
“Matthew Parker, you could have saved yourself by giving your life to Jesus, but you have been stubborn and rejected your Savior!”
Matthew protests that he didn’t know that the Bible was true, but of course ignorance is not a defense that stands up in this court. Two hooded figures emerge from the black hole in the wall and drag him off. I notice that the soles of his feet are very pink.
“Now, as I call your name, please step forward. Cosette. Andre. Tudor. Liam. Kevin…” I step up to join the group.
“….um…Taz-veton….” Nathan steps up behind me.
“Kathy, and Rick.” The deaf woman’s boyfriend nudges her and they join us.
“It is not your time yet. But when your time comes, will you walk through a door, or be dragged through it?”
I was raised to believe that there’s a God, some mysterious higher power watching over me, and that each person has to approach this one in his or her own way. My mother, a Jew, doesn’t believe in a devil, and I still can’t figure out what my recovering Methodist father believes. Though secular, they’re both very superstitious and I’ve inherited this trait. Here, at the staged crossroads of damnation and salvation, I did start to wonder if there’s an afterlife organized into punishments and rewards. What leads a person to Hell? Cruelty? Or a mere disbelief in Jesus? The Hell I imagine, one even a Buddhist could accept, is filled with nasty people who are too self-centered to surrender their souls to the afterlife. They aren’t in Hell because they shoplifted or had an abortion or sat in a church pew thinking about the subtly nuanced flavor of Liam’s left earlobe, they’re in Hell because that’s where your soul goes when you want to keep it all to yourself. It’s not about getting what you deserve, but rather a continuation of a life of selfishness.
In the next room, the lights go out. Good luck signing for Kathy now, Rick, I think. Wait, I take that back, that was uncalled-for. I’m already apologizing for catty thoughts. The threat of damnation is working.
I’m standing in the middle of a relatively equilateral triangle made of corners of Nathan, John, and Liam. We hear the click of a tape begin playing. There is howling wind, and the distant laughter of demons. Two voices become distinct, one of which, definitely in charge, is obviously Satan’s. The other voice is that of a grumpy, high-pitched gremlin. It sounds agonizingly familiar, and though it’s on the tip of my brain, I can’t recall who it reminds me of.
Now that it’s completely dark, I debate the pros and cons of just sticking my hand into Liam’s back pocket. Not that I’m bold or arrogant enough to actually do this, but I like to think about it.
He’s not going to hit me or anything. He’s a totally passive guy. I could always blame it on John or Nathan.
The demons are having a predictable conversation: “My dark Lord, your drugs and violence have saturated the world! There are more damned souls than ever!”
Maybe if I get Liam stoned enough, he’ll make out with me. If he makes out with me, it’s carte blanche from there. I wonder if Allison and Mike have weed.
“We lost Kelly Parker’s soul to Christ,” says the little demon.
“No! We were so close!”
“But wait, Evil One—we got her brother’s soul!”
At this point, a single orange floor lamp illuminates this scene’s Matthew and the requisite tissue-paper-flames-on-a-fan. The poor guy is writhing in Hell quite believably, and the light gives his profile a flattering glow. I remind myself not to cruise the damned, especially when they’re such likely jailbait.
“What am I doing here?” shouts this scene’s Matthew. “I thought that Hell was just a story! Where are my friends? This isn’t the way I thought it would be at all!”
Nathan leans in to whisper, “That’s good. They’re playing off that old adage that Hell must be full of the fun people.”
The lights go out again. Liam would never know it was me. I could sneak around by the deaf lady and come in from the opposite side. I bet his ass is really warm and soft.
Satan is back on the speakers.
“Excellent work, demon!”
“Mission accomplished!” says the gremlin, and that’s when I realize that the voice sounds like George W. Bush, and not in a this-is-my-nonfiction-story, I’m-going-to-lambast-the-former-President kind of way. The demon certainly, even intentionally, sounds like Bush. What were they thinking?
The door opens and we file back out into the autumn chill.
“Did the demon sound like George Bush to you?” I say to Nathan, under my breath.
“‘Mission accomplished?’ Totally. What an odd aesthetic choice.”
Having seen the torments of Hell, the only thing left to see is Heaven. I expect lots of cotton batting and cheesy white robes on cheesy white people.
The light is gold. Not yellow, but gold. The entire room, floor and ceiling, is lined with billowing white fabric blown by unseen fans.
“Oh my God, we’re in a Celine Dion video,” John says. We all stifle laughter, even Kathy when Rick signs to her. Try as I might, I am unable to describe in words the sign language for “Celine Dion.”
The room is huge, and I wonder what purpose it serves during the other eleven months of the year. Day care? Social hall? Snake storage for weekly handling?
We walk in at one corner of the room from which, no kidding, a yellow brick road proceeds. It runs half the length of the wall, makes a ninety-degree turn into the room, and continues about five feet up to an iron gate. Beyond it dance twelve of the blondest children I’ve ever seen, six to each side of the path. They are draped in white, slowly rotating with their arms spread. Occasionally they change this rotation up with what appears to be low-impact Jazzercise calisthenics, and they don’t look happy.
I want my angels to look happy. These angels look as though they’ve been slowly rotating like rotisserie chickens for two hours, and I whisper to Nate, “Child protective services would shit the bed over this.”
Past the children, there is Jesus.
He actually looks pretty close to what Jesus must have looked like: curly dark hair, gathered close to his head, but still a little puffy. Sort of a short Jew-fro, but not in an annoying hipster way.
Jesus of course has a beard, but not a Jesus beard. It’s neatly trimmed, very professional. He’s a regular door-to-door Jesus. And, my favorite part, he’s burly. Chunky, even. This immediately makes me comfortable. I want Jesus to be a chunky, gregarious, clean-cut guy, a thirty-three year old Santa Claus, and that’s exactly who this guy is. I’d hook up with this Bear Jesus, but more importantly, I’d take him home to meet my parents. This Jesus has a real job and knows how to cook.
Christ lines us up single-file in Heaven. Then, he does something that makes me question my snarky, arrogant, judgmental life. He hugs each of us. Not a hard-patting, begrudging hug with the pelvis withdrawn as far as it can get from the hugee, but a full-body hug of utter kindness and acceptance. He rests his hands on my shoulders, looks into my eyes, and says, “Welcome home.”
Marry me, Jesus.
As I regain my composure, we’re led out of Heaven into the cold, then back into the main chapel. I start thinking about what a friend once said about cocaine: that it’s like getting a hug from Jesus. I can’t imagine that anything’s as good as a hug from Jesus.
Later, in the car, I will tell Nathan that I think I might want to try going to the local Metropolitan Community Church, the gay one. He will roll his eyes. “Evan, you’re Jewish and you despise organized religion. Don’t get hoodwinked by some backwoods horseshit.”
He’s mostly right. I don’t want to go to some big lecture hall on my day off and listen to some woman with a sensible haircut preach about how God loves all of us unconditionally. I don’t want to tithe or sing in a choir or be able to argue the context of the story of Sodom. I don’t want to surround myself with a bunch of pious people who would rather read Chicken Soup for the Queer Soul than Naked Lunch. What I want at the moment is for someone to welcome me home and hug me like Jesus hugged me, unconditionally, forever, and I don’t know if that means I need Jesus or just a stable boyfriend who isn’t anorexic, alcoholic, meth-scrambled, incidentally straight, or the kind of person who sits around on Adderall designing websites for thirty six hours without blinking. But before any of that is decided, we still have to sit through one last-ditch effort on the part of the Morningstar Baptist Revue.
The final stop is a small room with four rows of chairs lined up. The chairs face a wall that bears a poorly painted mural of Noah’s Ark, post-Deluge, with a rainbow in the sky and two of each animal leaving the boat—giraffes, owls, zebras, and turtles, but only one chimpanzee. The pastor starts talking about salvation or something and all I can think about is hugging Bear Jesus and also this one chimpanzee, destined to roam the earth alone and defy evolution.
I’m brought back into the moment by Kathy, who begins cracking her knuckles. She has no idea how loud that is. I wonder how Deaf Jeff is doing, I think. My mind is wandering all over the place in the aftermath of Bear Jesus. I once slept with my deaf friend Jeff, and he was completely silent, even during orgasm. I had expected just the opposite. Soon I think about Bear Jesus again.
The pastor asks us if we would bow our heads as he prays for us. Not wanting to be disrespectful, I do so. He then asks who wants to be saved tonight, “because we have people right here, right now, ready to help you begin your journey to Jesus.”
But I just saw Jesus. He hugged me and everything.
“Well alright, maybe some of you believe that you’re already saved. Just remember, you can always come back to us.”
I’m hoping that Rick or Kathy or even Liam will run up and ask to be saved. Oh well, not Texas.
On the way out, a woman from the church asks me, “So what did you think?”
“Well, I thought you did a bang-up job. It was more about Heaven than Hell.”
I can’t resist adding one little barb. “I do have one small criticism. Why did Saint Peter have a crab mallet for a gavel? Doesn’t he deserve better?”
The woman gives me a beaming, bless-your-heart smile as my friends quicken their pace to get the fuck out. “What do you think he’ll be holding when you really see him?”
“Well ma’am,” I say, “I’m in no position to speculate about such things.”
I’m still not.