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Visiting heaven, hell for Halloween in Lincoln County

In one giant room of the gymnasium, walled off with black tarpaulins and decorated by a candle-fire pentagram glowing through artificial fog, Canadian National Railway foreman Kevin Tarver rules as Satan, stomping around in a black hood and commanding scurrying demons to throw sinners into the lake of fire.

Across the way, in a soft white room hung with glittering tulle and lighted by strands of white Christmas lights, J. Allan’s owner Christopher Robinson is the messiah, attended by nice ladies in white choir robes and nearly a dozen elementary-aged angels with bent wings and silver tinsel halos.

Somewhere in the middle, the Prince of Peace and the Prince of Pandemonium take a break together over a folding table full of potato chips and chocolate cookies. A knock on the door means show time — they run back to heaven and hell and get back into character, ready to perform their light and dark roles for another group of guided visitors to the judgment house at Clear Branch Baptist Church.

“We have to show these folks that hell is real, that it’s not fake and if they wait on tomorrow to be saved by Jesus, tomorrow might never come,” Tarver said. Then, he stretched on a scary mask and disappeared into the plastic afterlife — the bad one.

Judgment house, the Baptist way of celebrating Halloween, is under way at Clear Branch, with four performances this week: Wednesday at 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m. and again Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. A love offering of $3 per person is suggested, but no one who wants to see the story of sin, judgment and redemption will be turned away.

The walk-through drama, called “Web of Lies,” tells the story of a tormented cyber-stalker and his victims. Visitors, divided into groups of 20, follow the action across nine live scenes acted out by approximately 50 volunteers, seeing every milestone as the main characters meet tragedy, stand before the judgment of God and face the hot horrors of hell and the cool welcome of heaven.    

The story drives home the Christian message of salvation with a hard look at parenting and the dangers youth face in the internet age.

“This year, in dealing with social media as a theme, we want to open the eyes of our kids, and the eyes of our parents to the dangers out there,” said Pastor Wayne Moak.

Anywhere from 80 to 100 church members volunteered for the production, which requires not only actors, but set-builders, tour guides, hosts, directors, all manner of helpers and — most importantly — people to speak with visitors at the end of the tour and pray with any troubled hearts.

Those volunteers range in age from elementary-age school children dressed as angels to teenagers in devil costumes to old men in orange prison suits or gold-sashed saint’s robes.

“It’s really amazing how people come together,” said judgment house co-director Leah McGehee. “You can have 300 people on Sunday morning, but to have 100 members acting every 15 minutes for six nights, not to mention a month of practice, that’s pretty dedicated.”

This year marks Clear Branch’s fourth judgment house, which is expected to attract more than 2,000 visitors over the course of its two-week run. After the end of the first night on Saturday, there were four professions of faith, said co-director Kacey Falvey.

“We were ecstatic,” she said. “If we’d had only one salvation come from this, all the sweat and late nights would have been worth it. We’ve already had four.”

Judgment house’s spiritual effectiveness was obvious to Randy Cothren as he walked through with the 5 p.m. group Sunday night.

“This is a great way to reach people,” said Cothren, a Sunday-school teacher from Ruth. “A lot of times, people won’t come to church. But they’ll come to judgment house.”

Even the home team was affected. Vicki Newman’s granddaughter, 11-year-old Braelynn Byrd of Loyd Star, appears as one of the main characters in the pivotal death scene, where bad decisions lead to gunshots, police sirens and a visit from the coroner.

“They covered my grandbaby up with a sheet,” Newman said, crying. “I just wanted to reach out there and snatch it off her.”