BURLINGTON -- Haunted houses might scare the kids at Halloween, but it generally takes more than a few ghosts and goblins to get grown-ups shaking in their boots. Some fundamentalist Christian churches have developed a winning freak-out formula, though -- each year at Halloween, some congregations sponsor "Hell Houses" with the hope of winning a few converts. They might feature gay men dying of AIDS, graphic scenes of botched abortions, and rave-goers being raped and dragged off to see Satan.
Filmmaker George Ratliff filmed a Hell House at the Trinity Assembly of God outside of Dallas, Texas, for his 2001 documentary on the fundamentalist phenomenon. He estimates that about one in five of the 13,000 visitors to the Hell House "converted" after the tour.
Laurie Essig, a spokeswoman for Burlington's Queer Liberation Army, says she and her comrades looked for a local Hell House, so they could attend and protest it. "We couldn't find any in Vermont," she says. "I think it's a Southern thing."
So Essig and her 60-member army, who take themselves far less seriously, decided to hold their own mock-Hell House instead. The goal? To scare straight people gay.
The whimsical gathering got underway shortly after 8 p.m. on Sunday night at 135 Pearl. Visitors flashed IDs and paid $10 to Kelly Arbor, who stood in the vestibule at the foot of the stairs. He was dressed as a "cheap Catholic Gypsy," and wore a bright red wig. A purple sequined cape covered his bare, hairy chest. The bearded doorman described his identity as "genderqueer." Once a female, and now legally male, he recently had his breasts removed and was happy to show off the scars. A neon rosary dangled from his neck.
Arbor was responsible for the immediate decor, which consisted of a bundle of dried cornstalks and pages ripped from the Old Testament of the Bible, stapled to the walls. He insisted it wasn't meant to be offensive, just vaguely Catholic, but added he doesn't mind being offensive.
At the top of the stairs, another QLA member staffed the organization's merch table. They were selling cookies, brownies and note cards bearing photos from past QLA actions. Some showed members posing on Church Street during a bake sale; others depicted the group's "queerleaders" protesting outside the Burlington Post Office on tax day.
The main attraction was a small, curtained stage set up in a corner of the upstairs bar. Lily Sender and David Honeman, both 22-year-old UVM grads, stood guard. The shorthaired Sender was dressed as a no-nonsense cop; Honeman wore a feather boa and a white negligee, his pink fishnet stockings held up by garters.
Every few minutes, Sender and Honeman announced, "And now, to scare you gay . . ." They'd then pull back the curtains to reveal someone dressed in a George W. Bush mask, an enormous plastic schlong sticking out of his fly. He was simulating sex acts with someone in a gray wig, who was apparently supposed to be Laura Bush. "We couldn't find a Laura Bush wig," Sender confided between sets. "So we had to go with the Cinderella."
The frightful Hell House finale was a burlesque show that began at 10, and featured scantily clad performers undressing on stage.
There didn't look to be many straight folks in the crowd, so it was hard to tell if the conversion was working. One gray-haired straight man, visiting from London, had come to see a relative perform in the burlesque. He sat at the bar, watching the presidential follies, a bemused expression on his face. Had he been scared gay? "Not yet, no," he said. "But with another 'Sex on the Beach,' I might be."