Instead of a traditional Halloween haunted house filled with fog and ghoulish scenes, an outreach ministry in East Baltimore is offering stark glimpses into real-life issues, messages of hope and firm promises of help. The images portrayed at Reality House can be as haunting as any in a tale of horror, mostly because they are based on actual situations.
Within a 46-foot-long tent pitched behind the Patterson Park Library, visitors can check out scenes that depict social ills like drug addiction, suicide and teen pregnancy. The portrayals shed light on the consequences of poor decision making, according to Teen Challenge of Baltimore, a faith-based ministry that organized the program.
"This is about reality, which really can be scarier than any horror movie," said Kenny Rogers, outreach coordinator of Teen Challenge. "This is the stuff kids live with in a society that is really scary for them. It doesn't go away, like when you walk out of the movie."
The first scene is a seance, where participants look into a bleak future marked by substance abuse. The second shows a teen mother juggling an infant and textbooks. A third features teens smoking marijuana, and the last depicts a row of graves, each marked with the deceased's cause of death.
"The idea is to show that risky activities can land you in a grave," said Bill Parks, ministry director. "It all ends on a positive note."
After about a 20-minute walk through the scenes, visitors exit the tent to see three crosses — emblems of Calvary — and to hear brief words from Scripture.
During a dress rehearsal Thursday, several neighborhood children approached the costumed actors, asking if they were real.
"You will find out Saturday," said Parks.
Belainta Crawford, 7, tugged on Christ's beard and tried on a demon's frightful mask before he matter-of-factly assured his 5-year-old sister, "He's God and he's the devil."
Sinia Crawford was more interested in the centurions' swords and shields. Martina Artis, their mother, said the program looked intriguing and promised to bring the children back this weekend.
Teen Challenge, which operates in about 1,100 locations worldwide, is a bit of a misnomer. It ministers to and counsels all ages, from a former church building on North Potomac Street. Its residential recovery program is open to men. A women's program is being planned.
The ministry focuses much of its energy on youth, with several after-school and summer programs. Reality House participants can all expect a sweet treat and those children whose parents leave an address will each receive a Christmas gift in December.
"If we can help these children before they are teenagers, we can change lives," Parks said.
Several of the actors, many of them young adults, have gone through the ministry's 14-month recovery program and are keenly aware in the ills they portray in Reality House, Parks said.
"Who knows better than these guys what happens with drug addiction and alcoholism?" he said. "Our goal is to help these kids early on, so they make better decisions."
Reality House opens at 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting, at 158 N. Linwood Ave. There is no charge for admission.