• The 99: Public Service or Hell House?

    Cruising through Willmar Minnesota, I was intrigued when a huge tent magically popped up in a prime spot at the local mall’s parking lot. Quite mysterious. Even more mysterious? A huge poster of this little imp flapped in the breeze advertising the big event:

    The99Although we’re no where near Halloween, this looked like a classic (yet very large) haunted house. This whole thing made me puzzled.

    I didn’t give it a second thought until my dear sister called. “There’s really weird thing in Willmar. Sounds like it could be a Hell House. Wanna go?”

    Well, of course I did. However, I first had to do a bit of research.

    First up, from my own local newspaper. They have this to say about The 99:

    The 99, a live, walk-through reality theater production, aims to shock people into making choices that will diminish its namesake’s number.

    Cool. But why Willmar? This is a small, fairly calm community.

    Henshaw does not usually bring his production to towns as small as Willmar, instead preferring areas whose populations creep toward six digits, but the schedule had an opening, and, when the Kandi Mall offered free space, Henshaw agreed to come to a smaller place.

    “(The Kandi Mall) had the space to do it, and they invited us to come,” Henshaw said. “Being in Minnesota in July sounded like a great opportunity,” he added, laughing.

    The 99’s news release states that the production is “not based on fear and scare tactics, but rather is based solely on reality.”

    It’s no haunted house, but it is a haunting tent.

    The 99’s official website says its name comes from these stats:

    “THE 99” is a symbol based on statistics from the National Center for Disease Control.

    The breakdown is illustrated with this graphic:

    99 StatsI admit. I was intrigued. We left for the event with my wondering how sensitive issues like murder, suicide, and drug overdose could be adequately covered in a theater production.

    Would they have counselors on hand? Short lectures? A well-lit, non-judgemental environment where these issues could be examined in an intelligent manner?

    I began to have my doubts as I heard shrieks emanating from inside the tent. I heard lots of booming, too. Plus, someone seemed to be yelling into a microphone.

    We waited in line as my puzzlement mounted.

    My sister pointed out that the “security” people (they were clearly local volunteers) were scanning each entrant with a metal detector. We made our way forward, I spread eagled my arms and legs and got scanned. (Apparently my left buttock area was a bit suspicious. They still let me go in.)

    We waited a bit longer, then were finally granted entry to the mystery tent. The woman taking my money (three whole dollars) made me giggle when she told us to “go wait by the coffins.”

    Once we passed the coffins, we got to enjoy a video telling us to put away all recording devices and cameras. Dang. I was hoping to take a pic or two. However, being the law abiding gal I am, I tucked the trusty Kodak into my purse.

    Then another security person (they were everywhere) shepherded us to the next room where lights dimmed and a very tall spectre entered the room. He was our “spirit guide.” After swooshing mysteriously around in his cage, he exited and led us to the next room.

    This vignette appeared to take place in some sort of playground. Kids rushed in madder than a bunch of boiled owls. They fought dramatically, slamming into the sides of the tent. Then another set of lights ignited and someone who bore a striking resemblance to Al Bundy pulled out a gun and shot. A girl fell over. Boys dragged her out. A scary voice boomed over a loud speaker and lights out. Our spirit guide led us to our next station.

    The scene: very messy room. I told my sister I had an uncontrollable urge to grab my vacuum and have at it. She scowled at me.

    This area housed a wailing woman who was clearly about to give birth to a large pillow stuffed in her shirt. Another young man leaned over a coffee table, credit card in hand, continually rearranging a small mountain of white powder. A few people yelled, one guy “hit” pillow-woman. I’m not sure what the point was, but the booming voice yelled something over the loud speaker (I couldn’t understand a word he said) and we moved on.

    Next room: Car crash! Oh my. This room was bloody. Two very crashed cars dripped red goo as three (possibly four) actors acted dead. Kudos to the makeup staff. Those wounds looked mighty fine in those dim lights. Again, unintelligible booming voice wah-wah-wahed through the whole thing.

    About now, I was having dubious expectations as to how this little theatrical production would aid anyone in avoiding any of these scenarios. But I soldiered on.

    Next up? Suicide. We entered an adolescent bedroom (I could tell this because of the One Direction poster on the wall). A television flickered to life and a video suicide letter writer cried into the camera. It was actually quite sad. Then BOOM. We heard the shot, turned around and an actress sat slumped in a chair. Loud voice echoed, and we were ushered out.

    Here’s where things (in my opinion) wandered into iffy legal territory. The next room held two coffins. An actual Fox News report played on the screen telling the story of a specific woman who died in a car crash. I couldn’t help but wonder if the organizers of this event got permission from either parties to use their stories/footage. Hmmm…

    Next up: Black room. Two more coffins (that makes six total so far). Scary music. We stood for what felt like a long time before someone ran through our tiny crowd, whipped opened a coffin door and yanked its occupant screaming into the next room. This happened a few times. The coffins clearly had back doors. Either that or they were clown car coffins.

    As each coffin dweller was forcibly removed, they yelled “Don’t take me!~! Don’t take me!~!” Then we got spirited (ha, see what I did there?) to the next room.

    The hallway to that room was lined with animal cages filled with people grabbing our knees. Awkward.

    HumanThen we entered hell. A woman stood chained in the center of the room. She had terrible bed head. Cages lined the walls with people moaning, “Let me out. Let me out.” I turned to one of them and said, “Kinda warm in here, eh?” She replied, “Yeah.”

    I couldn’t hear everything the booming voice said (it was supremely noisy in there), but I recall him telling us to follow some light. My group stood stock still until the security person (we lost our spirit guide somewhere along the way) ushered us to the next room.

    It was bare except for a bloody cross on the floor. Then footage from The Passion of the Christ popped up on a television. Again, I wondered if they had permission to use it, but oh well. I was a little surprised at this religious development, but was even more surprised when a bloody Jesus actor came out, picked up the cross, and proceeded to the next room. His Roman escorts weren’t very friendly.

    Next up? Golgotha. We entered this room and our Jesus was on the cross, back to us. The booming voice was intoning some preachy thing that blended into all the other booming voices bouncing around the tent. We got to see more gory footage from The Passion of the Christ. Half way through the speech, the cross pivoted and Jesus faced us, writhing in pain.

    Booming voice spoke some more and we got ushered into a room filled with chairs. A well-dressed, immaculately groomed blond man waited for us. Just before we left Golgotha, I eyed the usher. He held a fob. “Hey,” I said, “You turned the cross?” “Yup,” he said, grinning, “It’s the funnest job.”

    Next room: The prayer. We watched a weird video about a train dude, his son, and and a bunch of train passengers who were evidently awful. Train dude had to kill his son or allow all the awful people to die. He let the train people live, killing his son. He was sad, then was happy when one of the awful people turned into a mom. I may have missed something.

    With everyone’s heads bowed and eyes closed, the preacher prayed the sinner’s prayer and invited everyone to… I couldn’t hear the rest. This place was noisy.

    We exited the room and entered a HUGE area filled with row after row of little tables filled with pamphlets, tiny bibles, cool teen bibles, and whatnot. Each little table had a “counselor” available to chat. Everyone who left the room sat down… except me. I was done.

    As I waited for my party, I wondered how this big event helped anyone. Clearly most of the people there already claimed Christianity. How this event helped reduce suicide, auto accidents, and being murdered was rather murky. I didn’t see any suicide hotline phone numbers. I didn’t see any support group info. No educational opportunities.

    I heard lots of church invitations… perhaps they figured that’s helpful? I don’t know.

    In retrospect, The 99 advertises itself as a public service. I’d be more inclined to call it a Hell House. I probably wouldn’t give this event a second thought if it weren’t for the misleading way in which it’s advertised.

    And I’m not the only one.

    Category: In the NewsInterestingSkepticism


    Article by: Beth Erickson

    I'm Beth Ann Erickson, a freelance writer, publisher, and skeptic. I live in Central Minnesota with my husband, son, and two rescue pups. Life is flippin' good. :)