TL;DR version – “The 99” is basically a Hell House that happens in Not October. There’s nothing on their website, anywhere, about it being a religious thing. They convince tweens and teens to come and then scare and shame them into Jesus.
My friend Carly and I were the tamest college students imaginable. In the course of our college careers we never drank, never tried any kind of drug, didn’t party, and liked to do things like run children’s book clubs at the local library, talk about church, and watch old episodes of Little House on the Prairie. After we graduated in 2010 she began her teaching career in Connecticut and I started seminary a couple years later in Boston. We see each other somewhat regularly and get overly excited about things like book fairs and laugh about church politics – she’s a life-long member of a United Church of Christ congregation and I’m in school to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.
When Carly texted me to ask if I wanted to hang out on Friday I said sure, and later as we were talking about what we wanted to do she asked if I could take the commuter rail out to Providence so we could to go “this thing about the common causes of death for young adults.” I figured it was just another weird thing Carly had discovered somewhere on the internet. Usually our rule with what we attend is that it either has to be good or it has to be so absurdly bad that it’s good.
We showed up to the Swansea Mall parking lot, I saw the tent, and I immediately said “Carly, this looks like a ‘Come to Jesus’ thing. While she ran into the mall to find a bathroom I tried running a few searches using my phone but wasn’t seeing anything about it being overtly religious. Searching was complicated by the fact that this production is called “The 99” and entering that phrase, in any way, into search engines brings up a lot of stuff about the occupy movement.
The other thing to know here is that I’m transgender; I was born female but now identify as male. I “pass,” meaning people see me as male, about half the time but I look very, very young. I was raised in an evangelical church and was kicked out or left (depending on who you ask) when I came out as gay years ago. Though I’m clearly fine with religion at this point and have no vendetta against Christianity I’m definitely not a fan of the brow-beating Evangelical Christianity that tries to do things like scare tweens into accepting Jesus.
We stood in line for this event, held in a giant tent, as they slowly let in groups of about twenty people. As soon as we got to the people with handheld metal detectors and started separating us into lines of men and women I got worried. I was directed to the male line, so I went, got wanded and waited for Carly. We approached a table where we had to sign a “release” which was actually a way to get out contact information. I put down my name, a fake email address, left the phone number part blank, checked adult, and got reprimanded by the woman at the table for not filling it out “correctly.”
We waited some more, and were finally allowed inside the tent. We paid our $3 admission price and were showing to a roped off area with a TV that told us the rules after showing a few PSAs about not doing meth or texting while driving. It was one of those faux-edgy productions – lots of messy handwriting, jump cuts, and a supposedly creepy voice reading them out loud. No video, no cameras, no loud conversations, no touching the actors “even if they touch you” and if you are disruptive you will be removed and required to wait for your party at the end.
The entire event is set up in a giant tent with “rooms” that you get in via people in safety vests lifting flaps of tent tarps. The first “room” has an empty chain-link cage in the middle. The lights go completely dark and when they come back on a grim-reaper like person has appeared in the cage. The grim-reaper is your “guide” and shows you through each of the rooms. Carly says she heard the guide referred to as a spiritual guide at some point but I didn’t catch that.
The 99 purports to show the 5 most common causes of death for teens and young adults. According to them these are; gang violence, drunk driving, drug overdose, suicide, and texting while driving. There were not statistics or cited studies anywhere so, sure, let’s go with that for the premise of this whole thing. It was emphasized over and over that these were bad choices, you had a choice, everything is a choice.
Our spiritual guide first showed us into the gang violence room. Two kids, a boy and a girl, are beaten up by four other teens. The acting was hilariously bad with phrases like “oh man that was so cool!” and “we really beat them up!” and lots of high fiving and fist bumping. Then a backlight comes on, highlighting a car behind a mesh screen and one of the “gang member” girls is shot and killed. Her friends unceremoniously pick up her body and walk out with it. As our guide leads us into the next room we walk past her lifeless body dumped on a fake park bench.
Our next room is a car crash. One girl is covered in blood and splayed on the hood of the car, the girl in the driver’s seat is gasping and sobbing and crying and covered in blood. There’s another lifeless body in the back seat. The other car has a man and a woman, also both seriously injured, and an audio track of a baby screaming starts up. I still have no idea if this was supposed to be drunk driving or not wearing seatbelts or just car wrecks in general.
Next up was a crack den. We were given chairs to sit in for this long and memorable scene in which Nothing Happens. A pregnant woman sits on a bed in the corner sobbing for “Steven.” There’s a filthy toilet bowl off at one side and people sit around pretending to do every form of drug you have ever heard of. There’s a bong being passed around, somebody cutting up what looks like a cup of crack cocaine on the table (seriously, it was a giant pile), someone making meth in a corner, a guy in an arm chair with a needle in his arm. This man was apparently injecting into a giant open wound. One of the women on the couch beats her daughter with a stick of some kind, and at one point “Steven” lumbers over and slaps the pregnant woman.
We walked from there into a teenagers bedroom where we were told to look up at a television screen. A jumpy, scratchy suicide note-video comes on that starts “mom, dad? By the time you watch this I’ll already be dead.” While dramatically pulling her hair she talks about how she was never the perfect daughter and was tired of being unhappy and how everyone would be happy now that she was dead. The screen goes black, a light comes on in the corner behind us, and there’s the girl laying there, dead from what appeared to be a chestburster alien but was, we were informed, a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest.
Next room! Two coffins and a large projected video that was a replay of three news stories. An 11 year old girl who hanged herself because of bullying, a college student who died in a car accident because her brother was driving drunk, and a group of people who started an anti-texting while driving campaign because a boy had died when a girl was distracted while texting.
Then things got really weird. We were led into what we dubbed pre-hell. A comparatively older woman, in her forties or so when most of the actors had been teens, was chained to a wall and wailing. She was then taken by a demon away as she struggled. Carly and I both later confirmed we’d had the same thought, that this was sex trafficking or something, but it was just showing people who made bad choices being led to hell.
And then WE, too, entered hell. A man dressed as “the devil” walked back and forth and badly lip-synced to us about how hell was a real place and he was the devil. We’d seen people making bad choices and now all those people were in hell. While this is going on caged people dressed, basically, as zombies are wailing and reaching out toward us asking us to take them out. And then a beam of light comes through and the devil screams “no, they’re mine, don’t take them!” and other such things.
The next scene takes place on mount Golgotha. I remember this mostly for the line “COME ON JESUS, MOVE!” as he’s led out, lugging his cross, covered in hilariously fake wounds. Next room is the crucifixion. There are three crosses – two of them have televisions mounted on the crosses and the third, tallest, has a ridiculously gory Jesus on it, facing away from us. The televisions come to life, showing scenes from a passion movie of Jesus being beaten, and then the middle cross begins to rotate so we see Jesus full on, heaving and bloody and wearing a pair of ripped up LL Bean shorts.
We’re led into a final room with a TV screen where we watch “The Bridge.” This is a dramatic depiction of the quandary that I thought was used to diagnose psychopaths. A man who apparently has the job of flipping a lever to move a train track so a train doesn’t derail realizes his child is playing on the mechanism. If he flips the lever his son will be crushed to death. If he doesn’t the whole train load of people will die. He flips the lever.
This version was further complicated because an attractive, perky young woman is on that train and about to shoot up the heroin she’s heating up on a spoon in the main cabin. As the train goes past the distraught man she catches sight of him and decides not to shoot up. You then see her, holding her young daughter, see the man and they smile at each other for a long time.
The movie ends and a man stands up and talks about how God also chose to let his son die so we could have life. He goes on for a bit and then asks us to bow our heads and close our eyes for a prayer “just out of respect” and raise our hands if we want to accept Jesus. Then he says “I see those hands.” and we’re led into the final room which has maybe around 100 small tables set up with people at each. The person says “gentlemen to the left ladies to the right” and Carly and I ended up separated. As I walked toward the men’s side with no exit visible anywhere one of the security people points and me and says “what is that?” trying to figure out if I’m male or female. I caught sight of the exit and got the hell out of there.
Carly sat down with one of the counselor people and had a conversation in which she was told she wasn’t a real Christian because she’d been baptized as an infant, not as an adult, and that being confirmed in the church was not salvation. While that was going on I made a pissed off Facebook post and left a ranting message on a friends answering machine. Finally Carly came out and we left kind of angry about the really terrible theology and how they had duped people into this.
If you look at their website there is nothing about religion anywhere to be found unless you already know what you’re looking for. Is that the only way they think they’ll be able to save people? By lying to them about what they’re going to and scaring, pressuring and forcing them into hearing a poorly translated message of salvation? It’s some seriously flawed theology they’re working from.