By DAVID AIKMAN
Unthinkable to the Founders: One in five Americans today has no religious affiliation.
A hypothetical Martian with a deep interest in America's political and cultural history would be surprised and perhaps amused at the religious composition of those running in the current presidential campaign.
The incumbent president is an adult convert to Christianity after being raised by a mother he has described as agnostic but interested in many faiths. His opponent is a Mormon, a faith tradition entirely indigenous to America and less than two centuries old. As for the two vice-presidential candidates, both are Catholic. This is the first presidential election in American history in which neither of the two presidential candidates or vice-presidential candidates was brought up as a Protestant.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American Protestants recently became a minority of the country (48%) for the first time—not just since the American Revolution, but since the establishment of the first English colonies on American soil. Even more notably, the same Pew research revealed that 20% of all Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religion.
At one level, this is a victory for religious pluralism—or, to use the politically correct term, diversity. At another, when one in five Americans has no religious affiliation, it is a commentary on the diminished importance of the moral underpinnings that characterized the United States for most of its existence.
At the country's founding, even skeptics and Deists like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin paid great respect to the morality and values that the vast majority of Americans accepted as God-given standards by which to live. These were standards rooted in Christian belief and teachings. Jefferson, as is well known, was a man of the Enlightenment who was genuinely skeptical about the supernatural claims of Christianity. Even he, however, believed in the need for virtue in national life as an essential ingredient for the safe continuation of the republic.
The Founders shared a conviction about the necessity for national virtue, and most equated this directly with Christianity. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) said that Christianity was "the strong ground of republicanism. Many of its concepts have for their objects republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and economy in government."
Happily for all of us since then, the Founders rejected the folly of the state's promoting any denominational brand of Christianity. After much early and often noisy opposition from Protestants at the popular level, Catholics came first to be tolerated and then eventually to be welcomed into the national tapestry of faiths. Just as the leaven of the Gospel message of love pricked Protestant Christian consciences to accept Catholics, so did the Gospel's message move Americans to address, and at last erase, the wicked national stain of slavery.
Meanwhile, at the popular level, individual lives were being changed and entire communities swept clean of corruption and squalor through the phenomenal social effect of the Second Great Awakening (from approximately 1800 to 1850), a Christian revival movement that swept the country. A teacher traveling through Kentucky in 1802 at the height of the revivals there reported that "it was the most moral place" he had ever visited. In South Carolina, after similar revivals, he observed: "Drunkards have become more sober and orderly—bruisers, bullies and blackguards meek, inoffensive, and peaceable."
It is hard to believe today, when a secular orthodoxy clanks its way peevishly through academe, the media and popular culture, that it was broadly accepted by most Americans throughout the 19th century that America was at heart Christian—not in any formal or legal sense, but in the values and morality that most people wanted to observe.
The German-trained historian George Bancroft, in his magisterial "History of the United States of America," said that he thought America was a Christian nation established and sustained by God for the purpose of spreading liberty and democracy in the world, an idea that lies at the heart of American exceptionalism. In fact, the belief that America was called by God to be "a new Israel" and a blessing to the world goes right back to the Puritan preacher John Winthrop. In his famous shipboard sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," on the Arabella in 1631, Winthrop made the much-quoted statement about America: "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
The eyes of all are still upon America, but it is a markedly different place. As the secularization of that city upon a hill continues, it is not hard to imagine a presidential race one day that involves candidates who practice no religion at all.
Mr. Aikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, is the author of "One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief" (Baker Books, 2012).
A version of this article appeared October 26, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: America's Religious Past Fades in a Secular Age.
Haunted Houses Get More
Top Hollywood talent is behind a new generation of horror chambers that are dialing up the fright factor with movie-quality special effects and psychological torments.
By MERISSA MARR
On a recent Friday night in Manhattan, William Friedkin, the director of horror classic "The Exorcist," found himself being roughed up with a bag over his head and a serial killer lurking at his side. "I don't recall when I've experienced anything that terrifying," he says.
Mr. Friedkin had just entered the chamber of the Angel of Death in a performance of "Killers," one of a new breed of haunted house this Halloween that is proving so petrifying that patrons have been known to lose control of their bodily functions midtour.
This new generation of extreme entertainment features psychological torture, intense sensory deprivation and hands-on assaults by people playing mass murderers. The houses incorporate Hollywood-grade special effects, some designed by the same crews that build the sets for the biggest-grossing horror movies and backed by the directors or producers of major horror franchises.
At "Blackout Haunted House" in Manhattan, visitors pay up to $60 to be subjected to a litany of psychological and physical abuse, including extreme disorientation in a room filled with fog where your face is masked, your hands are strapped to a table and ear-piercing death metal music is blaring through headphones while a screaming actor bashes a mallet around your fingers.
"The Nest" in Chandler, Arizona charges $25 and mines Facebook for personal details of visitors to its serial-killer-themed house. After passing through a 3-D maze replete with bungee jumpers, collapsing hallways and a vertigo-inducing spinning tunnel, visitors hear their names echoing through rooms while images of their friends and family appear zombified and blood-spattered.
Horror-movie director Eli Roth has upped the ante, splashing a movie-size budget of $10 million on "Goretorium," a Las Vegas year-round haunted house in the theme of his graphically violent "Hostel" and "Cabin Fever" hits. Horror producer Jason Blum recently opened "Blumhouse of Horrors" in downtown Los Angeles, drawing on his "Paranormal Activity," "Insidious" and "Sinister" movies. (Mr. Blum is married to a Wall Street Journal reporter.)
"Killers," like other houses, has drawn on a pool of more talented actors than the "boo" performers of the past, ones who can more convincingly deliver chilling monologues or make patrons believe they're about to have their fingers chopped off. Also in the mix: masters of Hollywood makeup, props and traditional effects who have found themselves with less movie work amid the rise of digital effects.
Halloween has emerged as the second-biggest commercial holiday of the year, with anticipated revenue of $8 billion this year, the result of an aggressive push by retailers to create a reason for big spending between back-to-school and Christmas. Haunted houses in particular have mushroomed, popping up everywhere from blacked-out urban storefronts to cornfields and backyards.
The Haunted House Association estimates there are 2,000 haunted houses in America. The average ticket price has risen to $15 from $5 in the 1990s, but high-end houses now charge as much as $60 for a mere 20 minutes of entertainment. Spreading across major cities, from Denver to Columbus, Ohio, the new houses largely cater to urban hipsters and hard-core horror fans, mostly in their 20s and 30s.
This year's haunts are playing into a new taste for more immersive forms of entertainment. Felix Barrett, the co-creator of theater production "Sleep No More," where masked audience members move freely between rooms of a Manhattan warehouse, says people are seeking an antidote to the screen-based, digital age we're living in, which has become depersonalized and passive. Tom Pearson, the co-creator of "Then She Fell," an audience-led production based on the writings of Lewis Carroll, says the computer screen is our new proscenium and "when we go out, we want to be in a world where we can't see the edges—we want a more visceral, live experience."
"Blackout Haunted House" takes that idea to an extreme, breaching the long-held no-no in haunted houses of touching customers. On a recent sold-out Saturday night, visitors started their journey by being dragged backward through a door into a pitch-black hallway before being aggressively frisked by an anonymous person whispering their names. Moving through a series of rooms, visitors are embraced by a naked male dancer and have their face licked and bitten through a bag placed over their head.
"Blackout," the brainchild of experimental-theater veterans, amps up the fear factor by making visitors go it alone. The psychological games begin before you enter: Visitors are asked to sign a lengthy waiver which requires them to assume all risk and warns them about the "graphic scenes of simulated extreme horror, adult sexual content, tight spaces, darkness, fog, strobe-light effects, strong odors, exposure to water, physical contact and crawling" that they are about to experience.
As they await their turn, visitors are positioned in a dimly lighted room so they can witness the person ahead of them being dragged through the first door while also watching others run screaming out the exit. About 20% of visitors (including this reporter) don't make it through, shouting the code word "safety" to be escorted out.
Mike Ross, 26, of Yorktown, N.Y., made an early exit after refusing to dance with the naked dancer. Mr. Ross's girlfriend, Dana Vario of White Plains, N.Y., also 26 and a haunted-house junkie, said she plans to return, however. "You need to have an open mind and be willing to be tortured," she said.
Humans—especially men—have always sought out horror, whether it be through classic cautionary tales, the Bible or Greek mythology. Aeschylus' "The House of Atreus" depicts horrific incidents of incest and cannibalism. The primal emotional reactions of fight or flight have become increasingly remote in contemporary society, however.
"Most of us live ordinary lives with few high-intensity moments, and horror provides that rush we're impoverished of," says Stuart Fischoff, emeritus professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles.
In brainstorming a theme for "Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House," haunted house veterans Timothy Haskell and Steve Kopelman turned to real-life serial killers, including John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and the Zodiac killer. "The scariest things in life are real," says Mr. Haskell. They built a series of chambers in a gothic-style building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, each featuring a mass murderer in a meticulously designed set. Audience members who elect to have a cross marked on their forehead in fake blood get to play victims and accomplices, as Mr. Friedkin did.
Mr. Haskell acknowledges he faced some flak for his choice of theme, which didn't go down so well with the family of one of the victims. He says he tried not to glorify the killers, however.
Mr. Kopelman, who has been building haunted houses for 30 years, says there has been a professionalization of the business and owners think more seriously about their business model these days. He says there are three big costs: rent, advertising and labor. In the downturn, getting short-term leases has become easier as has finding labor, he says. That has helped them bulk up with greater numbers of actors. ("The Nest" has 120 actors in all).
The key is pacing the house to get as many people through as possible—an easier feat for venues with more space.
With technology now more affordable, houses can buy scores of animatronics and other tricks. "The Nest" uses radio frequency identification to track visitors through its haunt with readers and antennae sending data to a server that customizes rooms. For the 3-D maze, they use chromadepth glasses that bring hot colors such as red to the forefront.
For "Goretorium," Mr. Roth did a test run at Universal Studios' Hollywood theme park last year, with a $600,000 haunted house based on "Hostel." "I got to try things out, I got to say, 'What if we have a guy in a meat grinder being ground up and you see the guts?' and I learned how to do it," he said. He also worked as a scare performer, or "scaracter," posing as a torturer chasing visitors from room to room. "If people didn't get scared, I took it very personally," he says.
Mr. Roth chose the Las Vegas Strip for "Goretorium" because of its focus on round-the-clock entertainment. It didn't start out as a $10 million project. "I kept adding stuff," he says.
Like his movies—Mr. Roth is part of the "Splat Pack" of filmmakers known for their hard-core horror themes—his haunted house is violent and bloody. Set in the fictional rundown Delmont Hotel & Casino from the 1960s, it plays on torture and cannibalism, among other themes. One of Mr. Roth's prized and most expensive features is a giant human meat grinder shaped like a tunnel that disorients visitors by spinning and cost $250,000.
Unlike most haunted houses, "Goretorium" is a year-round attraction. Mr. Roth is seeking to do what Hollywood did with horror movies like his own "Hostel," which was released widely in January 2006 and proved there was demand for horror outside the typical Halloween season. To keep horror fans in its grip, "Goretorium" also features an outdoor lounge serving gore-themed cocktails and a wedding chapel. Special events include all-night horror moviethons, costume contests and zombie walks.
The plan is to expand to other cities, such as Hollywood, New York, London and Tokyo.
"I want to use this to build world-class, top-of-the-line haunts and to really make it a place for the horror community," says Mr. Roth. "I want to do what Disney did for children's movies."
A version of this article appeared October 26, 2012, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Haunted Houses Get More Extreme.