New Book by Dr. Jill Stevenson Examines End-Time Performances
If you’ve watched AMC’s The Walking Dead or NBC’s The Good Place, you’ve had a front-row seat to an End-Time performance.
End-Time performances, presented in both fiction and nonfiction formats, are a large part of U.S. culture. Real-world threats like climate change are commonly documented in mass media with an apocalyptic tone. Similar End-Time scenarios have been portrayed in books, articles, movies, plays, and other media. In Feeling the Future at Christian End-Time Performances, MMC Theatre Arts Professor and Department Chair Dr. Jill Stevenson analyzes how End-Time performances allow people to live in and through future time.
Her new book, published by University of Michigan Press, focuses specifically on Christian End-Time performances, such as Hell Houses and Judgement Houses, where theatre is used to provoke deep thought about spirituality, time, and the End. “These houses are trying to create an experience of the future that is based in present-day actions,” Stevenson says. “They create this idea that even though an End-Time is pre-written biblically, present moments determine how you are going to participate in it.”
Most of the End-Time performances analyzed in Stevenson’s book take place in October. To paint a picture: imagine going to a haunted house on Halloween, except instead of running from vampires, werewolves, or similar conventional creatures, you are an audience member of a jarring, live-action performance depicting personal moral decisions that defy biblical injunctions. These performances are constructed to compel a person to question what will happen to them after they die. The performances suggest that an individual’s final destination depends on the decisions they make each day.
The creators of Christian End-Time performances intentionally add powerful theatrical elements to put attendees in a vulnerable, emotional state that hinges on life and death. “The Houses are seen as a Christian alternative to Halloween,” Stevenson says. “Some of them market themselves as, ‘What is actually scary? Ghosts, demons, and jump scares—or the reality of what is going to happen at the end of time?’”
Christian End-Time performances utilize the power of live performance, Stevenson says. From special effects, to movement, space, and audience interaction, the performances have a unique way of captivating participants and instilling powerful messages. “So many of these performances are about how to prepare your soul for your own death or the ultimate end of time,” Stevenson says.
In addition to describing the phenomena of the performances themselves, Stevenson’s book explores real world End-Time prepping. Such prepping includes survivalist meetings, workshops, and forums that take place in grassroots settings and even on a global scale. While these meetings are not directly related to End-Time performances, they share many similarities including a focus on threat and time. “There is a lot of overlap. Secular theology underlies much of prepping culture,” Stevenson says.
Although Stevenson has not yet developed a course around End-Time performances and prepping, she has taught a course on the Ethics of Performance Reenactment several times. The discussions with students in that course made her increasingly interested in exploring how theatre creates historical time—in this case, future time.