A popular Hubertus haunted house will close its doors this year after the Archdiocese of Milwaukee requested the attraction be discontinued due to depictions of “evil violence and hyper-sexuality.”The Hubertus House of Horror has been a fundraiser for St. Gabriel School for 31 years. Above volunteers enact a scene at the house in this 2008 file photo. (Catholic Herald file photo by Juan C. Medina)

For the past 31 years, the Hubertus House of Horror has been a fundraiser for St. Gabriel School, but “various aspects of the house have caused us great concern for a number of years,” said Bishop Donald Hying in an Oct. 16 letter addressed to parishioners. 

In a phone interview with the Catholic Herald, Bishop Hying said the archdiocese’s “tipping point” concerning the haunted house came in 2013, when a graphic video advertising the house was posted on YouTube.

“Last year they had a video on YouTube advertising the haunted house that had filmed scenes from the parish cemetery, of a young woman being chased by a murderer,” he said. “It also included decapitation and cannibalism in this film. Obviously, it’s the antithesis of Catholic values. They took down the video, but only because we (the archdiocese) told them to.”

The parish was informed in December 2013 that they would no longer be allowed to operate the haunted house.

Some in the St. Gabriel community have expressed concern to the local media that the haunted house’s closing will mean financial hardship for the school. The Hubertus House of Horror is a major means of revenue for St. Gabriel School, with some sources in the parish estimating annual revenue between $50,000 and $70,000. 

“The argument is, ‘Well, this makes a lot of money.’ I’m sorry, that doesn’t wash,” said Bishop Hying. “The end doesn’t justify the means. Again, this is not in line with Catholic values or Catholic teachings. It’s the antithesis of everything we stand for. It’s wrong.”

The Hubertus House of Horror cites a “high scare factor” on its website, and like all haunted houses, emphasizes its spooky side in local promotions. For instance, a photo shared by the house’s Facebook page in October 2013 appears to depict a volunteer performer holding a knife to the throat of a young visitor. But Fr. Chuck Hanel, who was pastor of St. Gabriel until January 2014, said he never felt the house exhibited gratuitous violence. 

“I saw it as just harmless entertainment and certainly not … if we were advocating this kind of violence, yeah, then obviously it would be inconsistent (with Catholic teaching),” he said. “But as entertainment value, I purely saw it as that. However, it’s not up to me. The archbishop and Bishop Hying expressed their concerns and other people had expressed concerns to them that it was not in keeping with Catholic values, so we agreed that one more year and it would be done.”

Fr. Hanel said he was not aware of any parishioners who had ever had issues with the message of the haunted house. 

“There were other people from outside the parish that often had problems with it – sometimes they were not even Catholic, they were more of a fundamentalist bent – and so I’d get a note or something every so often. But parishioners, no … not that was directed to me,” he said.

Fr. Hanel, now pastor of Queen of Apostles Church, Pewaukee, said he was grateful the archdiocese allowed the fundraiser to continue through 2014 “because of the negative financial impact on the parish.”

Bishop Hying said he was not aware the parish had implemented any alternative fundraiser at this time.

“And they knew (it would be closed) last December, so they got almost a full year to start exploring a new fundraiser for next year,” he said. “I offered to help in any way that I could. To my knowledge, nothing has been initiated because some of them, I think, were hoping that the decision would be reversed. They’ve taken this to the local media in a way that’s been spun as big mean diocese coming down on this innocent haunted house, and that’s not the case.”

In articles appearing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Fox6now.com, several parishioners and school families voiced their displeasure regarding the archdiocese’s decision. Phone calls and emails to several haunted house volunteers were not returned, and the staff at St. Gabriel School staff declined to comment on the matter. 

Fr. Tim Bickel, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish, declined to be interviewed but released a statement saying, “The archdiocese raised concerns about the haunted house’s depictions of circumstances or situations that did not seem to align with the joy of the Gospel message … we are extremely grateful and thankful to the countless volunteers who have generously committed their time and talents orchestrating and executing these magnificent performances.”

“There were some obviously that were upset (with the decision),” said Fr. Hanel. “There’s a group that have been very, very loyal over the years to putting that thing on, who put in hours and hours and hours year-round. Unfortunately, that was a group that was getting smaller and smaller; it was getting harder and harder to put on the house, but it still had that core group of people, and so they were upset.”

The haunted house is held in an abandoned building on parish property and is entirely volunteer-run, with anywhere from 60 to 90 workers and performers operating the house each night. 

Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha also operates a haunted house fundraiser, but Bishop Hying said he did not predict that particular attraction would be shut down. 

“Fr. Paul Hartmann (president of Catholic Memorial) wrote to me in the midst of all of this and asked about theirs,” said Bishop Hying. “And I said the issue is the depiction of things that are violent, bloody, murderous, evil – if you avoid all of that, that’s fine. I don’t think the diocese is against things like people dressing up as ghosts, or we’re not against Halloween per se; it’s just when it ups the ante and gets into things that are just really evil and violent … it’s wrong.

“It’s not that we (want to) shut down every haunted house … let’s look at what’s portrayed; is it inconsistent with the church’s teaching?”

Bishop Hying confirmed that Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was invited by parish leadership to visit the Hubertus House of Horror this year, but “the decision’s been made. Obviously they changed it this year because they’d been warned – I don’t know that for a fact – but I would say they’re not going to show us images that we disagree with. They’re going to want to say, ‘Look, it’s different now,’ and it probably is, but because it’s the last year.”

Bishop Hying said he personally would “be happy to be a part” of any future fundraising efforts, and wants to “affirm the good, hard work” done over the years by volunteers. He agreed that it was not likely that another fundraiser would immediately be able to generate the amount of revenue as a haunted house. 

“But again, it’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about the morality.”