It was going to be Ed Johnson’s Halloween masterpiece. Ten rooms of haunted house screams: a meat market, an apocalypse room, zombie babies, evil clowns.
And if Jefferson Avenue’s Mr. Halloween — the guy who wears skull bracelets and skull-emblazoned black T-shirts year-round — says it was to be the best ever, hundreds of his neighbors were waiting in ghoulish anticipation.
“We’ve done this every year, and every year we made it a little better, a little bigger,” Johnson said of what was going to be his haunted house’s fifth year of fear in his yard in the city’s West End.
And, then, a little red slip of paper was stuck to his mailbox a week ago. A Stop Work Order from the City of St. Paul.
It turns out, a passing city inspector saw the framing for the haunted house. Johnson guesses it’s because the 2-by-4 framing looks an awful lot like he’s extending his house. Officials told him he needs a special events permit and must submit engineered plans to obtain one.
On Wednesday, despite efforts over the past week to appease city inspectors, this lover of all things Halloween gave his Facebook fans the bad news: There will be no haunted house this year.
“They were deeming it permanent … but it’s temporary,” Johnson said of the haunted house that was to be up for three days at the end of October. “I don’t know why the city can’t understand it’s a temporary deal.”
Thursday morning, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections indicated that all may not be lost for Johnson and his neighbors. Robert Humphrey said the city’s priority is to ensure that the haunted house is safe and that there are sufficient exits for people going through it.
“I think we’re willing to work with him, as we would with anyone,” Humphrey said, adding that, as of yet, “He hasn’t presented any plans that show this is a safe structure for the public.”
Another haunted house, the Butcher Shop House of Gore, was also shut down by city inspectors, the haunted house’s owners posted on their website and Facebook page. This time, it was because the haunted house was an unlicensed for-profit business operating in a residential area, Humphrey said. There, the haunted house was to operate for 17 days. This was to be its sixth year.
Johnson, who has lived in his Jefferson Avenue house since 1999 and whose family has been in the West Seventh area of St. Paul for a century, called his haunted house “a labor of love.”
He was planning to ask for donations of $2 and use his haunted house as a fundraiser for the Lupus Foundation. His daughter was diagnosed with the disease 11 years ago. Hundreds of neighbors have passed through his macabre sets each Halloween. And they love it.
“The whole community is involved,” he said. “This is heartbreaking.”
Dozens of posts — many of them angry at the city for its anti-Halloween action — on the neighborhood Facebook page attest to that.
“Wow, just wow … way to take all the fun out of the holidays. Any one of these losers up for re-election?” wrote one neighbor.
“What?! No! I love that haunted house,” wrote another.
“I hope they let it go & let this guy do what he wants. I think it is good to have something to look forward to, that is fun for everyone,” posted another.
Sean Burton, a St. Paul police officer, who lives nearby with his kids, ages 9, 12 and 16, was one of dozens of neighbors who drove by the Johnsons’ house and honked his support for their project.
“My kids have been coming here for years. They’re going to be so disappointed,” he said. “Every time I go by, I beep for him.”
A steady stream of cars along Jefferson Avenue on Wednesday afternoon did the same thing.
Diane Gerth, an attorney who lives in the area and went with Johnson to apply for a permit, said it appears city officials consider Johnson’s haunted house to fall somewhere between a permanent structure and a temporary one.
“There doesn’t seem to be a category for something like this,” she said.
Gerth and Johnson, who works in construction and used to play in a heavy metal cover band called Lost Cauz, delivered engineering drawings and more detailed information about building materials to city offices Thursday afternoon. Gerth said she hopes the city would recognize the haunted house would be up for only a few days.
“His wife will kill him if he doesn’t tear it down [after Halloween],” Gerth said.
But, unless someone at City Hall has a change of heart, Johnson said he will begin tearing down the framing that fills his front, side and back yards this weekend. He promises to put some cool props and decorations on the boulevard to celebrate the holiday, but “it’s a terrible letdown.”
“I know they’ve got to enforce their rules, but can’t you work with me on this?” Johnson said.