A Glance Back: JLFM Haunted House Fundraiser

Sustainer Articles published in Gulf Glances Celebrating the JLFM History While Staying on the Future

By Sandra Raak, JLFM Past President & Kathleen Williamson, JLFM Past President, and Shamie Kelly, Sustainer

Long before Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, the Junior Welfare League was leaving its mark on Halloween. In October 1967, the JLFM (then the Junior Welfare League) opened its FIRST Haunted House in Fort Myers, and for only 50 cents, the public could enter the frightful world of ghosts, goblins, witches, mazes, mad scientists, and monsters. The first Haunted House was held at the Harvey Funeral Home on Cleveland Avenue. The week before the House was to open, vandals broke in and damaged some of the decorations including a huge paper mache octopus which was destroyed when it was dragged out onto Cleveland Avenue and run over by cars. In its first year, the Haunted House fundraiser raised $2,234 by spooking 3,800 people in just four days. In its third year, attendance soared to 15,000 attendees.

Over the years in which the Fundraiser was held, the Haunted House was located in various venues around town. As stated in the October 1970 edition of Southern Living Magazine, “Down in Fort Myers, the Junior Welfare League annually renovates and haunts one of the city’s older condemned houses for Halloween week.” In 1968-69, the event was held in a condemned house waiting to be demolished on First Street near the Heitman House. This was followed by locations on Cleveland Avenue and even at a former motel. Eventually the annual fundraiser would find its permanent home at Terry Park’s infamous Haunted House grounds, and as the “Haunted Castle” in 1976.

The Junior League would hold a yearly Haunted House Poster Contest in conjunction with Haunted House. In 1973 the Haunted House raised almost $13,000 and almost $17,000 in 1974. Proceeds from the annual event would go to fund various community projects including the Volunteer Service Bureau.

At times, the Haunted House saw special appearances by special “Ghosts” and guests. In 1970, Florida’s Lt. Gov. Ray Osborne served as a special receiving Ghost. In 1975, a special appearance was made by Dr. Paul Bearer, who was the host from Channel 44 WTOG’s Creature Feature. (The show followed Saturday morning cartoons and introduced children to classic horror movies.) He would play a special role as the butler welcoming people into the house. Dr. Paul Bearer would be “lurking for you” for autographs and photos.

The Haunted House fundraiser, one of the first of its kind in Fort Myers, was a widely supported community event. League member husbands, family members and friends would dress up to participate in the event every year, and with support from the City of Fort Myers, local businesses, and community volunteers, the event continued to be a major fundraiser for 10 years. Over the years, the League has continued to support Halloween events like the Calusa Nature Center’s Haunted Walk and contributed to the Nature Center Halloween Emergency Fund in 1989 and 1990.