A Yard Full of Corpses

One provocative Halloween display evokes fear in ways unintended.

This is not a war on Halloween. It is not a war on freedom of speech or the right to bear arms. This is a glimpse into the psychology of one battle that happens to involve Halloween, and one particularly scary set of Halloween decorations.

They were erected by a family in a front yard on a quiet street in the Cleveland suburb of Parma, Ohio. You may not want to look at these images if you're still sensitive to depictions of torturous murder.

I don’t include them to be gratuitous. They’ve already been on the local news and started spreading around social media.

Okay, those corpses are well done.

By that I mean, they are successful in eliciting a feeling of discomfort.

Knowing that they’re not real corpses doesn’t completely mitigate the effect of perceiving human suffering, which is supposed to make other humans uncomfortable. It’s an adaptive evolutionary instinct, one of self-preservation.

When a standard-issue human brain receives sensory images of suffering people (screams, arterial fountains, severed hands still twitching), the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine. That makes our hearts race and our blood pressures rise. It makes our body hair stand on end. It heightens all of our senses. Our body prepares to fight. Even when your cerebral cortex is telling you to chill because what you’re perceiving is not “real,” and there’s no need to panic, the adrenaline is a little rush. Eliciting and enjoying that rush is the purpose of a rollercoaster, a haunted house, or a horror film.

After a while, it takes a more intense stimulus to get that same rush. Ride a roller coaster for the hundredth time, and it becomes like riding a bus. (A reliable bus in a safe neighborhood at a reasonable hour.) We can become accustomed to perceptions of violence in the same way, gradually. We become desensitized, and less adrenaline is released. Like daily coffee, it stops moving us. For most people, that’s fine. Others start drinking entire pots of coffee.

This Halloween display might be the 30-ounce Starbucks with a couple shots of espresso version of a Halloween display. In the right context, like a horror film, where a person might go to seek out sensations of discomfort he deems lacking in his humdrum desk-job life, I’d say mission accomplished here with these corpses, Cleveland.

The context for this particular display is strange, though. From the Fox 8 affiliate that first reported on the story on October 9:

[Local resident] Michael Pasek said it’s way too much and worries it’ll scare the kids at the Dentzler Elementary School down the street. “I just think that belongs in a haunted house somewhere rather than perhaps out on the street,” he said.

Yes, there is an elementary school down the street. At least one neighborhood parent was, indeed, concerned because her child was upset by the corpses.

The story initially broke in a local televised news segment. Reporter Brittany Harris wrote in the accompanying post:

Fox 8 reached out to city officials in Parma and were told [homeowner] Vicki Barrett is not breaking any laws and has a right to freedom of expression.

“So we're going to basically go with our freedom of expression and keep everything up and enjoy Halloween,” said Barrett.

Another resident agreed:

Julie Austin said it’s the parents’ job to tell their kids it’s fake. “I think it's fine. It's Halloween. I don’t see a problem with it. My daughter has watched Nightmare on Elm Street, and she’s seven. So she's not scared, and I think it’s all in good fun,” said Austin.

Exactly, good fun. One thing I do for fun is build crucifixes, invert them, and hang corpses from them in my yard. The corpses aren’t real corpses, of course, they are mannequins. They only look real because I spend a lot of time imagining what the corpses should look like, and how to make the murder process as vivid as possible. And they do not die in normal ways. One of the funnest parts—sorry, most fun parts—is jamming the syringe into a corpse’s jugular vein before I crucify him. Oh, ha, well, he was not technically a “corpse” when I crucified him. Still clinging to life. But I was in control of that. That’s what makes it fun. All the fun of plotting and carrying out murders, but no cops, and no one gets hurt except the people who don’t understand fun. Who are you to tell me I can’t have fun?

Maybe you are one of the people who lives adjacent to my corpse displays? Your children aren't mature enough to yet understand fun, and you are lacking as a parent, and I have rights.

Even when Barrett knew that local elementary-school children had been upset by the display, the Ohio homeowner dug in her heels because of freedom. The United States is wonderful because people have the right to be inconsiderate or oblivious, and to expose other people’s children to gratuitous violence, if we deem it fun.

The focus on exercising rights for the sake of exercising rights has been pervasive, too, in recent discussions of gun violence.

The right to bear arms has become, for approximately half of the American population, essentially the sole consideration in any discussion about recent mass murders. One party seems intent on finding ways to prevent further violence, and the other almost exclusively on securing the right of all people to have easy access to weapons.

In the wake of a mass shooting, sales of guns swell. People disengage from discussion of preventing violence, repeating ad infinitum that they have a right to their weapons. Conservative media personality Erick Erickson, for one, trumpeted on the day after the Oregon shootings: “I’m going to buy more guns this weekend.”

There are already more guns per capita in the United States than in any other country, by a lot. We have more than twice as many as the runner up. Americans are being murdered at rates four times that of the U.K. and most Western European countries, and 13 times that of Japan, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Some people believe that even though there is already one firearm per person in circulation in the U.S., our situation will improve if we add more guns into the mix. These people believe they would be more adequately protected by owning more and more guns, possibly mounting them on some sort of giant hat that could fire many guns simultaneously. Others are buying and carrying more guns simply to show that they can, to show that they have rights.

The reaction today to any mention of limiting access to firearms is startlingly unchanged from a half century ago, when Robert Kennedy proposed reconsidering the indiscriminate sale of weapons to people who are seriously mentally ill and those with certain criminal backgrounds.

“It’s presented by the John Birch Society that the federal government is going to come in and take your rifles away,” Kennedy explained before a crowd in Oregon in 1965. “Nothing’s going to happen about that. You can have them just as you can have an automobile. I hear it described as ‘This is the way Nazi Germany  started.’ Well, you could say registering an automobile is the way Nazi Germany started.” Kennedy pointed to a sign in the audience that read “Protect your right to keep and bear arms” and insisted, “That just is misleading the American people.”

So in the wake of mass shootings, conservative pundits prefer to direct the discussion to mental health. Gun violence, they say, is the domain of mentally ill people, with no relevant tie to the circumstances and mechanism by which these murders take place. A vast majority of people who own guns never kill people. Therefore, instead, we must talk solely about the mentally ill.

People with mental-health conditions are much more likely to be victims of violence than the rest of the general population. Mental illness demands respect and attention; at the same time, perpetrators of mass murder are by definition not well. Blaming a lack of access to screening and treatment of mental illness on subsequent violent behaviors highlights important gaps in our health-care system. But the definition of “mental illness” in this discussion is usually limited and lacking.

Conservative media personalities often use “mentally ill” to refer to people with some organic derangement of the brain, which occurred de novo, by some completely unknowable cause. These people, who appear in the United States at staggering rates relative to other countries, have some penchant for violence that was brought into existence in a meaningless vacuum. They are simply crazy, and that is the end of the story.

It is the same people who advocate unlimited access to guns that balk at discussing societal causes of violence: inequality, systematic oppression, and insecurity in all aspects of life. To some degree, that includes a culture that alternates between condemning violence and fetishizing it as entertainment, as just good fun.

The majority of people who were exposed to gratuitous violence during childhood never become violent. If you look at people who commit violent crimes, though, they are more likely to have been exposed to perceived violence, especially as children.

Many are quick to react to this idea by calling it hypersensitive political correctness. It is a slippery slope to a totalitarian nanny state where no one can say anything for fear of offending someone. In fact, why not test the limits of my rights just to prove that I still have them? If I want to shatter the innocence of someone else’s seven-year-old, I will do it because I can.

After a few days of media coverage that drew crowds to the Barrett’s house, despite their principles, on Monday they took down the display because they did not like the attention that the display was bringing. Fox 8 ran a follow-up story, and the most popular comment on the news organization’s Facebook post was from a viewer named Kate Waltman:  “Are all the whiny little babies happy now?”

The comment has 276 likes, as of this writing. Another popular commenter suggested that the very covering of this story means that Fox 8 simply has too much airtime to fill.

This display will never be linked to tangible violence. The vast majority of violent images, video games, movies—or any medium by which murder is normalized in the minds of children and impressionable adults—will never lead directly to violent behavior. Most people who have homicidal thoughts and impulses will never act on them. But most people are not the problem. Most people who take a single puff of a cigarette never develop lung cancer. Maybe each incident of violence and physical insecurity is like a fleeting puff of a cigarette.

If a doctor were to lecture you for a single puff, you might call that doctor a hypersensitive prude. Maybe even a baby.

If, instead, the doctor were to scold you for smoking seven packs a day, you might just cut straight to, No shit I need to cut back. Seven packs a day, doctor. I can’t enter any public buildings because I am smoking every minute of every day. Why did you wait til now to try and help me? Somewhere in there is a line where reasonable conversation happens.

The ways that people defended the Cleveland display this week, attacking people for even suggesting it might be excessive, are emblematic of the culture that cannot talk about preventing violence in any way. We cannot talk about access to violent media any more than we can talk about limiting access to firearms. We agree that there is an excessive amount of homicide in the country, but we cannot discuss how or why it happens without ideological outrage that seems to drive people further into silos.

If you reject that a superfluity of guns has a role in gun violence, and also that exposure to excessive violence leaves a person more likely to become violent, then what do you propose is a cause of these homicides? ​I ask earnestly, and not to suggest that there is a single answer. I believe it’s a confluence of factors biological, environmental, and social, all of which seem to warrant attention. Presenting gun violence as a binary debate between gun access and mental health, where only one is the true cause, seems to lead nowhere.

Last week, after Ben Carson made the same “This is the way Nazi Germany started” argument that Kennedy denounced—suggesting that limiting access to weapons could invite a recurrence of the Holocaust—I wrote just a couple sentences on Facebook in response. I called Carson a perpetuator of fear and silencer of rational discussion on violence prevention. Many advocates of unlimited access to firearms flocked to this post, threatening me. Some were overtly violent. Others offered just homophobic epithets, general challenges to masculinity, and graphic images that served only to allude to violent intent. None were grammatically or syntactically sound.

These threats happen whenever I write about gun violence, and only then. But last week was worse. I expect it will happen again today. I believe it comes from fear. The same fear that will leave us reporting on more mass murders soon, and subsequent pleas that something should be done to prevent more, and the reactionary exercising of rights to bear ever greater arms, because it is a right.