When Are Halloween Displays Too Scary?
Corpses in the Front Yard
A Parma, Ohio family recently made the news by creating a Halloween display in their yard that was so scary and grotesque that it truly bothered their neighbors and scared elementary school children on the way to school. It included a realistic crucified body, a corpse hanging upside down from a tree, and several other disturbing elements. The Barrett family eventually took the display down after unwelcome visitors came into their yard late at night.
Can the Dead (or Undead) on Display Create a Private Nuisance?
Private nuisances are ongoing, unlawful (unreasonable), and cause some type of harm to others. Though neighbors can often effectively ask other neighbors to stop doing disturbing behaviors, in other situations nuisance lawsuits are the best option. However, courts have been very reluctant to call aesthetic problems with other people’s properties nuisances. While noise or even smell might be considered a nuisance, courts have a hard time drawing a line between “beautiful” and “ugly”… one court in Indiana upheld the rights of a neighbor who decorated his yard with a toilet seat nailed to a pole. So, this probably isn’t a private nuisance.
What About the Young Children’s Brains?
One of the major complaints about the yard full of corpses was that it was near an elementary school and traumatized young children. Sometimes, the government can shield children from gory images even if it affects other people’s freedom of speech. In one 2012 case, for example, the Colorado court system upheld an injunction against anti-abortion protesters, who waved signs with “mutilated fetuses and dead bodies” outside of services held at a particular church. The court found that graphic images could cause psychological harm to young children who attended church services, and that there was a compelling interest in protecting them.
However, in general, “violence is not part of the obscenity that the Constitution permits to be regulated.” For example, California tried to restrict selling violent video games to children where people kill, maim, or assault opponents in the video games. The court in this case declared the law unconstitutional, and noted that other gory materials are often given to children to read for fun: “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.”
Therefore, it is hard to know if a zoning law or some other type of regulation that protected children from violent “speech” near a school would be upheld.
So, Can My Neighbor Keep Their Corpses?
Yes, probably so. Neighbors might be able to persuade others to tone down Halloween decorations that are too scary… but, ordinarily, even if they scare the children, the dead bodies stay.
For more Halloween cases, see The Top 3 Silliest Halloween Lawsuits. Happy Halloween!