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Morals of ghosts

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When I was 10, my father and I hung a man in the front yard. For all their virtues, pine trees make a terrible gallows. The condemned was uncooperative, too. His neck was not designed for suspension, so on our first try, his body simply ripped open.

Extravagant Halloween decorations were our annual tradition. There was a graveyard of hefty rocks with "Frank N. Stein" or "Dr. Acula" inscribed in washable paint. Massive, artificial spiderwebs hung from the trees, while pale sheet-ghosts fluttered in the autumn breeze. Pumpkins winked from the front porch. On Halloween night, a graveside cauldron boiled over with ghastly dry-ice fog.

My dad and I always spent a weekend creating a front yard spectacle—scabrous witches, merciless executioners, hockey-masked psychos. Through trial and error, we became experts at keeping our scarecrows whole, erect and maximally sinister. This year, though, we had a special dummy in mind and managed to do what had seemed impossible: to hang one of our frail creations from a tree.

Victorious, we went for a walk so as to return to the ghoulish scene with fresh eyes. As we crested the hill, we could see the dummy swaying in the wind, limbs dangling. We had triumphed. That was when an elderly neighbor emerged from her house and approached my dad. I skirted away, sensing an adult interaction with the potential to either involve or bore me. As they talked, I admired our macabre handiwork.

Dad returned. He was somber: "She'd like us to take it down, Sarah."

I was outraged. We'd worked so hard, after all, and it was our best yet. Our art shouldn't suffer simply because some people couldn't handle decorations of our caliber, I protested.

My dad paused; his voice was now gentle. "Sarah, it brings back bad memories for her."

I looked up, confused.

"... of when they used to hang black people."

Suddenly, every ounce of my outrage slipped away, replaced by a watery, speechless feeling. Quiet, we returned to the house and undid our hours of work, untying the anchor rope and letting the dummy slump to the ground. We used it in the mock graveyard, wearing a werewolf mask. That afternoon, I felt only disappointment and burning shame—we'd created our most successful Halloween horror, but not the way I'd intended.

In retrospect, I'm glad it happened. Growing up where and when I did, our local heritage was a messy historical storybook. That rag-doll man brought those awful moments to life for me, and feeling is the very least I can do in consideration of those old wrongs. Besides, decorating the yard with my dad is still one of my favorite memories. We used old shirts and corn syrup blood and rubber rats to create something together. It was trite and true, but I learned a valuable lesson along the way.

These days I stick with more neutral décor—jellied brains, cold-cut skulls, shadows behind the shower curtains. That dummy, however, still sticks with me.