Sudbury Police Chief Scott Nix stopped his cruiser last week on Hudson Road, thinking he had to spring into action to save a life.
Specifically, to cut down a body hanging from a tree in front of a home in this affluent town of approximately 18,000 residents.
“I actually observed it last week and began to grab my knife and get out of my cruiser,” Nix said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “Until I realized it was just a display.”
You read that correctly. The homeowner of 280 Hudson Road had decided to erect “a very realistic mannequin to include movement of what would appear to be someone hanging themselves” by a noose tied to a branch, Nix said.
A video clip of the display posted to YouTube shows the pale or beige-colored adult mannequin wearing slacks and a blue collared shirt, swaying in the breeze as a man’s voice says in the background, “he lives . . . or dies, depending on how you look at it.”
Nix said Tuesday that he’s not aware of the department receiving any 911 calls about the display, but “there have been circumstances where people pulled abruptly to the side.” The chief said he’s concerned the display could distract a driver and cause a serious crash.
He said he shared his concerns with the homeowner, who he said hasn’t broken any laws.
“I was concerned about the public safety aspect,” Nix said. “The emotional aspect, for those that may have had loved ones [who died by] suicide — we had one less than a year ago — as well as just the impact on residents. I respectfully requested that he remove the display, but I don’t know [if] he has elected to do.”
Nix said the homeowner did not provide a reason for putting up the macabre display.
“I’m not looking to get into the dynamics of why,” Nix said. “I’m just looking at it from a public safety perspective.”
In a statement, the homeowner said his “hangman was built with my children to both help them get over their own fears during the Halloween holiday as well as learn about the relationship between computers, motors and gears. Our creation is a contemporary statement on Man’s struggles with technology in a modern society. Like all art, it does cause some controversy and is ultimately up to each individual to interpret as they see fit. I can only hope it provides a vehicle for tough conversations that touches on many topics.”
He declined further comment Tuesday.
“I don’t have any further insight to provide than my statements to others,” he wrote in an e-mail that included the written statement, which he had previously provided to other outlets. “I hope you have a great Halloween.”
He did not provide his name. According to Sudbury assessment records, the owner of the property is Robert McCune.
Asked about Nix’s concerns about public safety and the emotional effect the display may have on local residents, the homeowner was conciliatory. However, he did not say whether he plans to keep the mannequin up through Halloween.
“Chief Nix and his officers do a great job in Sudbury, I respect his concerns and have taken them under advisement,” he wrote.
Gruesome Halloween displays have sparked controversy around the country.
Among the recent examples were separate displays last month in Georgia that depicted people hanging from a barn door and a tree. In that case, a local NAACP chapter told WSAV-TV that the displays were “certainly in very poor taste and it feeds into the age-old relationships that African-Americans have had especially in this part of the country with the larger community.”
Laurie Zelinger, a prominent child psychologist based on Long Island, said in a telephone interview that the Sudbury homeowner’s display could be especially harmful to preschool-aged children.
“Even if you try to tell a child that that mannequin is not real, to them it is real,” said Zelinger, the author of “Please Explain ‘Terrorism’ to Me: A Story for Children, PEARLS of Wisdom for Their Parents.”
She said, “The preschooler is likely to have very vivid, haunting recollections of a thing like this.”
Zelinger conceded that one theory holds that exposing someone to what they’re afraid of might dilute its effect. She said “that might be effective for his own children,” who saw the display being created from the ground up and know it’s a simulation.
But the homeowner “hasn’t considered the impact on the community,” she said. “Certainly, other children would be frightened by something like that. It’s not within their scope of experience, depending on their age.”
Zelinger’s husband and colleague, Fred Zelinger, said the homeowner’s logic is akin to “I’m going to terrorize my kids, so I can teach them not to be terrorized.”
Rather than putting up the display, he said, a more effective strategy would be to talk with them about mortality and their anxieties surrounding the issue.
“My guess is that conversation at the adult level with the child is much more important than showing them a [simulated] dead body,” said Fred Zelinger, a psychologist who worked for nearly three decades in the Long Island public schools.Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.