Graphic Halloween displays can trigger trauma for some, say psychologists

Halloween decorations are beginning to materialize on front porches and lawns as Oct. 31 approaches. It's all meant to be frightful fun. But for some people, the most gruesome displays can trigger unwanted psychological trauma.

Children and people with past trauma can be disturbed by gory decorations

Projected images inside a home window, like these from AtmosFEARfx, can look very realistic. That can be spooky fun for some, but disturbing for others. (AtmosFEARfx/YouTube)

Paul Terrio uses a ladder to put the finishing touches on an elaborate Halloween display at his home in Halifax.

He's got the usual stuff — spiders, bats, pumpkins and so on. But hanging from his second-floor balcony is a dummy with a noose around its neck.

Paul Terrio hangs a mannequin from his balcony. His display is intended to be spooky fun, but some might find such scenes disturbing, say psychologists. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)
Asked if the idea is that the character hanged himself, Terrio answered, "Either that or he was bad and just didn't give out treats, so we had to put him up."

It's clear he's having fun and the display is meant to delight rather than terrify. He said he's never had complaints about it being too scary. In fact, some people who pass by as he decorates commend him for his work.

But what's spooky fun for some can be upsetting for others, says registered clinical therapist Mike Buckley, who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Oh yes, I have a number of clients who have had traumatic backgrounds — PTSD, complex PTSD — and they find a lot of things around Halloween are very triggering," he said.

And Buckley said more people are affected than you might think. Soldiers who have served in combat zones, refugees from countries affected by war, witnesses of bad road accidents and victims of violent crime can all be sensitive to graphic displays such as those featuring skeletons or severed limbs, for example.

Halloween decorations have also become more high-tech, with digital displays like those from a company called AtmosFEARfx, which can project frightening scenes onto windows.

Buckley said those displays — and the trend of decorating earlier in the month — can make the problem even worse.

"One individual had a neighbour who had holographic videos playing inside their house of a murder that was ongoing," he said.

"Of course, it repeats who knows how many minutes later, and that's what was going on. And it was going on as much as a month ahead of Halloween every night, all night. How'd you'd like to live next door to that?"

Buckley said his client was so traumatized, he eventually moved.

Clinical therapist Mike Buckley says he has several clients with PTSD who are 'triggered' by certain graphic Halloween displays. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)
Buckley isn't trying to ruin Halloween for anyone, though, saying he's generally a fan of the holiday himself. He even ran haunted houses at one point, and says there's a clear distinction between that and scary house displays.

"There's a difference between choosing to go to a place where you know that there's going to be scary things and it's there for fun — and if you don't find it fun, you don't have to go — versus something being right in your face, in your community that you have no choice about," he said.

It's a situation that's familiar to Melissa Weatherill. Last Halloween in Moose Jaw, Sask., someone hung a naked mannequin from its neck across from her home.

Her husband had committed suicide a few years ago.
A manequin hangs from a tree as part of a 2015 Halloween display in Moose Jaw, Sask. At the time, Melissa Weatherill told the CBC such images are traumatic for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. (CBC)

"Whe you see images like that, it takes you right back. The post-traumatic stress just doesn't go away," she told the CBC. She asked the homeowner to remove it from his yard, which he declined to do.

Child psychologist Dr. Vicky Wolfe thinks that goes too far.

"That's just poor taste in general," she said. "To do something of that nature in general, that graphic, would be not great."

Wolfe believes for the most part, Halloween is actually good for children, even those who've suffered a traumatic life experience in their past. Under the right conditions, she said a few spooky encounters can help children overcome their anxiety.

"I wouldn't want children not to experience Halloween," she said. 

Child psychologist Dr. Vicky Wolfe says parents should be aware of what their children might encounter on Halloween and plan accordingly. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)
"At low levels in stressful events, they're likely to cope very effectively — so spooks and so forth, and typical things that people get frightened of. But if we do it in a fun way, they are going to be less reactive to it, and they also know that [the displays] are not real."

But she has some advice for people who like to push the limits with their decorating, and it comes down to timing and knowing your audience.

"Would you want your six-year-old child to see that? [That] would be the item to think about, because that's the age kids are going out at — four, five, six," she said.

"Later on in the night, there are older kids who are out and adults who are more likely to understand the context of some of those decorations. But people should just be mindful that they're a part of the community."


Blair Sanderson is an award-winning nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years. Contact