Jamie Stevenson was passing her neighbor's house on Saturday when she saw the dark-faced figure hanging between two trees.
She knew it was a Halloween decoration, but she also saw in it something more sinister: a lynching.
What occurred in the hours and days that followed has pitted neighbors on an affluent Northern Virginia block against one another, thrust a homeowners association into a conversation about race and sparked angry accusations online about how people should respond when their actions, regardless of intent, offend others. And the tensions have played out at a time when all kinds of symbols — Confederate statues, flags, even the national anthem — have become flash points across the country.
In Fairfax County's Oakton community, Stevenson was certain she was looking at what she called "a racist display" but what her neighbors considered a Halloween ghoul.
She took a picture and began making calls and sending emails to her homeowners association and the Southern Poverty Law Center in an effort to get it taken down. She also emailed the homeowners. Stevenson, who is Asian and who moved into the neighborhood in March, had never met them when she pressed send.
"What you appear to be displaying is an effigy of a black person being lynched," she wrote. "As your neighbor and a person of color, I find this racist. I find this deeply offensive. I'm sure this is not your intent.
"Would it be possible for you to remove this racially loaded effigy from your display for the good of the neighborhood?"
Stevenson received a response three hours later.
"Jamie, you are right," it began. "It is not my intent to offend anyone. . . . I never realized the Monster in the tree had darker skin. If you see it up close it is indeed a Monster with blood clawed head and face. . . . I have my entire garage full of items I am frantically preparing for Halloween and will spend most of the day Tuesday setting up for Halloween. I can't promise I will have it down by Halloween but I can promise you this — I will NEVER ever put it up again."
The man who wrote the email spoke on the condition of anonymity because he and his wife now fear for their family's safety. But he said he went outside in the rain on Sunday to take the figure down.
He said he never intended for the "ghoul" to be perceived as racist. He has included it before in the elaborate display the family has put up for about 20 years, one that draws hundreds of costumed children from the neighborhood and beyond, he said.
After he sent the email and removed the figure, he said, he hoped that would satisfy his neighbor. Instead, he said, she posted a flier online that labeled his family as racist and included their address.
The flier, which appeared on Stevenson's Facebook page Monday, features a picture of a real lynching from 1889 next to a photo of the already removed Halloween display. Underneath are the words, "RACISM and HATE have no place in our neighborhood." It asks people to boycott the family's home on Oct. 31. It also encourages people to reach out to the president of the homeowners association, Richard Cramond, and includes his email and phone number.
Stevenson said Cramond hadn't responded to her concerns when she posted the flier and later emailed her to say there was no reason to take action because the display had been removed.
Cramond, reached Tuesday by phone, said he hadn't talked to all the people involved.
"It's a good neighborhood," Cramond said. "Until I know more, I really can't say anything."
Leisa Branton, a longtime neighbor, said she comes to see the display with her family every Halloween and never thought the hanging figure had any racist overtones.
"We never looked at it that way. I mean, maybe it's our ignorance, but we thought it was ghouls and goblins," she said.
Branton, 58, was dressed as a ladybug Tuesday and didn't hesitate to return to the house. She was saddened by the furor and the way it was affecting the family. "They put a lot of decorations up and a lot of time into it," she said.
When Stevenson and her partner were looking to buy a house, she said, the area appealed to them in part because of its diversity. Among their neighbors are interracial and same-sex couples. But if she had been househunting at this time of year and had seen the hanging figure, she said, she never would have settled in the neighborhood, where houses can cost $750,000 and above.
Stevenson said she was told there had been some complaints about the hanging figure in the past, but she acknowledged that in recent conversations with her neighbors, many rejected her interpretation of it. Their reaction disappointed her but did not surprise her.
"I expected it because when you point out racism, people have a choice to make: They either acknowledge it and have to do something about it, or they deny it and are complicit in it," she said. "Whenever minorities bring up issues of race, they're told they're hypersensitive or they are blowing things out of proportion."
She said she knows the repercussions could stretch long past Halloween. On Monday night, she had already seen some backlash. Someone ordered pizza to her address to be paid "with cash on delivery," and she received alerts about attempts to hack into her Facebook account.
She also received a knock on the door from her neighbor, who wanted to talk face to face. The encounter ended with Stevenson filing a police report, saying she felt threatened.
The family gave a different version of that encounter but said they, too, are scared now that their information has been made public.
"I fear for the safety of my kids and the safety of my house," said the woman who talked to Stevenson. "It was never intended to be what she turned it into."
The Halloween display began as an activity they did with their own children and grew as they saw how much other young people in the neighborhood enjoyed it.
As darkness fell Tuesday, in hope that candy-seeking children would still come to the house, she drew freckles on her face as her husband put up the final decorations, including a clown in an electrocution chair and a "chop shop" of strobe-lit dismembered body parts. Later, he dressed as a mad scientist and presided over the body parts. "May I offer you a hand?" he said to kids walking by.
He left the figure that loomed the largest over their Halloween celebration where he had tossed it three days earlier, on the floor of the garage.