‘We’re big Halloween people’: Mother and daughter create terrifying decorations to build community in their Cambridge neighborhood

If you’ve always found dolls just a little creepy, you’ll want to steer clear of this Cambridge house on Halloween.

The house at 107 Third St. in Cambridge was transformed into a 'Killer Doll House.'
The house at 170 Third St. in Cambridge was transformed into a 'Killer Doll House.' –Dialynn Dwyer / Boston.com

At first glance, the Halloween decorations adorning the stone and green paneled home in East Cambridge appear pretty standard.

Skeletons hang from the windows. One peeks out over the doorway that sits on the corner of Third and Hurley streets, just a few blocks outside the hub of Kendall Square.

But as you turn the corner onto Hurley, the ornaments meant to spook and delight candy-seeking kids on the last day of October become the stuff of nightmares.

In the house’s small yard, child-size mannequins are bound by rope — dolls holding knives surround them. The words “Killer Doll House” are painted on the facade of the house and a severed leg hangs in the window.

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Scrawled backward in red on the glass is one word: help.

“We’re big Halloween people,” the home’s owner, Sharon Clute, says with a laugh when asked about the decorations.

She said it’s the first year she and her daughter, Karla, have created the “Killer Doll House.” Her family has lived in the house for 50 years. And for about 10 years she and her daughter have decorated and carved dozens of pumpkins for Halloween, which are placed at the corner to catch the attention of trick-or-treaters and entice them over.

“It’s a busy street, Third Street, so we don’t have a lot of kids on my side of the street,” Clute said.

Now, however, she said the house has regular people who come to see the pumpkins each year.

“We usually decorate the yard, but not to that extent,” the 58-year-old said. “So when we were talking about what our theme was going to be, I had said, ‘Orphanage,’ and [Karla] said, ‘Let’s do a killer doll house.’”

That was in February.

Her 34-year-old daughter came up with the idea of making the “doll house” as tall as the addition of their home. Clute was able to collect discarded lumber from her facilities job at MIT and enlisted the help of a carpenter to help her build the 16-by-16-foot structure in August.

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“I painted them here at MIT on the weekends and built a lot of it here so that the day of when we constructed it it was mostly built,” she said. “And then we cut out the holes for the windows, framed them, put in blinds.

“Yeah, we’re a little out there,” she added with a laugh.

The wall of the doll house was put up during the second week of September. Then she and Karla turned their attention to the yard, building a wooden cage. A child-size mannequin was eventually placed inside.

At the same time, the mother and daughter scoured flea and antique markets for months, collecting the perfect scary dolls. They bought glow in the dark paint and black lights, so the eyes of the dolls could glow at night.

“We were looking for dolls that were older looking, maybe had pieces peeling off,” Clute said. “I thought we were going to paint them all white and give them black eyes and stuff. And [Karla] said, “Believe it or not, people are creeped out by just dolls.’ So I didn’t think that, but then we ended up with all these dolls.”

Clute said she didn’t take the idea of having the dolls carrying fake knives lightly.

“I was battling back and forth because some of the dolls have knives and in today’s society, you don’t know, ‘Is it the right thing to do? Is it the wrong thing to do?’” she said. “And I just kind of finally settled on, ‘You know what, it’s Halloween. And if anybody reads any more into that, I can’t control that.’”

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Still, she said she’s made sure to remind the children she sees coming to look at the decorations that it’s not real.

All told, Clute estimates she and her daughter spent $3,000 on the supplies and decorations.

“We drive my mother crazy,” the 58-year-old said of her mother, Marion, who lives in the house with them. “She just shakes her head.”

She said that number includes the candy she’s stocked up on, and the toys she’s gotten to hand out to kids with food allergies as part of the Teal Pumpkin Project.  

“I spent a lot of money on candy,” she said. “Isn’t it funny though, I go through all this money to get kids to cross the street just to give them free candy.”

The decorations, completed earlier this month, have not gone unnoticed in the neighborhood.

Judy Mansfield, who works at the dentist’s office across the street, has a clear view of the “doll house” from her desk. She watched as detail after detail appeared in the yard and the scene took full shape at the hands of the mother and daughter team.

“They put a lot of work in it, let me tell you,” she said of the structure. “There’s blinds, there’s curtains, and they have the plastic up to look like windows. They put little trim on the house. There’s a lot of thought and work that went into it.”

Mansfield and her colleagues watched as day-by-day more appeared in the yard.

“It’s really kind of, I don’t know, a little creepy. A little off,” she said.

While she said she doesn’t think she would take her little kids to see the decorations, Mansfield said she’s thinking about stopping by herself on Halloween night to see what else the mother and daughter might have prepared for trick-or-treaters.

“I think I might have to stop by,” she said.

Even now, passersby take turns posing infront of the decorations for photos.

Clute said the attention to their work has been gratifying. Part of what she’s wanted with her decorations over the years is to maintain the sense of community she grew up with in the neighborhood, which she said has changed with the development of the area.

“You could run to any house and know exactly who’s there,” she said. “If you were in trouble or anything. It’s just changed. But this kind of opens up conversation with people. When people just walk by and you don’t know anybody anymore. So now people will stop and they’ll interact.”

This weekend, Clute and her daughter will start carving the pumpkins that will stand on the corner as normal to catch the attention of passersby on Halloween night. Karla plans to dress up as a doll to hand out the candy.

“We’re going to have her sitting in a chair, like, you know, kind of — dead,” Clute said. “And then if I think it’s worth the scare and if it’s not somebody too little then they’re going to have to walk over there to get the candy and she’s going to scare the bejesus out of them. We’re a little too into Halloween.”

There will be a code word that she’ll shout to her daughter if she thinks a kid should just be given a treat without the trick.

There may still be work to do for this year, but Clute said they’re already starting to plan for next year. The theme? A mausoleum.

“We’re probably going to have zombies,” she said.   

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