When Amelia Joubert visited the local haunted Halloween attraction in previous years, she always avoided the “7th Ward Asylum.” But last year, she decided to go in.
The attraction at Carowinds, an amusement park run by Cedar Fair Entertainment on the border of North and South Carolina, was described this way: “You would be crazy to tour this twisted asylum. Lost and tortured souls are all that remain, but you’ll see plenty that will make you question your sanity. … The 7th Ward was home to the Carolina’s most chronically insane. From murderers to crazed psychopaths, many of the poor souls trapped behind the Gothic walls would spend their entire lives there. As you walk these halls today, be sure to stay with your group. This is one place you don’t want to be committed.”
For Joubert, an 18-year-old college freshman, this depiction of mental hospital patients stung.
Because she has been a patient.
At 15, Joubert was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. The only person she’s ever harmed, she said, is herself.
“One thing that stuck out to me is that one of the actors said, ‘The voices in my head are telling me you’re going to die.’ That stuck out to me. I hear voices and it made me feel like I was being misrepresented,” she said.
There are examples of asylum-based Halloween attractions all over the country. Every year at this time, right next to the chainsaw-wielding masked men and flesh-eating zombies, are the mental hospital patients. The message isn’t subtle: People with mental illness are to be feared.
But this year, under pressure from mental-health advocates, haunted attractions big and small have begun to change names and descriptions of — or have shut down completely — scenes that depicted mental illness as frightening. The activism is part of a broader, burgeoning movement to lift the stigma about mental illness, which has long led to social and employment discrimination.
This year, Carowinds changed the asylum theme to a more generalized hospital scene called “Urgent Scare.”
Cedar Fair, which operates 13 parks across the country, shut down an attraction called “FearVR: 5150,” featured at its parks in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, after a father — whose son with schizophrenia was beaten to death by police — called attention to it, according to the Los Angeles Times. The attraction got its name from the California police code 5150 for when someone is suspected of having a mental-health condition.
A Cedar Fair Entertainment spokesperson said in an email that its “evening attractions are designed to be edgy, and are aimed at an adult-only audience.” The spokesman said the intent was “never to portray mental illness,” but it closed the attraction because it was “impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween time frame.”
Last year, Susan Estes took her two young children to a Halloween theme park in Kansas City, Mo., owned by Cedar Fair Entertainment. One of the attractions they visited, called “Asylum Island,” was described as a place “where the inmates have taken control of Lakeside Mental Hospital and there’s no cure in sight.”
“There’s no way to really be prepared for what you see when you get there,” Estes said, who described a twisting maze that took visitors past a shock-treatment machine, a character who’d had a lobotomy, and a person strapped to a bed pleading to be let out.
Estes has bipolar disorder and has been hospitalized twice. After leaving the park, she said she had to explain to her children that what they saw inside is not what mental illness looks like.
“‘Mom has an illness, you’ve met friends of mine that have an illness,’ ” she said she told them. “I felt frustrated, I try so hard to destigmatize mental illness that I found it so frustrating that these images are still out there.”
Cedar Fair removed Asylum Island from its list of attractions at the Kansas City park this year. The company spokesman declined to explain why if it, and the one at Carowinds, were also removed because of complaints.
Six Flags Entertainment also altered several of its Halloween attractions this year, including changing the name of “Psycho-Path Haunted Asylum” to “The Forgotten Laboratory” at a park in Massachusetts. It also changed the description of its “Massacre Medical Center” maze from”local asylum” to “local medical center” at a park in Illinois, according to a running list maintained by the National Association on Mental Illness.
“Fright Fest is a long-time staple at our parks, and our haunted attractions are designed for entertainment purposes only,” said Sandra Daniels, spokeswoman for Six Flags Entertainment in an email. “When we realized that some of the theming and descriptions might have perpetrated certain stereotypes, we took immediate action as it was never our intention to offend.”
Patrick Corrigan, an expert in mental-health stigma, called the Halloween attractions “ignorant and disrespectful.” He likened the problem to companies that once marketed restaurant chains with images of Aunt Jemima and Little Black Sambo.
It’s not only insensitive, it’s also irresponsible, he said.
“It exacerbates the dangerous belief which fans the flames of discrimination — I’m not going to hire a person who is unpredictable and potentially violent,” Corrigan said. “This only adds to self-stigma and a sense of shame when people internalize these ideas.”
Smaller family-owned attractions are also responding to complaints.
Paton Blough has been arrested during bipolar episodes. An activist for mental-health awareness, Blough sent an impassioned letter to the owner of Denver Downs Farm in Anderson, S.C., after hearing about a Halloween attraction that showed a prisoner handcuffed and in a straitjacket.
“Unfortunately, this is very real to me,” he said. “I’ve been strapped to beds and chairs in jails and hospitals.”
Blough’s letter persuaded Ron Smith, director of operations for the farm’s entertainment venues, to remove that aspect of the attraction.
“It really bothered him, so it wasn’t a big deal,” Smith said. “Some people thought it was silly, but regardless of what they thought, we didn’t even give it a second thought. We have 25 to 30 different scenes that’s part of the overall haunt, so removing one small aspect wasn’t a big deal.”
Still, some people in their town thought it was a big deal, and Blough faced some harassment online after a local news station covered the removal of the attraction, with people demeaning him for being too sensitive.
But Mary Giliberti, director of NAMI, said it’s an issue much deeper than someone’s personal offense.
“This isn’t just about feelings, it’s about health care,” she said. “I think many people who have these conditions realize there is a social discrimination and stigma against them and they internalize that … then to come to a ride and have that reinforced. You know this would never happen for other health conditions. You wouldn’t have a Halloween attraction about a cancer ward. It is mocking something that is a very serious illness.”
NAMI has helped field advocacy, sending letters to the entertainment companies explaining to them why the asylum attractions are so damaging. But like a game of whack-a-mole, they bat one down and then find out about another.
Just this week, they were notified of a Groupon offering up to 51 percent off admission to the “Psycho Asylum” in San Antonio.
And it’s not only Halloween attractions. Last week, Pete Earley, an author who writes about mental illness, called attention to a costume makeup kit being sold at Walmart that depicted a razor blade cutting a “suicide scar wound.” The big-box store removed the item from its website, and the company that makes it, Rubie’s Costume Co., removed it from its website as well, although it still sells a Psycho Ward patient costume.
Both companies apologized, according to Earley.
“I realize that some think our protests are political correctness run amok,” he said, “but when you know people who are afraid of seeking treatment because they don’t want to be seen as ‘loonies,’ you understand just how harmful these costumes can be.”
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