“Going crazy over this costume”: Halloween and Mental Health

Halloween will soon be here again, and while I was doing a bit of reading online I came across this story. In 2010, the National Alliance on Mental Illness in America made a complaint against a theme park in Ohio for running a haunted house called “Dr D. Mented’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane” and a music show called “The Edge of Madness: Still Crazy”. The Alliance stated that they believed the attractions promoted negative stereotypes and misinformation about mental health. Originally, the park defended their attractions and refused to change the names, saying that the rides “do not depict real life” and that “no one else has complained”. However, this year the park apparently had a change of heart, renaming the rides and stating that as “a few people were offended, we’re changing them”. They “certainly weren’t trying to disrespect.”

The rides at the theme park in Ohio depicted blood-spattered ‘patients’ in hospital gowns, dummies with Hannibal Lector-style masks, and signs warning patrons to ‘beware of patients posing as physicians or medical staff’ (click here for pictures, scroll down). A realistic depiction it ain’t, but it’s still enough to make me feel a bit sick. Depicting what is essentially a psychiatric facility (albeit an overblown, movie-style representation) as being a frightening and possibly dangerous place to be doesn’t seem like such a great idea to me. Psychiatric units do exist in real life, people do go to them as patients to receive treatment and turning them into sensationalised places of horror is a pretty tasteless thing to do in light of that. There was the predictable backlash against the protest, with people claiming that the protestors were being too sensitive, that the rides weren’t supposed to be realistic and that “if you don’t like it, don’t go” , as if the only concern of NAMI was their own reaction and not the impact on the general public’s reaction to mental health issues.

I could sort of see where the backlash was coming from. Theme parks are pretty much as far from real life as you can get; that’s why people go to them in the first place. I wouldn’t dispute that. However, while witches, goblins, vampires and zombies are most definitely not real (don’t flame me in the comments – I do keep a crowbar handy in case the apocalypse comes), inmates of mental health facilities most certainly are. That, I think, was NAMI’s point: it’s not the depiction of the ‘asylum’ that’s in question, it’s the depiction of mental health at all. They stated in their letter to the park that a cancer ward-themed ride wouldn’t be appropriate, so why doesn’t the same rule apply with the ‘asylum’? I think it’s a good point.

Unfortunately, this story is not unique. Last year, another amusement park in North Carolina had an attraction called ‘The Asylum’, and in Philadelphia, ‘The Pennhurst Asylum’ was a halloween attraction that sparked controversy as it was built on the grounds of an actual hospital that had closed years before. The original plans for the attraction included actors portraying people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a fact that former employee of the hospital, J. Gregory Pirmann called “offensive beyond belief”. When reading the story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of people in the 17th century who were able to pay a fee to look at the inmates of the local asylum for entertainment. The whole thing left me feeling angry, unsettled and confused. Have we really not come far enough to realise that mental health issues shouldn’t be sensationalised like this?

I haven’t come across any similar stories in England (which I was pretty thankful for), but there are some things I’ve noticed that have made me uneasy. The sale of ‘mental patient’ Halloween costumes for one thing, where you can buy a fake strait-jacket or orange jumpsuit for a fancy dress party and go along foaming at the mouth or something… On the surface, you might look at something like that and laugh but it’s likely that if someone turned up to a party as a cancer patient or someone suffering from Parkinson’s, you’d think they were a moronic arsehole. These outfits are still sold in stores and online, although I think there’s possibly less of them now than there has been before. Protesters have put their foot down on several occasions, including the case of the ‘Anna Rexic’ girl’s Halloween costume, supposedly a ‘joke’ (concerning a mental illness that kills thousands every year). In reality, it’s a cataclysm of bad taste that simply beggars belief.

So what’s the damage? I’m really interested in what affects people’s feelings towards mental health issues, and I can’t help but think that, while silly and over-the-top, these Halloween themes are promoting a harmful message to people that mental illness is both something to be feared and mocked in equal measure. NAMI in America put out a message in 2006, pleading with people not to exploit mental health issues in their Halloween celebrations by sticking to ‘ghouls and goblins, trap doors and tombstones’ and leaving out ‘psychiatric wards, insane asylums and the bloodthirsty killers in straitjackets’. All in all, I think it’s a more than reasonable request.

However, simply turning our back on tasteless Halloween attractions may only be the tip of the iceberg. After all, they’re reflecting a wider media culture concerning the fear of the mentally ill. If somebody puts on a strait-jacket or a mask as a Halloween costume, they’re not directly mocking the mentally ill, but rather portraying a view they’ve seen in films or on TV. This is why Halloween attractions and costumes like this are still sold: because it’s often the only identification people have with mental health issues: that it’s OK to fear or mock them. In a recent survey undertaken by UK mental health charity, Time to Change, they found that half of the respondents indicated that they had seen violent “mentally ill” characters in TV or film. Then, when asked what characteristics define film characters with mental illnesses, two of the top answers were “violent” and “likely to kill violently”. Of course, the link between what people watch and what they believe is difficult to prove. But given the amount of stigma that still surrounds mental illness, I think we’d do well to start looking at alternative representations. Aside from a few notable exceptions, there are few films or TV programmes that portray characters with mental health difficulties without resorting to stereotypes like violence and comedy. The longer we keep these stereotypes in place, the harder it’s going to be for people to live their lives free of stigma. And that is something that genuinely frightens me.

Title quote can be found here, if you can stomach it.

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7 thoughts on ““Going crazy over this costume”: Halloween and Mental Health

  1. So… I think the thing here is that there exist two big depictions of mental health facilities and the mentally ill in pop culture. One I’ll refer to as the Cuckoo’s Nest (in reference to the massive cinematic success story that was Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), and the other as Arkham Asylum, after the fictional Home For The Criminally Insane where all of Batman’s violent and dangerous adversaries ended up at some point. There is possibly a third category; where the institution exists as a means for those who should be taking care of the inmates to instead abuse them (á la Sucker Punch, Terminator 2 and a metric fucktonne of others – potentially One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as well, ironically, given my perhaps-a-tad-hasty naming), which paint a negative image of mental health institutions but not of the mentally ill (and are therefore still unhelpful to your cause). But I’m just going to focus upon the two key depictions I started this with; one more sympathetic to the mentally ill, and one portraying them as bloodthirsty killers.

    Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) is a good pick for this, actually, as the character Michael Myers escaped from an asylum; so we’ll throw that into the Arkham Asylum block, while obviously Girl, Interrupted falls into the former category. Both Donnie Darko and Psycho had major characters who were diagnosed schizophrenic but the former I’d throw into the Cuckoo’s Nest category and the latter into Arkham Asylum.

    This might all sound a little pointless, but let me continue. Horror, as a genre, relies upon fear of The Other. It also relies upon the suspension of disbelief. Since the vast majority of us will never find ourselves inside a mental health facility, yet we WILL live near one, they’re a very convenient location. Since the word ‘insane’ belies a lack of rationality – and if you want to tell me that can’t potentially be a scary thing to witness, I’m going to forward you clips from the recent RNC in Tampa – the writers don’t even have to provide good motives for murdering fellow human beings, or even explanation as to why that would need to be done sadistically. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just that it’s a thing and there are reasons for it. So, to roundup, both the mental health facility AND the mentally ill can be The Other in a horror film/book/whatever.

    The problem you will find is, there’re a lot of examples of what I dubbed Arkham Asylum. The ‘mentally ill serial killer’ is now a cliché; a genre trope. In fact, you could make the argument that, as time has gone on, we’ve – as a society – come to understand mental illness and treat sufferers with more respect and that we also, due to that, now understand just how far removed from the truth the blood-splattered asylum image is (hence surprise when someone is offended by it). Even our most ignorant dumbasses probably think the poster boy for mental illness is Rain Man rather than The Joker.

    I really don’t remember where I was going with this anymore. Sorry. I’ll just… stop.

  2. Also, I’d like to say, on the subject of this line I wrote:
    “So, to roundup, both the mental health facility AND the mentally ill can be The Other in a horror film/book/whatever.”
    A) I don’t like ’roundup’, I should really have written ‘summarise’.
    B) I said CAN. Not SHOULD. As per usual for me, I’m not taking sides, just observing. 😉

  3. ” In fact, you could make the argument that, as time has gone on, we’ve – as a society – come to understand mental illness and treat sufferers with more respect and that we also, due to that, now understand just how far removed from the truth the blood-splattered asylum image is (hence surprise when someone is offended by it). Even our most ignorant dumbasses probably think the poster boy for mental illness is Rain Man rather than The Joker.”

    That’s not happening though… I quoted a survey where the majority of respondents thought that mentally ill people were either “violent” or “likely to kill violently”. There’s still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness – I’ve witnessed it first-hand and heard countless stories from others. People have very little understanding of what psychiatric hospitals actually are and there’s still a lot of fear – just try telling someone you’ve spent time in one and see their reaction. I think the “Poster boy” comment probably shows the problem more than ever… the media has a huge amount of influence in how people think about these issues – where else will they see them? More accurate portrayals and less sensationalism are what’s needed.

  4. “That’s not happening though… I quoted a survey where the majority of respondents thought that mentally ill people were either “violent” or “likely to kill violently””

    While I somehow managed to completely miss your last paragraph, it actually says:

    ” In a recent survey undertaken by UK mental health charity, Time to Change, they found that half of the respondents indicated that they had seen violent “mentally ill” characters in TV or film. Then, when asked what characteristics define film characters with mental illnesses, two of the top answers were “violent” and “likely to kill violently”. Of course, the link between what people watch and what they believe is difficult to prove.”

    The statistic was that 29% of people had read about violence by people with mental health problems in a newspaper, and the next question was about defining the characters they witness in films. Since there are different theories about how we receive information FROM the media (Hypodermic Needle Theory, Negotiated Reading and that third one I forgot the name of that’s the opposite of the first one), it’s not really the same as citing a survey saying what percentage of people believed violent acts were a common side effect of mental illness. Which would be incredibly helpful for making that point.

    Incidentally, some of the film choices in there threw me off a little bit. How was Saw about mental illness, exactly? I remember the guy having cancer.

    Anyway. I’m on your side in that I think we do need to A) produce films that deal with mental illness accurately and B) have peoples’ ignorance of the subject make THEM the buttmonkey in comedies rather than the people suffering mental illness.

  5. Well, looks like we need a hit as big as Avatar and Twilight combined that deals with a main character who suffers schizophrenia in a realistic fashion, is incredibly well-written and doesn’t appeal to the same audience as Cameron Crowe films.

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