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.