Could Halloween Attractions Mocking Mental Illness Soon Become Extinct?

By McCarton Ackerman 10/31/16

Several theme parks are renaming or eliminating rides that many feel misrepresent and stigmatize mentally illness. 

Could Halloween Attractions Mocking Mental Illness Soon Become Extinct?

Several theme parks across the country are now either modifying or completely removing Halloween attractions that grossly exaggerate mental illness, due to widespread protests.

Carowinds, an amusement park in Charlotte, North Carolina, hosted a Halloween attraction for years called “7th Ward Asylum,” which described the patients as “lost and tortured souls.” The attraction has since been changed to portray a more general hospital theme, called "Urgent Scare."

A Halloween theme park in Kansas City, Missouri, had an attraction called “Asylum Island,” in which “the inmates have taken control of Lakeside Mental Hospital and there’s no cure in sight.”

Susan Estes, who has bipolar disorder and has twice been hospitalized, said the island attraction included a patient who just had a lobotomy and a character pleading to be let out as they are strapped to a bed. After taking her two children inside, Estes says she was forced to explain to them that "Asylum Island" did not represent mental illness.

“Mom has an illness, you’ve met friends of mine that have an illness,” she recalled telling them to the Middletown Press. “I try so hard to destigmatize mental illness that I found it so frustrating that these images are still out there.”

"Asylum Island" was removed from the Kansas City theme park this year.

Advocates have expressed outrage that some theme park attractions portray those with mental illness as people to be feared. Patrick Corrigan, an expert in mental health stigma, said the issue was similar in many ways to restaurants that used to feature images of Aunt Jemima or Little Black Sambo.

“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,” said Corrigan. “This only adds to self-stigma and a sense of shame when people internalize these ideas.”

Several theme parks are now responding to the demand for change. Six Flags Entertainment modified several of its Halloween attractions this year, including changing the name of the Massachusetts-based “Psycho-Path Haunted Asylum” to “The Forgotten Laboratory.” Sandra Daniels, a spokeswoman for Six Flags, told the Middletown Press via 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.”

Meanwhile, “FearVR: 5150” was closed at Knott’s Berry Farm and California’s Great America in early October. The attraction, a direct reference to the code for a psychiatric hold, focused on Katie, a possessed patient who broke loose and runs wild through the hospital.

Officials from Cedar Fair, which owns both parks, released a statement saying, “The attraction's story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness. As it is impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween timeframe, at this time we have decided to close the attraction."

The issue with stigma isn’t limited to theme parks, though. Pete Earley, an author who writes about mental illness, spearheaded a successful campaign to have Walmart remove a costume makeup kit that depicted a razor blade cutting a “suicide scar wound.” Earley said Walmart and the maker of the product, Rubie’s Costume Co., ultimately pulled the item from their websites.

“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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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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