Knott's Closes Halloween Attraction Over Offensive Mental Illness Stereotypes

By McCarton Ackerman 10/03/16

The “FearVR: 5150” attraction follows Katie, a possessed patient who escapes a psychiatric hold and runs wild through a mental hospital.

Knott's Closes Halloween Attraction Over Offensive Mental Illness Stereotypes

A Halloween attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm and California’s Great America was closed after mental health advocates expressed outrage over its stigmatizing of mental illness.

The attraction was called “FearVR: 5150,” with 5150 being a direct reference to the code for a psychiatric hold. The virtual reality setup focuses on Katie, a possessed patient who has broken loose and is running wild throughout the hospital.

Customers who entered the attraction were strapped into a chair and given virtual reality goggles. If the situation became too intense for them at any point, they could press a “panic button.”

Mental health advocates said having a virtual reality attraction that portrays mentally ill people as harmful would only reinforce untrue and negative stereotypes.

“You know you're in an insane asylum, and that this Katie, this patient, is loose and is going to do bad things to you. It's wrong,” said Ron Thomas, whose son Kelly had schizophrenia and died in a violent confrontation with Fullerton police in 2011. "The mentally ill are people. They're human beings. They're suffering. They have illnesses, and we have to do something to help them—not demonize them. Not to continue the stigma of mental illness."

Kay Warren, the wife of Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, also expressed outrage. The couple lost their son Matthew to mental illness when he committed suicide in 2013. Warren posted a Facebook status last Monday which said the attraction “is NOT entertainment. I’m infuriated that they use the pain and suffering of millions of people for laughs or thrills. Take it down!”

As the protests grew louder from mental health advocates like Warren, park officials removed the attraction. Cedar Fair, which owns both Knott’s Berry Farm and California's Great America, shut down identical attractions at other theme park locations.

“Over the past week we have heard from a number of people expressing their concern that one of our temporary, Halloween attractions—FearVR—is hurtful to those who suffer from mental illnesses," reads a statement from park officials. "Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, 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."

Rick Warren tweeted his appreciation last Tuesday morning, thanking park officials for their “sensitivity” and for “closing a ride that stereotyped & stigmatized mental illness.”

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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.