Asylum attraction stigmatizes treatment of mental illness

Halloween-centric movies and attractions designed to induce fear––and generate profit––often incorporate harmful stereotypes of “the insane” and “the insane asylum.” This plays off age-old tropes of mentally ill individuals being irrationally violent and horrifying and psychiatric institutions being nothing more than oppressive holding cells that are littered with these kinds of dangerous, dehumanized figures. One such attraction at California amusement park Knott’s Berry Farm––FearVR: 5150––was recently––and rightfully––shut down after protests from mental health advocates condemned the attraction’s exploitation of mental illness as a means of entertainment.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the description of the virtual reality attraction invited participants to “enter the mysterious Meadowbrook Institute and witness the abnormal case of a terrifyingly unusual patient named Katie.” In addition, the 5150 number referenced in the name of the attraction is the police code for a mentally ill person who is a danger to themselves or others who can then be placed in a temporary, involuntary psychiatric hold.

In addition to members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one of the first individuals to openly criticize the attraction was former Orange County sheriff’s deputy Ron Thomas, whose schizophrenic and homeless son, Kelly Thomas, was brutally killed by police officers in 2011. Ron Thomas described the attraction as “insensitive,” further noting that, “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.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Ron Thomas and the other individuals who expressed their concerns about FearVR: 5150. While certainly not the only attraction to do so, FearVR: 5150 positing this narrative of psychiatric patients as animalistic and out of control is incredibly hurtful––not only to individuals suffering from mental illness themselves, but to the public’s perception of mental illness and psychiatric facilities. In addition, it serves to undermine and ignore actual, documented horrors and abuse that many patients have endured throughout the history of psychiatric commitment.

Knott’s closing the attraction in response to legitimate concerns is undeniably positive; there still lies the glaring problem, however, in the organization’s claim that “the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness.” Looking at the description of the attraction and the inclusion of the 5150 code, I would beg to differ.

By making a conscious choice to use a psychiatric facility and patients as fear-inducing spectacles––and then denying any implications of mental illness being portrayed––the organization expressed a disheartening ignorance and lack of empathy toward the very real problem of trivializing mental illness.

When combining Knott’s Berry Farm’s attraction and the company’s statement, the act serves as a sobering reminder about the continued ignorance and stigmatization of mental illness and psychiatric treatment that endures today. Whether meant to be cruel or not, narratives that only serve to degrade and stereotype mental illness have no place in our society––whether at Halloween or any other time.