Second Opinion: Halloween 'Insane Asylums' Should Not Offend the Mentally Ill

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Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.

Halloween is a holiday filled with mystery, death, and superstition, not to mention witches, ghouls, and the walking dead. Many teenagers and adults embrace the scarier aspects of the holiday by visiting haunted houses and being open to the idea of being frightened. Many such attractions are billed as interactive horror movies and include the use of talented actors, exceptional make-up, and technology.

Per History.com, Halloween “is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.” Even the act of trick-or-treating is rooted in the ancient tradition of leaving wine and food for spirits still roaming the earth.

To most people in the United States, Halloween is seen as a playful holiday filled with make-believe, humor, and fun. It’s not taken seriously, and is enjoyed by millions of adults, families, and children. This is the primary reason I find it odd that many mental health charities all over the country think that haunted insane asylums are offensive to people, like myself, who live with mental illness.

Recent controversy

As a person living with bipolar disorder, no one is more sensitive to the stigma of mental illness than I am. I’ve lost friends and a successful career, and I’ve been discriminated against more times than I can remember. The stigma against people living with mental health issues is very real.

All that aside, I am surprised every October when I see people so offended by the clearly exaggerated portrayal of the “criminally insane.” This diagnosis has long since been abandoned by medical professionals; its definition is primary of a legal nature. It’s important to note that no one is diagnosed with “insanity” and it only applies to people in the criminal court system, if at all.

This year, Knott’s Berry Farm came under fire for its virtual reality horror experience, FEARVR. FEARVR involved visitors wearing a virtual reality headset, being strapped to a hospital wheelchair, and the simulation was that of a crazed mental patient killing people.

When word of the attraction being set in an insane asylum got out, mental health advocates all over the nation reacted. Their lobbying campaign was so intense that Knott’s Berry Farm opted to close the attraction.

There is much to say on this situation, but my major concern lies in the idea that the majority of people don’t have issues with simulating murder — which I’m certain is traumatic for the family members of homicide victims. The primary concern is that the murderer was portrayed as mentally ill.

In this particular attraction, the murderer wasn’t even portrayed as mentally ill, really. Most people with a mental health diagnosis are just like most other people, after all. No, this character was an insane psychopath: an exaggerated, scary, and entirely stereotyped version of a murderer. In other words, the same sort portrayed in hundreds of slasher films, about which these same advocacy groups handle much differently.

Refocusing advocacy away from fiction

For me, as a mental health advocate, the decision about where to put my advocacy efforts is simple, and depends on whether the general public will likely believe it’s a reasonable example of mental illness.

Every year when the haunted-mental-asylum-uproar reoccurs in the mental health community, I can’t help but shudder at the hypocrisy, given how many other stereotypical examples of behavior in our society that we collectively seem uninterested in resolving.

As an example, when the African-American community argues that black males are most often falsely depicted as violent criminals in pop culture, the collective society is quick to point out that it’s just fiction and there is no reason to be offended. And, frankly, that is an issue that warrants further discussion.

Yet, year after year, the mental health community is bothered by something that is clearly make-believe. I’m not certain that the general public is mistaking haunted asylums as actual portrayals of living with mental illness. I truly believe that most people see it for what it is: entertainment.

But, let’s assume that the general public does believe that all mentally ill people are violent serial killers. I’m at a loss as to why we in the mental health community don’t use this as a teachable moment instead of an opportunity to be offended.

Imagine, if instead of working so hard to shut all these haunted asylums down, we worked with the organizers to post this statement in their advertising and outside the entrance:

“This attraction does not portray the actual reality for millions of Americans who live with mental illness.  In fact, people with mental illness are no more likely to commit violence than anyone else in society."

"Also, please note that the reason this attraction causes fear is because of the historically deplorable conditions people endured in mental asylums. Psychiatric wards and in-patient facilities can still be frightening.”

Wouldn’t that be a lot better than being offended and asking society to give us special treatment, while simultaneously advocating that we want to be treated as equals?