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Powerful Advocacy has Shut Down Halloween “Attractions” that Ramp Up Prejudice

Full disclosure: I hate scary stuff. I don’t watch horror movies; I don’t read Stephen King or Dean Koontz; and I don’t pay good cash money to visit Halloween theme park attractions featuring ghosts, ghouls, or goblins.

But a lot of people do. So, every Halloween, theme parks around the country seem to compete with each other to see who can create the scariest exhibits.

This year, two major North American theme park chains—Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Six Flags—came up with some really terrifying concepts, featuring a creature that apparently haunts the nightmares of a lot of Americans: Me. Well, not exactly me, but people who, like me, have mental health conditions.

Spoiler alert: In a victory for the mental health advocacy community, these Halloween exhibits have either been shut down (Cedar Fair), or revamped to feature zombies (Six Flags).

The Cedar Fair exhibit involved “virtual reality,” so it would have been hard to amend; they would have had to start from scratch.

The Six Flags exhibit was easier to revise. The promotional material for one exhibit read, in part, “Wander through an abandoned asylum in small groups through tight spaces, darken (sic)corridors and forgotten cells.” So it evidently involves some sort of maze that visitors navigate IRL. (That’s web-speak for In Real Life.)

More on the original Six Flags promotion: “Our new haunted house brings you face-to-face with the world’s worst psychiatric patients. Traverse the haunted hallways of Dark Oaks Asylum and try not to bump into any of the grunting inmates around every turn. Maniacal inmates yell out from their bloodstained rooms and deranged guards wander the corridors in search of those who have escaped.”

At another Six Flags theme park, an exhibit called PSYCHO-PATH (original emphasis) Haunted Asylum was described this way: “The inmates of the Asylum have broken loose and will have you screaming in sheer terror as they taunt and torture their newest victims.”

Now, the “grunting inmates” and the creatures that “will have you screaming in sheer terror” are zombies.

Advocates became aware of the Cedar Fair exhibits after a Los Angeles Times article reported that a virtual reality (VR) show at Knott’s Berry Farm in California “admits visitors to a mental hospital where a psychiatric patient with demonic powers is on the loose.” (Knott’s Berry Farm was one of three Cedar Fair theme parks that were operating the exhibit; the others were Great America in California and Wonderland in Canada.)

An ad hoc coalition was quickly mobilized  by Doris Schwartz, chief operating officer of the Mental Health Association of Westchester (New York). The nationwide coalition, including individuals with lived experience, family members, friends and allies, had come together in 2015 to work on toppling a Kenneth Cole billboard on the Henry Hudson Parkway in New York City. The billboard, which pandered to the public’s fear that individuals with mental health conditions are violent, proclaimed, “Over 40M Americans suffer from mental illness. Some can access care…all can access guns.—Kenneth Cole #GunReform #AreYouPuttingUsOn.” Our effort was joined by others, including the American Psychiatric Association, and together we won that battle.

So it wasn’t difficult to regroup and get to work when Doris became aware of the Los Angeles Times article, which called the FearVR: 5150 exhibit “immersive, captivating and scary,” as well as “impressive.”

What the reporter did not say was that the exhibit seemed calculated to exacerbate the fear and prejudice associated with mental health conditions, although he noted that 5150 is the California code for a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric commitment. “The VR experience follows a demonically possessed patient named Katie, who unleashes chaos throughout the hospital and takes mental control of the medical staff,” the reporter wrote.

Many people called and sent emails to KBF. One powerful email came from activist Katie Trombley, who has given me permission to quote from it. “I beg you,” her message concluded, “as an expatient and survivor of a suicide attempt named Katie, to please close this down…in the name of humanity.”

Responding to Katie and to the many other coalition members who called and emailed, a Knott’s Berry Farm (KBF) spokesperson claimed that the “virtual reality experience is actually built around zombie-like monsters and paranormal activity in a hospital setting.” This was hard to believe, given the LA Times reporter’s description of the exhibit and the 5150 in its name!

Following additional calls and emails, the KBF spokesperson wrote again to say, “Cedar Fair recognizes that the press depiction of our experience, while inaccurate (emphasis added), has raised concerns around the insensitivity to the stigmas surrounding mental health. Part of the confusion stems from the use of the code 5150 in the experience’s original name. For that reason, the name has been changed to FearVR.”

Still, the “experience” itself was unchanged.

Finally, after our coalition kept up the pressure, the KBF public relations representative—while still denying that the exhibit had any connection to individuals with mental health conditions—let us know that it had been cancelled in all three Cedar Fair theme parks as a result of our outreach. He or she (no name was ever attached to the emails) wrote: “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.” One down (Cedar Fair)! Or three down (the three Cedar Fair theme parks)! (It depends on how you count.)

Meanwhile, our efforts got more press coverage, including by award-winning journalist Steve Lopez. Steve had been contacted by Ron Thomas, whose son, Kelly, who had a psychiatric diagnosis, was beaten to death by police officers some five years ago. Members of NAMI in Orange and Los Angeles counties were also very active in the advocacy effort around the KBF exhibit, which was in their back yard.

Although we had succeeded, I found KBF’s disingenuous emails a little depressing. So I was heartened by the response from Six Flags.

First, Nancy Chan, communications manager at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, outside San Francisco, wrote to apologize. “We are making immediate changes to this attraction including converting the theme and will change out the references in advertising and social media to reflect the new theme. The maze will now feature zombies,” she wrote, adding, “This is a good lesson for us all about perpetuating stereotypes…” A teachable moment!

Given that Cedar Fair has closed its FearVR: 5150 attractions as a result of our advocacy, and that Six Flags is revamping its exhibits so that they feature zombies, I think the takeaway is that advocacy works! We stood up for what was right and we made a difference! “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…”

Unfortunately, despite all our efforts over decades to educate the public, we have not made the inroads that we need to make. It just exhausts me to realize that national corporations, who should know better, think it’s okay to create Halloween “attractions” of this sort, and that reporters for mainstream news organizations, such as the Los Angeles Times, aren’t horrified by this. It makes me realize how much farther we need to go.

P.S. Someone (who describes herself as a psychology doctoral student) has created a petition to bring back FearVR: 5150, and the petition has gotten a couple thousand signatures. The creator of this petition thinks the advocacy community needs to lighten up. That would be easy in an ideal world. But IRL (i.e., In Real Life), we need to keep fighting the prejudice and discrimination that haunt us. Now, that’s scary.

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