No matter how many times people express their distaste for these themes, no matter how many articles are written about why exploiting mental health stereotypes during Halloween is offensive to those who suffer from real mental illnesses, there are enough people that actively enjoy it to merit creating tasteless costumes or questionable party themes. So why is this still such a big problem? I believe the answer might lie partly in how we go about educating others on the issue.
It’s certainly very important to outline exactly why these things offend people, be it making them aware of the real-life parallels or correcting inaccuracies in these offensive portrayals. Unfortunately, this approach alone is missing the larger impact these negative portrayals can have, and in doing so, is not addressing some of the biggest remaining arguments for these attractions.
Let’s take a very recent example from this year at Knott’s Scary Farm in California, where a seasonal attraction called Fear VR: 5150 was recently shut down due to public outcry. One of the biggest problems with the attraction was the name itself. The code 5150 refers to involuntary institutionalization in the state of California, usually enacted when someone is determined to be a danger to themselves or others. There are countless articles all over the media discussing why people have found this offensive, but there are still many people who feel it should not have been closed in the first place. One blogger writes, “people need to stop being so sensitive and come to terms with the fact that they may not be able to do certain things due to triggers they may experience.” Despite having been to a mental institution, this person is quite fervent in her desire to see the attraction reopened.
This is where the problem lies: the focus on why and how these themes are offensive has led some to believe that this is largely an individual problem, a movement set on protecting people’s individual sensitivities. In reality, however, the problem lies not with the theme itself, but with the context in which it is being presented. The allure of these themes has been present throughout history. On their own, they absolutely should not be forbidden. However, Fear VR: 5150 was a public attraction presented as part of Halloween festivities, something on par with ghouls and ghosts and vampires. But this is a very different kind of horror, a very real and impactful horror that has no place among lighthearted frights. More importantly, the actual “horror” of these tragic cases in real life is completely ignored in favor of a cheap “crazy person is possessed” narrative. It’s perpetuating a negative (and inaccurate) image that actively fuels the still very present idea that people with mental illnesses are inherently dangerous. The proof of this image pops up every time we have a mass shooting or other violent crime in the country. Immediately after, without fail, there are people jumping to talk about mental health reform, and therefore implying that the killer must have been dangerous because he or she was mentally ill. And research has shown that the stigma associated with mental illness affects people on an individual level, too. The fact of the matter is this kind of fun is not harmless at all.
So where does that leave us? Do we need to abandon psychological horror altogether? While the reality is that most people with mental health conditions are not scary at all, the genuine horrors of older asylums in history, or even the mental struggles people go through today when living with certain illnesses, shouldn’t be banned completely. And they don’t have to be, not if we treat the subject with the proper respect it deserves.
First of all, we need to move away from the “crazy person is a possessed psycho killer solely because of their mental illness” narrative altogether. Appropriateness and harmful implications aside, it’s just lazy writing. There is plenty of horror to be explored within these themes without perpetuating harmful mental health stereotypes.
The game Neverending Nightmares is a good example of how a very similar topic can be treated with a lot more respect and care without diluting the horror aspect of it. This game focuses on the genuine perspective of the person struggling with a mental illness through symbolism and imagery, instead of portraying them as some unpredictable, irrational villains.
As for asylums, I think many will find that the actual history of them is much, much scarier than anything an attraction like Fear VR: 5150 portrays. The conditions in these institutions, even as recent as 50 years ago, were truly terrifying and not something we should forget (lest we ever repeat the mistakes of the past). Centering a “fun” attraction around it is just inherently distasteful.