Is the theme park industry hostile to mental health concerns?

September 28, 2016, 8:59 AM · This week, the Cedar Fair company closed a virtual reality experience at its theme parks' Halloween events, following accusations that the attraction was insensitive to the mentally ill.

FearVR, originally titled FearVR 5150, depicted a girl in a mental health facility. The title change is significant, as "5150" was a reference to "a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which authorizes a peace officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected of having a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves or others," as the Orange County Register reported. That reference makes clear that mental health was a core device within the attraction, which is something that should trouble anyone who cares about the way society treats mental health.

A disclaimer, first: The person leading the PR campaign against Knott's and Cedar Fair is a publicity hound who has been associated with many hateful causes in the past. So I don't fault anyone who sees his name attached to this story and immediately dismisses his concerns. Heck, that was my first reaction, too. But there is a valid concern here, and people working in the theme park industry would do well by listening to it, instead of glibly dismissing it.

I haven't seen the attraction (and I'll explain more about why I didn't see it in a bit), so I can't comment on it, specifically. But I do want to talk about the broader issue of referencing mental health treatment in entertainment.

The horror genre has a long history of using mental health as a device — the mental hospital as a chamber of horrors and mental patient or caregivers as villains. But that history does not justify the continued, unexamined use of those devices in the future — no more than comedians could justify continuing to use blackface, blonde jokes or other ethnic stereotyping for cheap laughs, just because their predecessors long had done so.

The whole point of the horror genre is to reference and confront our fears. The lazy use of mental health devices within the genre can promote the idea that mental health care is something fearful, and that anyone who gets or gives mental health care is someone to be feared.

Do we really want to be telling people who feel atypical that they should be afraid of reaching out for help? Do we really want to tell people that they should shun their friends, neighbors and family members who get mental health care? But that's what the entertainment industry risks doing when it falls back on mental health devices as horror stereotypes.

Words and images matter. As an industry, we can't crow about the power of narrative storytelling when pitching a new attraction or museum exhibit, then fall back on "it's just a joke - it's just a device - it doesn't really matter" when we are called out on using words and images in ways that hurt people. We can't have it both ways. Either words or images matter, or they don't.

They matter.

Look, atypical mental function drives a countless numbers of characters in entertainment, from Jack Torrance in The Shining to Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. That's not going to change, nor should it. But in addressing atypical mental function, writers and creators need to be careful about the unspoken messages they send regarding mental health care.

One of the well-established devices in horror is the supernatural — specifically, the way that a person confronted with the supernatural begins to question whether they are mentally atypical. They don't know that it's not "just in their head" — that supernatural forces really are at play. Because the mental health of the protagonist is in question, it's natural that people and places associated with mental health care will figure into these narratives.

In a two-hour movie or on-going television series, writers and creators have plenty of time to deal with mental health responsibly. Look at Stranger Things. Mild spoiler here: Initially, the neighborhood kids dismiss the atypical new kid they meet as "mental" and wonder if she's escape from a local facility. But soon, they get to know her and become her friends and fierce allies. Any question of mental health illness is dismissed and forgotten.

But in a three-to-five minute theme park attraction, no one has the time to develop a complex examination of mental health issues. If something associated with mental health is included in an attraction, it is most likely done as a stereotype — a lazy device that sends that awful message that mental health care is something to be feared.

As you might have inferred, this issue is personal for me. One my first jobs was working in the medical records department of a state mental health hospital, and some people who are very close to me are atypical. I'm not a fan of the horror genre, in part due to its history of demeaning mental health care. (That's why I tend to send other people to cover horror events for Theme Park Insider, which is why I didn't experience Knott's VR attraction.) But the issue of mental health care shouldn't have to be personal for someone to care about it.

Creators needs to stop using mental health as a horror stereotype, just as they stopped using blackface and ethnic jokes as humor stereotypes, homosexuality as a criminal stereotype, and Judaism as a stereotype for cheapness and greed. It's lazy. It's insensitive, and more than than, it's abusive.

And don't give me this political correctness crap. Sensitivity to and consideration for others are not weakness — they are what makes a civilization possible.

Again, I can't speak to whether FearVR 5150 specifically referenced enough mental health stereotypes to be pulled. From what I've heard, it sounds as though it did, and I am disappointed in Matt Ouimet and his team at Cedar Fair for allowing it to be green-lit in the first place.

But I more disappointed in the reaction of a few theme park industry creative professionals to the news. I've seen many social media posts attacking Cedar Fair for pulling the attraction and dismissing concerns that it might have been offensive to those who care about mental health. It's one thing if fans lash out, but industry professionals ought to know better.

The fact that some well-established people in this industry think it's okay to joke about and dismiss concerns over horror's troubling history with mental health care tells me that, yes, the theme park industry does have a problem here.

So let's fix it. Let's start by listening to these concerns about the horror genre... and not dismissing them.

Replies (44)

September 28, 2016 at 9:20 AM · Well-written editorial, Robert. I appreciate where you're coming from on this and it raises interesting questions moving forward for haunted attractions. I hate that all the attention had to be started by publicity hounds (I came across them on Twitter), but that's how it goes. I feel like I'm still formulating my thoughts on this, but I appreciate where you're coming from.
September 28, 2016 at 9:41 AM · Good discussion points Robert. I remember there being awareness for PTSD vets at the Horror Nights House "Havoc: Dogs of War" because there was a 50 cal. gun out front and the audio outside included a lot of gunfire.

I can tell you an insider joke. The theme of almost every Halloween Horror Nights will be "Crazy White People".

September 28, 2016 at 9:56 AM · This is only the beginning of topics being banned from a haunt attraction for not being politically correct. Universal Studios had its own issues with it's Purge depiction and the show Bill and Ted being discontinued. Seems like rape and homosexuality are banned topics. The punching bag of religion is so far not banned. That's why its okay to see the Exorcist, but not Bill and Ted.

Mental health is often used in horror movies. We often see asylums as horror movie and haunt attractions. Funny that this is no more. In real life, we can't incarcerate mentally ill people anymore, at least not as long as necessary. We set them free quickly. So we can't have a haunt attraction because it hits much too close to home. But the real people out there are a danger to themselves and others.

September 28, 2016 at 10:38 AM · Well written and interesting commentary. However, I think it was a bit of a rush to judgement. I'll tell you, Six Flags Great America has Medical Massicare without any controversy or complaint. Of states that could do better on Mental Health, it's Illinois.

The name of the Knotts attraction was a bit on the nose. I don't question the apprehension.

Unfortunately, this whole issue is just going to perpetuate the California busybody stereotype

September 28, 2016 at 10:34 AM · Universal got rid of Bill & Ted? I didn't know that. That was one of the surprise highlights to me at Halloween horror nights.
September 28, 2016 at 10:45 AM · using mental health as a horror stereotype is completely valid. using clowns and chainsaws is the REAL lazy move.

there is nothing more terrifying (to me at least) than the though of slowly losing control of your own mind. to be trapped inside your own head, or even just being trapped in a facility which is supposed to be helping you but abuses you instead.
medical malpractice, negligence, and even just pissed off and horrible medical professionals are a real thing. they are tangible threats that anyone could experience. so why WOULDN'T you put something real and scary into an event or movie that is supposed to scare you?

so, yes, i do think this is PC garbage. i'd rather not horror events and movies be watered down and bubble wrapped.

September 28, 2016 at 11:03 AM · Of course they closed the attraction. Otherwise, they risk having mobs of screaming protestors (aka the PC Police, aka Professional Protestors) bringing bad press down on them and blocking their gates. The tyranny of the Left Wing Mob is alive and well, and Big Brother is "sensitive".
September 28, 2016 at 11:03 AM · Rick Warren can start preaching about the stigma of mental illness when he stops talking about invalidating my right to marry. Dick.
September 28, 2016 at 11:04 AM · I tend to feel that most of the controversy about "mental health" horror attractions is overblown but Anton Mouse's comment

"In real life, we can't incarcerate mentally ill people anymore, at least not as long as necessary. We set them free quickly. So we can't have a haunt attraction because it hits much too close to home. But the real people out there are a danger to themselves and others."

solidifies the idea that people in the public have a incredibly insensitive and false understanding of mental health issues.

September 28, 2016 at 11:14 AM · Someone above mentioned The Purge. That was the really the worst. I love haunted houses..LOVE them. But something about shot with an air assault weapon in the Purge house last year just sucked the energy and the fun right out of it.
September 28, 2016 at 11:38 AM · The LA Times article on this story reports that Ron Thomas (father of Kelly Thomas) went to Knott's Scary Farm knowing in advance what the attraction was about, but HE DID NOT ACUTALLY EXPERIENCE IT HIMSELF ("There were so many people waiting to get in"), so he talked to people at the exit to explain it to him, and proceeded to complain to Knott's about it being insensitive. That's when my eyes roll into the back of my head. Plenty of entertainment and art installations out there could be considered offensive to a fraction of the audience. Why are theme park haunts being held to a different standard, when plenty of films and TV shows depict the same themes? Is the answer always to shut it down and ruin the fun for everyone else, when so many alternative forms of entertainment are out there to choose instead?
September 28, 2016 at 12:00 PM · Anon writes: "In real life, we can't incarcerate mentally ill people anymore."
That's false. Over 300,000 inmates in the American prison system are mentally ill: The Washington Post
September 28, 2016 at 12:13 PM · "And don't give me this political correctness crap. Sensitivity to and consideration for others are not weakness — they are what makes a civilization possible."

Bang on.

September 28, 2016 at 12:47 PM · Well said, time for a re-examination of the old mental health as horror trope.
September 28, 2016 at 1:19 PM · I agree that an attraction should not be designed to be intentionally insensitive to any group, but in this particular case I think it is more assumptions than facts. While I didn't do the attraction, I have a friend who did it at California's Great America and they said it didn't depict mental illness at all. From the reviews I've read, it sounds like the attraction does take place in a mental hospital, but the patient featured is demonically possessed and displaying telekinetic powers, not anything that would be tied to an actual mental illness. Add in the fact that most (if not all) of the complaints are coming from people who have not actually experienced the attraction and have only heard about it, and I just can't agree with this decision. The original name was probably taking it a little too far, but with that remedied I don't see any reason this attraction should be closed unless more information comes to light.
September 28, 2016 at 1:32 PM · Wasn't Michael Myers in a mental institution? So it is still ok to use Halloween as a theme as long as it isn't a scene where he is in a hospital? Is it ok if the setting was in the past when the state of mental wards actually was pretty gruesome and terrifying? And what if it was just the physical space of an old asylum lurking with other types of creatures that weren't patients (Walking Dead maybe?). I don't disagree that perpetuating a stereotype that people with mental health problems as bloodthirsty creatures hellbent on hurting you isn't a great message, but once you cross a certain line with censoring this type of stuff (that only exists to frighten and delight) its only a matter of time before everything scary gets watered down (Alien Encounter to Stitch reference...anyone?)
September 28, 2016 at 1:40 PM · Also, from the looks of it, neither Cedar Fair nor Knott's are trying to pass these 'inhabitants' off as real, living people. These are dead, zombified monsters, caricatures of caricatures, and if you either can't delineate between real and the very obviously exaggerated or if you are offended by this, just imagine if you were a legit clown....yikes.
September 28, 2016 at 3:57 PM · "Sectioning" is the equivalent in UK English (Which section of which Act it refers to I don't know, and can't be bothered to look up), and its feely used in a humorous manner here.

I think I concur with the "Publicity hound" angle.

September 28, 2016 at 4:17 PM · I'm not usually one who gets offended easily, but as someone who has no experience with atypical mental health, this is an issue I'll leave to those who have. However, I think people ought to be paying more attention to the motive. Did Knott's mean to offend people with this experience? I'd venture to say probably not, but they should still make better considerations if they want to do something similar down the road.

@Tracy, Bill and Ted was only discontinued at Hollywood. It's still part of Orlando's HHN.

September 28, 2016 at 5:05 PM · Censorship is wrong even for PC.
September 28, 2016 at 9:31 PM · Oh please. If you are offended don't go. Turn the channel. Skip the link. Stop forcing your sensitivity down everyone's throats. It's a free country, let it be free. And let people make their own choices. Christ is there any place left where something doesn't offend someone?
September 28, 2016 at 11:18 PM · I find it offensive and insensitive when ideologues try to bully, harass with protests, or shout everyone else down.
September 29, 2016 at 2:14 AM · The term PC (poltical correctness) is so overused and misused. Too many people apply the term anytime they wish to maintain outdated stereotypes and be free to openly express their bigotry (like in the good old days). Most of time it is completely disingenuous for people to complain about PC. Nobody is fooled. And hurtful stereotypes for cheap laughs or scares is no different. However the topic of mental illness is a little different i think since it is universal, meaning it's in every culture, race, gender, etc. And there is no denying that in the extreme it's been associated with unspeakable horrors. But having given it some thought I can see the author's point. There is no reason to use mental illness as a theme in these horror events since the antagonist's mental instability is already assumed.
September 29, 2016 at 2:54 AM · I think there's a few people here who have issues when the well-being and health of others interferes with their "right" to have a good time. People with mental health issues are a significantly disadvantaged and at risk segment of the community (in any country - some countries just do it better than others). How do I know this as a fact? I'm a doctor and have to deal with people with mental health issues on a regular basis.

They are a group who are incredibly misunderstood, across the board. They usually don't seek help, for a number of reasons, one of which is a mistrust of health care workers and authority figures. They are usually neglected in the community, due to a lack of understanding. When managed well, most of these people can contribute to society and lead a relatively normal life, or even have a resolution to their illness. Almost none of them are axe muderers, and they are more likely to be the the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators.

This is why how these people are portrayed matters. The more these stereotypes are portrayed, the less of an understanding the community has of the real issues with mental health, and the more scared people suffering mental health issues are of what their illness is and what treatment may mean.

I don't claim to know the exact nature of this attraction, like almost everyone here. I won't pass judgement on the attraction, the complainant, or the park. The general issues are important, and I applaud Robert for this article, and it has made me rethink how I view such entertainment.

So please, enough of this "political correctness" crap. That's such a piss poor argument. It's like putting your fingers in your ears and screaming out, or someone retorting by calling someone a Bible basher or redneck. This is a real issue. Showing some sensitivity to it, when all it costs is an adjustment in how entertainment is portrayed is not an unreasonable or excessive request.

September 29, 2016 at 2:47 AM ·
September 29, 2016 at 9:56 AM · "interferes with their "right" to have a good time."

A bit more than that. It's also a right to freedom of speech. So when we discuss "political correctness", it isn't crap. It's about sidelining unpopular opinions and facts. It makes issues beyond the conversation of civil society. It's even worse for an Halloween Haunt Event, which is often billed as an adult event where boundaries are broken.

"It's like putting your fingers in your ears and screaming out, or someone retorting by calling someone a Bible basher or redneck."

Huh? This quote is a contradiction. That's exactly what people are doing to the Fear VR attraction. They don't want to see it because it is beyond the pale. Saying this attempt to censor is political correctness is a label that applies.

In horror movies, mental illness is often used in conjunction with demonic possession (the religious element). This a fantasy storytelling. Are we to censor such storytelling to protect real mentally ill people?

Here's a counter protest in Orange County Register.

“Fear VR is meant to be an attraction that takes the terror and horror of traditional mazes one step further,” Ailey writes in the petition. “It is completely unfair and unrealistic that a multi-billion dollar company like Knott's Berry Farm and their parent company, Cedar Fair, should be forced to shut down an attraction based on the words of people who had not even experienced the attraction.

“Closing the attraction is not going to help advocate the increase of knowledge on the subject either,” she writes. “People are still going to be afraid of what they do not understand in regards to mental illness.”

September 29, 2016 at 10:28 AM · Excellent essay. Solution? Don't go. "I don't like it, I think it's insensitive, therefore it must be banned." Congratulations, you're a Trump voter. No, this isn't anything goes. In a fair-market economy all ideas rise or fall, sell or fail on their merits. I can't stand Justin Beiber, so I don't buy his music. The Kardashians infuriate me, so I don't watch their shows or buy products advertised on their shows. Etc., etc., etc. Ban them? Not in my USA. So write your essays, share your opinions, vote with your feet and your dollars. That's the American Way. Thanks to the hive mind of social media and SJWs we're in for an awful lot of banning and firing and other fascist acts because of "feelings." Deal.
September 29, 2016 at 11:08 AM · Good points, Anon Mouse.
The PC crowd always has such reasonable sounding arguments for wanting to shut people up and impose censorship. They usually boil down to this: "Gee, it means so much to (insert fraction of the population here), so why can't you just shut up?"
Well, people's freedom of speech means a lot to them, too.
September 29, 2016 at 1:45 PM · I don't get your complaints. You whine about people's rights to freedom of speech. That has in no way been infringed here, at all. Complaints were made, the company voluntarily closed the attraction. No one forced anything, the company made their own decision.

As to whether the complaints were valid or not, I don't know. I've not been on the ride, and as far as I can tell neither have you. I'm not going to pass judgement based on 3rd hand information.

Freedom of speech is an inherent right, I would never argue with that. But are we seriously calling this a freedom of speech issue? Freedom of speech is to protect people's right to opinion and articulation, and there is such a long list of exceptions allowed it's amusing. Libel, copyright, pornography the list goes on.

Are you happy with Snowden's actions? Just free speech. Should pornography be allowed on children's TV programming? Simply free speech.

Certain things are not allowed because they are deemed harmful to the community, this is already established. The depiction of mental health often used in the media is also harmful to the community. I'm not saying that legislation be made, but definitely more awareness is required and more sensitivity displayed in these issues, as has occurred here.

The declaration of independence refers to "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." I would say that people with mental health issues have their right to the pursuit of happiness, I would also include health in this.

This company is about profit. They are not presenting an opinion or articulating that opinion. This is entertainment, they are simply presenting something for the enjoyment of others. Asking them to do so in such a way that it doesn't perpetuate a stereotype that is literally harmful to a neglected and vulnerable segment of the population is reasonable, and I believe responsible. I think their right to freedom of speech should consider others right to pursuit of happiness (and health).

September 29, 2016 at 1:59 PM · "there is such a long list of exceptions allowed it's amusing. Libel, copyright, pornography the list goes on."

Fear VR is fiction. No one's rights is being violated so libel was never at issue. Will you call horror porn? You certainly can make the case, but you're narrowly applying it to mental illness. And Knott's was pressured to close it down.

Fear VR has a mental illness component, but you said you haven't seen it so you don't know the extent that it might be harmful to the mentally ill population. It might not be. You say it's responsible, but that's without evidence. The outcry was ridiculous. Knott's has already removed the 5150 reference. This wasn't good enough.

My feeling is they should just reopen it silently and as part of another maze (if they could) and remove the mental illness references, which might not be much. Call it a evil ghost maze so at least the scare actors aren't out of the job.

September 29, 2016 at 5:32 PM · I listed examples of reasons why legally freedom of speech is restricted. I never even implied the attraction was illegal.

I'm making generalised statements with this case as an example. As I've stated, I haven't been on the ride, not do I know if the complaints are warranted. Have you ridden the ride? Or are you basing your arguments on the opinions of others? Based in your own writing you havent been on the ride, so how can you say the outcry was ridiculous.

If I'm burning American flags and you tell me that's outrageous and bad, and I stop, have you restricted my freedom of speech? Have you pressured me? People complained about the material of the attraction, they closed the attraction, it's as simple as that. Obviously the very company that created the ride thought there was enough to the complaints that it warranted closing the attraction.

I agree that repurposing it is a great idea. There's no need for the entire thing to shut down.

September 29, 2016 at 5:49 PM · The outcry was ridiculous because that's what everyone admits not seeing it including you.
September 29, 2016 at 6:10 PM · I've had to visit a family member who was Florida Baker Acted (temporarily forced) into a "Mental Health" facility. Far worse than any haunted house I have ever seen or imagined.

The conditions were a disgustingly dirty biohazard. It had real bars and searches of visitors, not just a few scary props. Some of the patients are ill while others are just one really bad day from normal and needing real help. The staff was even scarier than the patients. Plus, they knew that only they could release the person allowing them to make use of it to control (manipulate) both patients and family.

Go easy on the haunted house. It's just a good fictional story. The real thing should be what's closed down and replaced with actual health care. I haven't been back to a Halloween Horror Nights since that week, and probably won't ever go again. I don't want even a fictional reminder of the real horror.


September 29, 2016 at 7:43 PM · I disagree with people complaining who haven't experience the attraction. Like Robert, I am speaking to the broader issue of the depiction of mental health in the media.

But if this instance were that simple, with people complaining who hadn't seen it (and it was fine), the attraction would still be open. I don't buy that they closed it based on heresay

September 29, 2016 at 8:45 PM · All the articles I've read tells me no one actually seen it including the main person bringing the charge, John Leyerle, and Rick Warren.
“Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness.”

"Concern rose after descriptions of the attraction were revealed after a media preview earlier this month."

Just from words alone.

September 29, 2016 at 9:07 PM ·

"Unfortunately I wasn’t able to experience the attraction myself first hand, so I can’t accurately describe what the experience itself was all about. That said, the descriptions from the parks indicated that the theme was not one dealing with mental health issues at all, but rather inspired by some kind of demonic possession story, with the events unfolding inside a hospital location. Had the attraction been launched perhaps with an entirely different name relating more to demonic supernatural forces, or something more generic like “DoomVR” then I can’t shake the feeling that none of this would have happened."

This was my guess and I was correct.

September 29, 2016 at 10:47 PM · Anon Mouse already stated how prejudiced he is against people with mental illness so I don't see much of a point in trying to make any reasonable argument with him.

BTW: I have no interest in being PC is any way.

September 30, 2016 at 3:38 AM · Yeah, those quotes do little for your argument. The reason there was an initial outcry, from a number of mental health groups, was the title with 5150. This is a direct reference to mental health issues. That was why "concern rose", and justifiably so.

Then a week after the attraction opens they close it, and by the sounds of the quotes they (Knotts) were respectful in the handling of the situation. Whether it was their intent to portray mental illness is irrelevant, it was some part of the attraction (as is evidenced by the original title, as well as the summary linked in the article you cited) and as such, criticism may be valid.

Like Robert has said though, the broader issue of how mental health is portrayed in the media is what's important, not the specifics of a single case.

September 30, 2016 at 6:30 AM · The build up to the closure was the powerful mental health advocates that has nothing to do with the actual attraction. They never seen it. The 5150 was good enough for them to justify its closure. There is no validity to their concerns.

You seem to suggest irrationality and media hysteria is good enough. That's ridiculous. The criticism was relentless and could not be mollified even after Knott's complied. Mental Health? Yeah, they should get some help.

If you think mental health portrayals in horror movies will from this point on will not be done at all is not likely. These characters are crazy essentially. "Halloween" was done in Universal with the Michael Myers character that escaped from a mental hospital. No protests here.

Oddly, no protest over the "Suicide Squad". The Harley Quinn character was a psychologist that went to the dark side and became crazy Joker's girlfriend. Right on the title, SUICIDE. (Rick Warren's son committed suicide so Rick is now an advocate for the mentally ill.) What do mental health advocates think about this issue in a super hero movie? Crickets.

September 30, 2016 at 2:39 PM · Freedom of speech or freedom of expression also includes works of art or entertainment.
September 30, 2016 at 10:15 PM · I have a great idea for a new haunt! "Cells in Black, Cancer Attack"! Experience through cutting edge VR technology your own body attacking you from the inside. Feel the terror of a maglint growth in your chest. Live the pain of treatments that cause your own hair to fall out! You will never forget utter despair of slowly waisting away in a tourtourous death!
October 1, 2016 at 3:23 PM · Well its official Six Flags due to the Cedar Point fiasco is changing its haunt now too. "sigh". Next year zombies, vampires, and witches will be taken out of the haunt next year too cause of stereotype discrimination against their kind
October 2, 2016 at 10:09 PM · How extremely unfunny. A waste of virtual ink.
October 3, 2016 at 2:03 PM · Why is having a haunt based on mental illness OK but cancer not?

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