Halloween Protests: Haunted Asylums and Mental Illness

OCT. 12, 2012

Pumpkin

Halloween will soon be here!

Unfortunately, “Halloween Horrors” have already arrived.

They involve “haunted asylum” attractions with depictions of residents as violent monsters. In other cases, stores sell “mental patient” costumes with straitjackets. They perpetuate stigmatizing, offensive stereotypes of people living with mental illness.

Don’t get me wrong, NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone else. But would anyone sponsor an attraction based on a cancer ward? Take middle school kids on a field trip to see one? Promote one based on offensive racial or ethnic stereotypes?

The U.S. Surgeon General has identified stigma as a major barrier to people in reaching out for mental health care when they need it. People struggling with mental illness also often internalize it, impeding recovery.

In 2010, NAMI Ohio led a protest of a major amusement park's special Halloween attraction “Dr. D. Mented's Asylum for the Criminally Insane.” It provided an important “teaching moment” in the news media and dialogue with the park, which to its credit, ultimately agreed to change the name and theme of the attraction for future years.

Here are just a few targets for protest this year. Contact information is included if you wish to lend your voice (Don’t forget to also post a comment on their Facebook pages!) See also the tactics outlined below.

  • In Lancaster, Pa., “Field of Screams” includes a Frightmare Asylum that features an “axe murderer,” a padded room and a “chainsaw-wielding lunatic.” .Send comments via this page and/or cream@fieldofscreams.com
  • In Provo, Utah, the Anguish Asylum Haunted House asks “how much fear would it take to drive you to insanity?” Ironically (or bizarrely), the operators thank 4 the Youth, which provides therapy to at-risk youth and families,” for their support and friendship.” Contact anguishasylum@comcast.net.
  • BuyCostumes.com features “Goin’ Out of My Mind,” “Straightjacket” and “Cell Block Psycho” adult costumes. The company claims to be the “#1 online costume retailer worldwide for kids and adults and also has its costumes carried in big-box retail stores. Its corporate headquarters Buyseasons, Inc. is located outside Milwaukee. Please contact it through its service page and/or Kristen Crump, Manager, Public & Community Relations at kristenc@buyseasons.com and Karen Van Ert, Director of Marketing at karen@buyseasons.com.

So What Can You Do?

Is there a “Halloween Horror” in your own community? Do you want to speak out? Here are some tactics to consider:

  • Contact sponsors, companies or store managers personally. Start a polite dialogue. Educate them. Ask them to remove offensive parts of any attraction, advertisements or merchandise that mock mental illness. Don’t underestimate the power of one person to make a difference.
  • Alert other NAMI members, family and friends to phone, send letters or e-mail the sponsors or stores. Check the websites of the sponsoring company or attraction. Most have connections to Facebook. Post comments and put them on your news feed to friends. Ask them to do the same.
  • Contact local newspaper editors and television news directors. Educate them about stigma and your concerns. If they have run promotional stories about a “Haunted Attraction” ask them to run a story about the protest. (Fair is fair). Make the protest both a "news event" and a "teaching moment." Offer local individual or family members who have been affected by mental illness for personal interviews
  • Organize local leaders in the mental health community. Request a private meeting with the sponsors of an attraction or store owner to start a dialogue about how to resolve the controversy and to work together in the future. Be flexible. In some cases a company or sponsor can’t make changes immediately but will agree to do so in the future. In some cases, they have become ongoing partners and supporters.
  • Local civic organizations, high schools or similar community groups may be the sponsor of an offensive attraction. Keep in mind that they often have no awareness of stigma and did not intend to offend. They often have a strong desire to resolve controversy. Be neighborly and in finding solutions.
  • A portion (or all) of ticket sales to haunted asylum attractions sometimes are donated to worthy non-profit causes in the community. Privately approach local leaders of those organizations and ask them to join in communicating concerns with the sponsors of the attraction. Publicly suggest that people in the community donate to the cause directly, rather than buy a ticket, if they agree with your concerns.
  • Be prepared for some backlash. Many people in the community may say “It’s only Halloween” or even something nasty (particularly on Facebook). Take the high road. Stay polite and respectful in the public dialogue. Even if it seems that too many people disagree with your position, you win simply by raising awareness.

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