It is Halloween season again.
For all the fun that can be had carving pumpkins, eating candy and dressing in costumes, unfortunately October is also a month with Halloween stigma. Typically, horrors involve “haunted asylum” attractions with depictions of residents as violent monsters. In other cases, some stores sell “mental patient” costumes with straitjackets. These images perpetuate stigmatizing, offensive stereotypes of people living with mental illness.
NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone else. But would anyone sponsor a haunted attraction based on a cancer ward? How about a veterans' hospital with ghosts who died from suicide while being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Or one based on racial or ethnic stereotypes?
The U.S. Surgeon General has identified stigma as a major barrier to people reaching out for mental health care when they need it. People living with mental illness often internalize stigma as well, impeding recovery.
Mental Patient Costumes
Two British retail stores—one owned by Wal-Mart, Inc.—recently pulled mental patient costumes from shelves and apologized after protests.
Unfortunately, the sale of mental patient costumes continues in many U.S. stores. Last year, NAMI singled out BuyCostumes.com, which claims to be the world’s largest costume retailer. This year, shaming extends to seasonal Spirit Halloween stores (owned by Spencer Gifts). In the face of these large retailers, what can one person do?
However, recognize that it is a tough battle that involves advancing by inches over time rather than yards or miles. A Salon commentary celebrated the right to protest, but noted that the problem is bigger than Halloween: “If you want to be an insensitive jackass, you’re always going to have plenty of opportunity,” wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams. “If you think it’s cool to parade around in a manner that’s racially tone-deaf or clueless about mental illness, chances are you’re not confining your idiocy to one night a year anyway.”
One of the first stigma reports received this year involves the Psychopath Sanctuary “Devil’s Folly Haunted Barn” near Allentown, Pa. Radio advertisements have proclaimed:
Alert, alert, alert! Several mental patients have escaped the state hospital. They are rumored to be hiding in an abandoned barn. Local residents have been reported missing. Neighbors of the barn have heard strange noises near the barn and believe people are being tortured there.
As reported in the Allentown Morning Call NAMI Lehigh Valley has launched a protest. So far, the response from the attraction operator has been dismissive. If you would like to support NAMI Lehigh Valley in their efforts, please send a polite email to the Devil’s Folly explaining why stigma is a serious public health problem: [email protected].
This brand of haunted house is not confined to Allentown. For example, there’s one called the Insanitarium in Pinson, Ala. But what about Halloween attractions that might haunt your own community?
Do You Agree?
Do you share concerns over Halloween stigma? Do you have other strategies to recommend? Share your thoughts below.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
In a crisis,
Find Your Local NAMI