October 16, 2013


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?

  • Send a protest to such companies through website “contact” features—or after a little sleuthing, to the company’s CEOs or public relations executives. These email addresses are sometimes listed under “corporate” or “investor” information.
  • Post a comment on the company or store Facebook page.
  • Contact the managers of local stores that carry such costumes and ask politely that they be removed. Enlist others to do so as well, and mention that British stores have already done so—including a chain that was Wal-Mart-owned. Local stores for BuyCostumes.com and Spirit Halloween can be found on their websites. Ask that they share your concern with regional managers to be communicated to company headquarters.

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.”

Haunted Asylums

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?

General Advice

  • Contact sponsors personally. Start a polite dialogue about how to resolve the controversy and to work together in the future. Ask them to remove offensive parts of any attraction or advertisements. In some cases, changing a name and using “haunted castle” and generic “monster” themes may be all it takes. Use this time as an opportunity for education. Remember to be flexible and patient. In some cases a sponsor can’t make changes immediately but will agree to do so in the future. If so, ask for a public statement or letter.
  • Alert other NAMI members, family and friends to phone, send letters or e-mail the sponsors. Utilize social media like Facebook or Twitter. Organize local leaders in the mental health community, especially psychiatrists, hospital CEOs or clinic directors.
  • Contact local newspaper editors and television news directors. Educate them about stigma surrounding mental illness and your concerns. If they have run promotional stories about a “Haunted Asylum”-type attraction, ask them to also run a story about the protest. 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.  
  • Local civic organizations, high school clubs 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 usually have a strong desire to resolve controversy. Be neighborly in finding solutions.
  • Be prepared for backlash. Many people in the community may say “It’s only Halloween” or even something nasty. 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.

Do You Agree?

Do you share concerns over Halloween stigma? Do you have other strategies to recommend?  Share your thoughts below.

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