Controversy is common in our business. A scene or scare that one person considers groundbreakingly clever is likely to be called vulgar or in bad taste by another. Haunts at every scale give us a pass to indulge in staging all sorts of horrible scenes that can only crawl from the deepest crevices of twisted minds . And, when these scenes are created in the name of providing our guests with a scary good time, people are typically impressed rather than disgusted with us when we craft something truly horrific. Yet, even in the name of Halloween, one very common haunt theme has come under attack in recent years. You’ve probably been through dozens of these haunts, and maybe staged a few yourself. I certainly have.
It’s the Vanilla Asylum.
By “vanilla”, I mean that the main scare factor of the asylum haunt is crazy inmates. This isn’t an asylum that’s suffered a zombie virus outbreak and there are no other unusual circumstances, just a bunch of insane people locked away in padded rooms, maybe with some sadistic doctors.
Or, as some people would say, the theme is “mental illness is Halloween levels of scary”.
Yeah, see the issue?
Now, bear with me here – I know at least half of you just rolled your eyes. Haunting is all about finding the scariest parts of human (or otherworldly) nature and blowing it out of proportion for effect. Special snowflakes with anxiety disorders can get in line with misrepresented party clowns and slandered medical professionals to pick that bone, right?
As it turns out, wrong.
The important factor here is context. Mental health awareness has been making huge strides in recent years, but mental illness remains highly stigmatized and is constantly in the political and social spotlight. There are many groups fighting the good fight on this issue, and vanilla asylum haunts are very much on their radar. Last year (in the 2016 season) Cedar Fair Entertainment introduced something that had horror enthusiasts drooling: FearVR:5150, a virtual reality enhanced haunt (with a panic button!) that dropped participants into a mental hospital with a 5150 patient roaming the halls with you. 5150 is the police code for a person with mental illness deemed to be a danger to himself and others.
As a tech AND horror geek, I seriously considered booking a trip to California to check this experience out. I wasn’t sure about the “strapped to a chair” concept, but that was my biggest concern about the haunt. Then, I watched in awe as the political storm began.
There was a rave review (inexplicably featuring the girl from The Ring) from the LA Times on September 6th. Then, on September 28th, an article from the same source explaining why the attraction closed permanently, even after dropping the 5150 from the name before the official season even started.
“Knott’s Berry Farm is horrifying because it demonizes people with mental illness,” Julia Robinson Shimizu of Los Angeles said in a letter to the editor received by the L.A. Times. “Shame on Knott’s Berry Farm and on Los Angeles Times for presenting illness as entertainment.”
(Quote from the latter of the two articles).
This is not an isolated incident. Several similar protests have been launched at various other haunts, including a few managed by Six Flags. There are dozens of letters written by people with mental illness explaining how offensive it is to see mental patients lined up with chainsaw-wielding murderers and flesh-eating zombies as entertainment every Halloween. There are also plenty of voices from the other side, admonishing Knott’s Berry Farm for bending to the activists and shutting the attraction down.
“Asylums are scary but they make for interesting stories and they sure as hell make for fascinating movies and haunts. The problem is that 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.”
(Quote from Shannon McGrew of Nightmarish Conjuring, who discusses spending time in a real-life psych ward).
Let me be clear – I am not trying to push an agenda here. We’re technical and logistical consultants, not a PR agency, but the tremendous backlash against this sort of haunt has given me pause regardless of my own feelings on the matter. At the end of the day, this isn’t about political correctness or even your own feelings about the issue – it’s about what kind of press you are willing to receive. It’s flattering to have an article that calls your haunt “borderline too scary”, and some controversially edgy scenes can generate buzz that end up being a crowd-drawing PR miracle. But, if you see the headline “Home Haunter in [your county] Mocks Mental Illness” followed a story filled with quotes from a woman that lost her bipolar son to suicide, would you still be comfortable with your choice to stage a haunt that centers around this theme?
More importantly, if you can keep the crazy but lose the controversy by saying the patients of a regular hospital were bitten by zombies or radioactive swans or offer LITERALLY ANY explanation (outside of mental illness) for your actors’ insanity, why wouldn’t you?