This article was originally published on September 30, 2016. We're bringing it to your attention again as Halloween 2017 approaches and "mental asylum" haunts continue to attract visitors.
As a Kansas City native, there are few things I love more than our local theme park, Worlds of Fun. Seriously, it's my absolute favorite. I get season passes every summer, I know all the best days to go to beat the crowds, and I can show you exactly where all the Dippin' Dots stands are. WOF is a sister park to Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, CA. They're both owned by a company called Cedar Fair, and they also both have a Halloween Haunt every year.
Well, out at Knott's Berry Farm, there's a new virtual reality component to their haunt called FearVR:5150. For those of you who don't spend your time reading affidavits written by Crisis Intervention officers, that's the code in California for an involuntary hospital admission for someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis.
Apparently the mental health crisis that Knott's Berry Farm wants you to experience isn't seeing a person who is living with mental illness find the strength and resilience to recover and leave the hospital on her own terms. Or patients supporting each other and providing insight for those going through dark times they've already seen. Or someone having a breakthrough in a music therapy session. Or a family and treatment team rallying around someone too vulnerable to help himself in order to help give him an excellent life.
No, Knott's Berry Farm wants you to think that the mentally ill — and especially those in acute crisis — "get loose from their cells" and crawl around on the floor trying to attack anything that moves, like a bunch of scary, bloodthirsty non-humans.
As a nurse who works with patients dealing with mental illness and drug addiction, I've had some long and difficult nights at work, and I know that PCP is a hell of a drug — but I assure you that all of my patients are human and deserve to be treated as such. And as someone living with mental illness, the last thing I want to do is crawl around on the floor of any hospital unit. And neither my patients nor I have any interest in tearing out your eyes or eating your skin, because as I mentioned, we’re human beings.
So that's why a bunch of very brave and insightful advocates for the mentally ill population — including a man whose son was beaten to death by police officers who were frightened by psychotic behavior secondary to his chronic schizophrenia — went to bat for us. Thankfully, these folks got Knott's Berry Farm and its parent company to shut down the experience so that they can maybe re-frame the ride to be about, oh, I don’t know, ACTUAL MONSTERS AND NOT PEOPLE WHO ARE SICK AND VULNERABLE.
Which is awesome! Hooray! Look at this victory for all who are fighting the stigma of mental illness. Maybe we're one step closer to people not assuming that all "crazy" people are homicidal zombies who want to stab you to death, or whatever.
But unfortunately, Cedar Fair didn’t stop at shutting down FearVR:5150 — it also released a statement to address the controversy, which just so happens to be the biggest bunch of garbage words I have ever read. (Cedar Fair did not respond to Refinery29's request for comment.)
According to a statement emailed to the Los Angeles Times, Cedar Fair wants those who frequent Knott's Berry Farm to know that it never intended to portray mental illness. Additionally, it wants the public to know that the villainous "mental patient" who lacks any kind of humanity and wants to kill you just because she's sort of bored is actually just a paranormal phenomenon, and it all just happens to take place inside a mental hospital, thank you very much.
Which okay, whatever. But all of this ignores the fact that Worlds of Fun, right here in Kansas City, has essentially the same fucking experience at its own Halloween Haunt every year.
Well, except we're in the Midwest, and it takes a while for things to get here, so there's no VR for us. Instead, you have to actually walk through a maze where "mental patients" attack you and sometimes try to dismember you and a bunch of sexy nurses so they can eat you. There is an actual meat-cooler set where a "crazy person" is standing around butchering other humans with a flat affect while he talks to himself. It literally portrays the mentally ill as murderous zombies and the nurses as fresh meat to be sexually exploited and slaughtered. But Cedar Fair wants you to know that it really didn't mean anything by that thing with the virtual reality ride out in California. Really.
The specific Scare Zone in question at WOF is even called Asylum Island. The tagline for it is "Cross the bridge to Asylum Island, where the inmates have taken control of Lakeside Mental Hospital and there's no cure in sight."
Is there any way Worlds Of Fun and Cedar Fair could say that they weren't trying to portray mentally ill people as violent, soulless monsters who need to be cut down to increase public safety? Or that they don’t mean to insinuate that psychiatric hospitals are giant bloodbath-murder buildings? (Also, nursing-terminology note: Those in crisis are patients or even clients, not “inmates.”)
Well, as a brilliant and dynamic person living with mental illness — and an actual bachelor’s-degree-holding sexy nurse who also happens to resent being fodder for your weird, sadistic rape fantasies — I call bullshit. It's time for Cedar Fair (and “haunted house” experiences everywhere, really) to change this attitude toward the mentally ill.
Those living with mental illness, behavioral disorders, and substance abuse are degraded, excluded, and victimized every day. Maybe if we stopped telling our friends — and ourselves — that "crazy people" and "psychos" lack humanity and don't deserve the most basic common courtesies, maybe then things could begin to change for the better.
Until then, let's just hope that Cedar Fair doesn't start drawing up plans for Cancer: The Ride or The Diabetes Experience.