Among the time-honored traditions of Halloween are titillating walks through haunted houses where visitors are spooked by the creatures that occupy their worst nightmares. For people with mental illnesses, this season is filled with stigma as many Halloween attractions across the country are based on stereotypical psychiatric hospitals. I gave a talk last year during which I focused on the challenges faced by people with mental illness during the Halloween season. This issue was solidified for me when Cedar Point, as a part of its annual HalloWeekends events, developed a new haunted house for 2010 called Dr. D. Mented’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane which was described on the website as follows: “Torture. Suffering. The twisted and evil Dr. D. Mented has practiced inhumane experiments for many years. Stay away or you may become his next victim.” The inaccurate stereotype of the violent, deranged, and dangerous “mental patient” (as indicated by the image of one of the CP actors in the above image) as well as the image of the immoral and insane psychiatrist are unfortunately all too common in our culture. Why is this a problem? These displays suggest that: people with mental illnesses are a threat and they should be excluded from social life; people with mental illnesses are appropriate targets for laughter and derision; and that mental health professionals are evil and not to be trusted. Cedar Point also included an attraction called The Edge of Madness: Still Crazy with the tag line “The psychotic inhabitants of the Frontier Trail are back.” Mental health advocates including many of my students wrote to Cedar Point asking that the attractions be closed. What we got in response was what we so often get. “We understand and appreciate your viewpoint….Our HalloWeekends attractions are not reality and our guests know that.” As a social psychologist and an advocate, I can say with great confidence that people do not make clean separations between what is and is not reality mostly because, where people with mental illness are concerned, they don’t know what reality is! To their credit, Cedar Point chose to gut both attractions prior to the 2011 HalloWeekends season and rework them without the offensive language. Still, they can’t seem to let go of the ubiquitous straightjacket as can be seen in this image.
Halloween costumes are always fun as well. There are a wide variety of costumes for sale for those who wish to dress as straight-jacketed, demented and deranged psychiatric patients. Some costume names include: the Deranged Doctor, the Happy Hill Asylum costume, and the Psycho Ward costume For real people who have actually been hospitalized, placed in restraints, or held in isolation, these costumes at best trivialize their experiences.
The issue here is not a single image or even a whole set of images but a pervasive pattern of portrayal. Ads have recently started running for a murder mystery dinner at the Pickwick and Frolic Restaurant and Club in Cleveland. The “Interactive Evening of CRIME SOLVING, FOOD & ENTERTAINMENT” is entitled Psych Ward Whacker. As the image shows, people just can’s seem to let go of the straightjacket as the perfect schematic representation of mental illness. A couple of things are clear: the impact of these representations is not lessened by the fact that portrayals are intended to be fictional and the impact is increased when performances are emotionally arousing (e.g., when running through a haunted house or laughing and drinking at a dinner theatre) (Wahl, 1995).
Before the reader comments attesting to my lack of ability to have fun start coming in, this isn’t an issue of excessive sensitivity or political correctness. It’s about an intensely stigmatized group of people who remain one of the lone groups in our culture about whom it is still permissible to communicate such damaging and disrespectful messages. These seemingly innocuous Halloween messages harm individuals living with mental illnesses, their families, and ultimately all of us because they reinforce stigma and encourage a cluster of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. According to Wahl (1995), these responses include: avoidance, intolerance, exclusion, fear, suspicion, exclusion, isolation, rejection, persecution, discrimination, and prejudice. They also encourage continued neglect of the mental health care system. For people with mental illness, Wahl outlines a range of damaging impacts of negative images: feeling burdened by stigma, shame, guilt, anger, reduced self-esteem, isolation, self-censorship, anxiety about discovery, loss of support, avoidance of treatment, worsening symptoms, frustration, and PAIN. It’s beyond time for this to stop.
Wahl, O. (1995). Media madness: Public images of mental illness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.