COLUMN: Don't support haunted houses that stigmatize mental illness

It’s the best time of year. Halloween is fewer than 30 days away, and with each passing day, more fall activities such as hay rides, apple picking and costume shopping become a way to spend the day. 

Unfortunately, this time of year also brings a slew of temporary haunted houses that present mental illness as a fear-inducing spectacle akin to a zombie-infested hay field.

A Google search can reveal thousands of results for haunted houses and tours related to mental health. 

There is the Haunted San Antonio State Hospital, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and thousands of old hospitals that have been converted into attractions for fear-seeking thrill chasers. 

But these attractions minimize the horrific history of how mental health has been treated and the effect mental health has on all of us. 

The Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health has been in operation since 1862. It is currently a museum that shows how mental health has been treated over time. 

Visitors are given individualized bags with cards that have information past patients and told what happened to these people. The remains of 3,500 patients were allowed to rot for years without burial, and many of them were kept in isolation, bound by straitjackets or shocked into submission

Sadly, this wasn’t a rare occurrence.

In the 1840s, Dorothea Dix, a mental health activist, lobbied the government to fund 32 psychiatric hospitals and institutions. 

While Dix's efforts increased access to mental health services, a lack of funding meant these institutions were understaffed and resulted in poor living conditions and treatment for the patients

This lead to journalist Nellie Bly's investigative piece on her 10 days in a mental institution, in which she exposed the abusive techniques used on patients.

While we have moved to more humane ways to treat mental illnesses in this country, we still have a fixation on using mental illness as a scare tactic. 

There are still many attractions that use psychiatric hospitals or lunatic asylums as scary shows to entertain others. Knott’s Berry Farm in California announced an attraction named Fear VR 5150, a virtual reality show that depicted the inside of a mental hospital. 

Among other grotesque images, it showed people writhing in pain, and was recently closed because of its portrayal of mental health. 

John Leyerle, president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness for Orange County, California, said “this attraction will no longer further mental health stigma.”

Halloween is supposed to be a fun time. It often is, and scary attractions or haunted houses are an exciting part of the season. Unfortunately, not all of them are innocent fun. People who don't live an offending haunted house can still reach out on social media to raise awareness.

The portrayal of mental health in these attractions furthers the stigma deeply rooted in the United States against mental illness.

There is no reason these attractions should still feature mental illness. Suffering isn’t entertainment, and we should stop treating it as such. 

This October, don’t attend a haunted house that stigmatizes mental illnesses.


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