Dear theme park customers and horror fans: an open letter

21 Oct
Scare actors from Thorpe Park's the Freezer horror maze experience

Scare actors from Thorpe Park’s the Freezer horror maze experience

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Update: Scroll down for links to media coverage

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Dear Theme Park Customers and Horror Fans,

Over the past few days, you may have heard about or seen criticisms of theme park horror attractions such as the Asylum at Thorpe Park, Psychosis and Insanity at Farmaggedon and Insanitorium at Norfolk’s Dinosaur Park. Yesterday I put together a round-up of coverage. I’m writing to explain how this arose and what the issues are. Let me start by reassuring you that there is no plan to try to ban Halloween, horror movies or scary fun!

Instead, the aim has been to highlight the cruel and unacceptable ridiculing and demonisation of a vulnerable and marginalised minority – namely people with mental health problems. What is being sought? The replacement in the horror genre (including Halloween theme park attractions) of the “scary mental patient” stereotype with something else.

In the case of the Asylum at Thorpe Park, for instance, this would mean renaming the horror maze and adapting or replacing the scare actors’ costumes so that they no longer represent “the lunatics taking over the asylum”. It might mean reverting to its 2005 name the Freezer, where crew members dressed as scary abattoir workers (pictured above). There are plenty of alternative terrifying horror themes from which to choose, such as zombies, vampires and monsters. This could be achieved quickly and with relatively little expense. Other venues have almost identical attractions (such as Tower of Terror at the Alton Towers Scarefest) which make no reference to the “scary mental patient” stereotype – and provide just as much scary fun!

Like racism, homophobia and sexism, the “scary mental patient” stereotype has been around for a long time. And, just as with racism, homophobia and sexism, times have changed. Nowadays, right-thinking people welcome the fact that, in a civilised society, it is no longer acceptable to use vulnerable and marginalised minorities for entertainment and profit, trivialisation and monstering. It’s time for the horror genre and tourist attractions to catch up and be responsible citizens.

Let’s be very clear: This is not about people being offended: it is about the real harm that is done to real people by the repeated evocation of the “scary mental patient” stereotype.  Real harm, such as enabling the closure of 9% of inpatient psychiatric beds in the past 2 years with no public marches or protests – because negative stereotypes mean people are ashamed to speak out. This harms individuals with mental health problems, it demeans society and has a huge economic cost. The fact is, research shows that people with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of crime than to be violent or dangerous to others. The “scary mental patient” stereotype hammers home the opposite view; and, in the case of a live action maze, delivers it with a big dose of fear chemicals that help to reinforce the stereotype in the brain.

Because I am frequently asked the same questions or have the same statements put to me when I tweet on this subject, if I have time I will put together a piece responding to points such as these: “It’s just a maze!” “It’s just entertainment!” “It’s not meant to be realistic!” “It’s a slippery slope!” “It’s banning freedom of expression!”, “It’s political correctness gone mad!” and so forth. These arguments are flimsy when subjected to scrutiny. So, to those who seem intent on making a stand on this issue, I’d say: get your priorities straight.

Last month, after a public outcry, Asda, Tesco and Amazon acted swiftly, apologised and withdrew from sale what they had offensively labelled “mental patient fancy dress costumes”. Asda agreed to pay £25,000 (equivalent to the profit it would have made had it sold the costumes) to a mental health charity. Further steps are in process.

Those objecting to the evocation of damaging stereotypes for profit by the likes of Thorpe Park include senior healthcare mental professionals, mental health charities and people with personal experience of mental illness. So far, we have been unable to persuade Thorpe Park to take the same ethical stance or even respond substantively. Instead, we have been stonewalled. That is why I am appealing direct to customers.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. Its subject matter is important to the one in four of the population who experiences mental health problems. You will either be such a person, or know others who are – though shame may prevent them from being open about this. If you agree with the sentiments expressed in this letter, below are some suggestions for what you can do to help. And how you can encourage Thorpe Park (and other relevant companies) to take action and become part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Yours sincerely,

A not-so-scary mental patient

4#TLB`L;;M;S;;;.

Appendix I – What can you do?

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Appendix II – What can Thorpe Park do?

Some suggested steps which would cost no (or hardly any) money:
  • Apologise for the harm caused by evoking the “scary mental patient stereotype – no excuses, no hedging, no fudging, and to come right from the top (if it doesn’t sound like an apology, you’re only making it worse)
  • Make the Time to Change mental health pledge, get involved with other anti-stigma actions and encourage staff to do so too
  • Include links to mental health information on its website page, facebook and videos
  • Invite mental health charities to do the following:
    • to hand out leaflets at the park
    • to host an information stall at the park
    • to discuss what further steps would help improve the mental wellbeing of management, staff and customers
Steps that would involve expenditure:
  • Rename the Asylum and change the scare actors’ costumes so they no longer have any connection to the outdated, inaccurate and damaging “scary mental patient” stereotype
  • Donate the profits from this year’s the Asylum to a mental health charity such as Rethink Mental Illness (which started the #AsylumNO and #AsylumOK hashtag campaign), local mental health charity and/or anti-stigma campaign Time to Change
  • Provide training and support (for instance, through mental health charity Mind), including:
    • mental health awareness training for its senior management team, PR team and HR department
    • making mental health support services available to all staff
    • training staff in mental health first aid (in addition to physical first aid) and provide parity of esteem between mental and physical health first aid services to customers and staff throughout the park’s operations

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Appendix III – What are those working in the mental health field saying?

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Appendix IV – What are the media saying?

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23 Responses to “Dear theme park customers and horror fans: an open letter”

  1. annetynan 21 October 2013 at 8:10 am #

    This is a measured response that certainly warrants attention and action by all those who manage theme parks as well as other entertainment providers

  2. Susie 21 October 2013 at 9:04 am #

    Given as ‘lunatic’ is not a reference to a mental patient, but a reference to an ancient myth of someone adversely affected by the powers of the moon in fairy tales, I think this is an over-reaction. Shall we ban the fantasy notion of goblins, werewolves and vampires too?

    • Dara Hickey 21 October 2013 at 11:29 am #

      Not so much an open letter as an opinion piece. An opinion you’re entitled to, naturally, but not one I see causing much of the social revolution you implicitly expect to see.

    • Clutter 21 October 2013 at 9:42 pm #

      I don’t think the author is overacting. Thorpe Park is perpetuating the perception that mental illness is weird, scary and dangerous. It is, of course, but to the person suffering MI, not the public at large.

      Why do Thorpe Park feel MI is suitable for a freak show? I’m sure they wouldn’t have an ‘attraction’ featuring other disabilities or disfigurements.

      Yet again, people with MI are being stigmatised.

    • clairetuk 22 October 2013 at 2:43 pm #

      So why was broadmore once called a criminal lunatic asylum then?

      • Occasionaly depressed 31 October 2013 at 5:28 pm #

        Good question! I am really glad you have bothered to ask. For someone who commits murder for example, a court has to be satisfied that they intended to kill that person – to have a guilty mind (mens rea), and they perpetrated the act of killing (eg stabbing).

        Unfortunately, a very small number of people suffering from severe mental illnesses kill people. Probably about 0.0001% (10% of persons with schizophrenia kill themselves).

        People whose minds were disordered at the time of the offence, or who have subsequently become disordered during a custodial sentence my be transferred to Broadmoor, where they can receive (hopefully) quality intensive psychiatric treatment.

        It is worth reiterating that persons with mental health problems are very rarely a danger to others. Your beliefs, which have been shaped by a desire for Protection and Survival are most likely to be sensitized by negative (sensational) coverage in newspapers who know they can sell with lurid accounts of ghastly murders. And you are not alone!

        Once again, thank you for your curiosity.

  3. Dara Hickey 21 October 2013 at 11:31 am #

    My apologies Susie, my comment was targeted at the author of this piece, and not yourself.

  4. nearlydead 21 October 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Reblogged this on nearlydead.

  5. Jemma Hawkins 21 October 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    I think this is over zealous myself, although I do understand the point. Both myself and my husband are mental health patients, my husband actually went in ‘asylum’ a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it!! The point is, if people are that offended by it, they don’t have to go in!! More education is needed publicly on mental health issues though.

  6. TheOTprocess 21 October 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Reblogged this on The OT process and commented:
    Excellent points from an excellent blog.

  7. TheOTprocess 21 October 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    Reblogged on the OT process

  8. Janet 22 October 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    I went to the Asylum maze, I remember saying to my friend whilst I was in there, I don’t like this one it’s too ‘real’ and it wasn’t scary, just disturbing! Then as I came out I said how I really didn’t like that one!
    However on reflection and from reading an article, it has annoyed me how it has been made to be such an issue, saying how it ‘reinforces damaging stereotypes about mental illness’. The film is about how a college dorm is haunted because it used to be an asylum etc.. Look up the synopsis I haven’t actually seen the film. It is done in an artistic way very clever costume and make up to portray the film.
    In the other mazes there were just as horrible and vile things in there, Saw and My Bloody Valentine, two films based on kidnappings and mass murders, so would that mean people who have been stabbed, attacked, murdered, been imprisoned, tortured, shot, abused etc may find those mazes offensive and disturbing, and exploiting them?
    Because those were the kinds of images we saw in the other mazes!
    Just because a mental institute is more commonly known and more people suffer from it, perhaps than the other things from the other mazes, is probably why people find it such an issue, because it is not as far fetched as the other scary films/mazes… But what about the people who have been locked in cellars and all the other things I said, would that mean all the mazes are offensive and exploiting someone? Does that mean Halloween in general will have to end? Or anything scary and controversial.
    ALSO. Most importantly – if it’s in a film, or a book, why is it suddenly so bad that it has just come to ‘life’ in a maze, which is an artistic portrayal of the film, for entertainment purposes, due to it being Halloween, the same entertainment you get when you watch the film. So would that mean the film would have to be banned?
    It is no different watching it on a screen or having a live, fictional experience of the film. When people watch these films, or go and see a play, or read a book, or see a comedian, you may not like or agree with the subject matter, it may be controversial, you may find it offensive, disturbing, upsetting, challenging, entertaining, exploiting, but it doesn’t mean it is ‘reinforcing’ the subject matter, it isn’t saying ‘lets create a damaging stereotype about mental illness’ it is entertainment or art – not supporting a negative portrayal of mental illness, it is a fictional story, created by an artistic, intelligent individual.
    For example the film Blow when you watch that you don’t think ‘oh yes drugs are cool’ ‘I’m going to start dealing’ if that became a live-fictional-experience-maze, would there be a petition set up to say ‘drugs are bad’ and the maze is ‘reinforcing a positive stereotype of a drug lord’ because the film ultimately, like other drug cult films glamorizes the drug world but we don’t all run out and want to be drug dealers… Basically what I’m trying to say is material seen in movies and plays usually portray a certain stereotype – blondes dumb, mental illnesses scary, drug lords cool/messed up (Johnny Depp), prostitutes pretty and gorgeous and delightful (Julia Roberts) and it isn’t trying to harm the minority group it is just how the character has been portrayed for entertainment purposes by that author – because a haunted dorm (asylum) would be scary whether it was aliens, monsters, mental ill patients, murderers, children, anyone!

    ANYWAY… I don’t know I’m not trying to argue, just being devils advocate!

  9. Vanessa Scott 23 October 2013 at 12:08 am #

    This is ridiculous.
    Have the people complaining about Thorpe Park’s Asylum even been in that maze? I was there a few weeks ago, joined in with the FUN as I too got dressed up as a zombie. I got the impression in there that it was a hospital full of zombie doctors, nurses and patients ALL acting in the same way so nobody was targeted, esp the mentally ill.
    What next? Will you try to banish the call of duty Xbox game level called asylum where the player shoots the zombies in the head or will you concentrate on things less NANNY STATE?
    Mental health has unfortunately played a big part in my life with traumatic consequences and experiences but not once did I find Thorpe Park as offensive as this ridiculous complaint.
    Unfortunately by your company getting involved with this you are losing credibility

  10. Jon 23 October 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    Hi you have a broken link, 2nd paragraph – ‘cruel and unacceptable’

  11. Ralph 24 October 2013 at 12:29 am #

    I think the point has been made by others that this attraction is a fiction, akin to a book or film. So aiming criticism at it can only be legitimate if the same criticism is levelled at many many films from the horror and thriller genres which have as anti-heroes evil and menacing figures such as Hannibal Lecter. If the same critique is made, that’s fair enough, but I’ve not seen any such suggestion. This attraction, just like movie portrayals, is a performance – deliberately exaggerated and blatantly a nightmarish fantasy which plays on our deep fears, just the way that horror films do. It’s revealing of something about us that we enjoy such experiences, but in my view it doesn’t stigmatise anyone at all. Like others who have commented I’ve been hospitalised with mental illness, and have experienced significant psychiatric disability over many years.

    • @Clutter2 24 October 2013 at 1:22 am #

      Portraying mentally ill people terrorising innocent and unsuspecting thrill seekers is most definitively discriminatory and stigmatising.

      Why not make the terrorising actors portray zombies, aliens, ghosts, Cujo – any FICTIONAL scary monster?

  12. Psycho Killer 24 October 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Some things are cultural artefacts. I remeber watching a horror film about a mental hospital in a psychiatric unit. I can’t remember what it was called but however survived won a million pounds. We all really enjoyed it!

  13. blanche69 29 October 2013 at 11:13 pm #

    I find it more offensive that because I have a mental health problem the author seems o think that makes me vulnerable. I hate that as much as s/he hates the old name for a mental health institute – old being the operative word. Just because the author doesn’t like it why do they seem to think they can speak for everyone with mental illness? This is surely a view rather than the truth.

  14. Occasionaly depressed 4 November 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    I have to say, though, that although negative sensationalised commercial images of mental illness are bad, the bullying tactics, sure to back-fire and antagonize tactics of the anti-stigma brigade, aren’t much better, especially for the sufferer (lest anyone forgot). Far too much money is being diverted from front line services to mental health charities, funded by the government. It is a matter of utter hypocrisy for the CEO’s of these charities to pontificate about stigma when they are responsible for milking the crisis in mental health care for as much as get.

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