Update: Scroll down for links to media coverage
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instance, this would mean renaming the horror maze and adapting or replacing the scare actors’ costumes so that they no longer represent “the lunatics taking over the asylum”.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.
A not-so-scary mental patient
Appendix I – What can you do?
- Contact Thorpe Park and/or other relevant companies to let them know you agree with the sentiments in this letter and ask them to take action (eg firstname.lastname@example.org , email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or CEO email@example.com or twitter @thorpepark)
- Sign the petition about Thorpe Park’s the Asylum horror maze
- Share your views on twitter using the #AsylumNO hashtag
- Make a donation to or fundraise for a mental health charity whether local or national
- Make the Time to Change pledge
- Find out more about mental health, so you can take care of yourself and know what to do if you or someone else should run into mental health problems
- Don’t just take my word for it! Take a look at the links below to statements by the mental health charities and press coverage
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
Appendix III – What are those working in the mental health field saying?
- Mind – Comment on Halloween attractions
- Rethink Mental Illness – Thorpe Park asylum attraction reinforces damaging stereotypes (Tuesday 22nd)
- Time to Change - Halloween ‘attractions’ add to the stigma of mental health
- Thorpe Park, an open letter (Thursday 24th), signed by:
- Sue Bailey, President, The Royal College of Psychiatrists
- Sue Baker, Director, Time to Change
- Niall Boyce, Editor, The Lancet Psychiatry
- Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind
- Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet
- Paul Jenkins, CEO, Rethink Mental Illness
- Katie Sutton, University of Salford
- Graham Thornicroft, Professor of Community Psychiatry, King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry
- Mental health blogger and activist [Twitter: @Sectioned_]
- Thorpe Park – an open letter (Thursday 31st October) – Letter from Jo Young, Director of Quality (Nurse Director) for the Surrey & Borders Partnership NHS Trust (Thorpe Park’s local NHS trust with a psychiatric hospital 3 miles from the theme park) to Thorpe Park’s Head of Integrated Communications and the CEO of Merlin Entertainments (Thorpe Park’s parent company)
Appendix IV – What are the media saying?
- Wednesday 16th
- BBC Breakfast (TV) – Piece on mental health bed cuts (the Asylum raised at 6:50)
- Sunday 20th
- Airgates UK Attraction news – Is it okay to base horror mazes on mental health?
- Monday 21st
- Tuesday 22nd
- BBC News – Thorpe Park defends Halloween asylum attraction
- BBC Surrey Radio – Piece on the campaign with comment from Thorpe Park (starts 7:52am)
- BT – Thorpe Park’s ‘Asylum’ maze slammed
- Daily Mail – Thorpe Park accused of stigmatising the mentally ill after revealing Halloween attraction called The Asylum
- Guardian newspaper – Thorpe Park defends Asylum horror maze after mental health criticism – With interesting comments underneath
- ITV London – Halloween horror maze ‘offense’ Facebook fury over Thorpe Park horror attraction & Thorpe Park accused of ‘offensive’ attraction which stigmatises mental illness
- LBC London Radio – Ian Dale, 4-8pm – from 6pm
- Metro newspaper – Thorpe Park defends Halloween Asylum amid concern from mental health campaigners
- Times newspaper – Thorpe Park urged to close Hallowe’en ‘Asylum’ attraction (£)
- Friday 25th
- Independent newspaper – Thorpe Park must close down its stigmatising Asylum maze – By Katie Sutton