Update: Scroll down for new additions (flagged with the handy yellow update picture), including links to numerous other people’s posts, a defence by a theme park enthusiast & an overview by a theme park industry website
On Thursday, it came to the attention of the lovely twitter people that one of Britain’s major theme parks, Thorpe Park, had a “scary mental patient” experience as part of its Halloween offering. It was called Asylum. Just as when, a few weeks ago, Asda, Tesco and Amazon marketed their “mental patient fancy dress costumes”, the mental health twittersphere exploded in protest.
Why? Take a look at this video to see the stereotypical “scary mental patient” scare story played out. “Watch your back as you weave your way through The Asylum, a maze of dead ends and hidden corners.” Who are you to watch out for? The Thorpe Park crew dressed as “mental patients”, without a doctor in sight. As one reviewer wrote, “The lunatics have taken over the asylum”. And, just as Asda had renamed its zombie costume the “mental patient” fancy dress costume, so Thorpe Park had decided to rename the Freezer attraction the Asylum, replacing abattoir workers with “scary mental patients”.
Yet again, a high profile British business was showing staggering insensitivity to the harmful effects of evoking negative stereotypes to make money. And yet again – initially at least – some rushed to defend it with points such as these:
- Get a grip! Isn’t this all a bit over the top? Don’t get so het up about it. You’re blowing this all out of proportion!
- It’s just a bit of fun! Go on, get a sense of humour, laugh a little, don’t be such a killjoy! Laughter is good! Laughter is a great way to challenge stuff.
- Don’t be offended – it wasn’t intentional! No offense was intended. I’m not offended.
- It’s political correctness gone mad! It’s the political correctness jihadists!
- What about freedom of expression! This is censorship! It’s a slippery slope when you start trying to ban things!
- There are more important things to worry about. Get your priorities straight! You’re distracting from the real issues.
- It’s just you that’s bothered about it. It’s only a few people. It’s a tiny minority.
- It’s just entertainment! Can’t you tell the difference between real and fake?
- Don’t judge it till you’ve tried it! You’ve never been there, so how can you judge?
- You’re just drawing attention to all this: ignore it and it’ll go away.
- It’s been around for years! Why all the fuss now?
- Don’t close it down – it’s fantastic!
- This is a storm whipped up by the media! You’re just jumping on the bandwagon. What next, ban Halloween and horror movies?
These were exactly the same issues that arose when Asda’s “mental patient” fancy dress costume was on sale. And they came up again and again today.
Have you been thinking along these lines yourself? Or have things like this been said to you? Do you want to understand the other side of the argument? Or do you want to know how others have responded? If so, I’ll try to write a blog post on the topic myself but, in the meantime, I’m gathering together what everyone’s been posting – from blog posts to twitter to hashtags – and, if you read it, you will find answers to the points raised above – every one of them. You will find my views set out in my tweets. All posts are linked below (scroll down). To follow the conversation on twitter, see hashtags #AsylumNO and #AsylumOK, set up by mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness.
What happened to Asda, Tescos and Amazon? After public protestations, the offensive products were removed from sale, a big donation (equivalent to the profit that would have been made had the costumes been sold) was made to anti-stigma campaign Time to Change and promises were made to engage meaningfully with mental health issues.
What is Thorpe Park’s view? As they tweeted to me on Friday morning:
“The Asylum is a fantastical experience which is not intended to be a realistic portrayal of a mental health institution.”
(Update: On Saturday morning, the stock answer has been revised to: “The Asylum is a horror maze, part of a larger horror event. It is a fantastical experience not intended to offend.”)
So for Thorpe Park it seems the fact that it views Asylum as a “fantastical experience”: it was “not intended to offend” and it was not intended as a realistic portrayal”. What will Thorpe Park do? At present, their management team has not showed the same presence of mind, commercial insight or even basic decency to react, other than to say the experience will run the full season though feedback will be considered. Even the simple, inexpensive and quick fix of reverting to the original name Freezer isn’t on the table it seems.
So, if Thorpe Park thinks it’s okay to make money from ridiculing a stigmatised group who face discrimination – and worse – daily, who else does it think is fair game? Now discrimination against people on the basis of race or sexuality is no longer part of the mainstream, who’s left? Which vulnerable groups can be picked on without fear of criticism? Clearly it’s people with mental health problems, as Thorpe Park’s Asylum shows. But what about a ride based around “big fat” gypsy and Roma people stereotypes, or “benefits scroungers”? That seems the order of the day.
There are some interesting suggestions for other rides or experiences Thorpe Park could incorporate into its theme park – more “fantastical experiences” which are “not intended to offend” and “not meant to be realistic portrayals of real” situations. One currently up and running at another tourist attraction is a fantasy rape experience. Yes, you read that right.
On the other hand, what would the answers to the points above look like if, rather than “mental patients”, the subject was racism or homophobia. If the answers aren’t obvious beforehand, if they’re answered through the prism of anti-racism and ant-homophobia, they should be clearer now.
One final thing: let me make a little prediction. What happens when an oppressed group starts to stand up for itself? At first there’s indifference. Then, when it’s noticed, more indifference. Perhaps ridicule. To some extent, that’s where we are now. Then, once successes start to be achieved, those who are quite comfortable with the status quo thanks very much start the backlash. That’s what I predict will happen next: there will be some successes, but there will also be a backlash. So I hope those wanting to kick down the doors of mental health stigma and discrimination are ready.
Please let me know of any additional links to add to the page so it’s as complete as possible.
Twitter (collations of tweets using Storify):
- What points would I like to get across? Take a look at my tweets on the topic on Friday 18th October – Saturday 19th – Sunday 20th October – Monday 21st – Please read these, as they set out all the points I want to make but haven’t had time to copy and paste into a blog post yet (I’m better at tweeting than writing blog posts!)
- The #AsylumNO hashtag: – Friday 18th October – Saturday 19th – Sunday 20th – Monday 21st – Tweets on the hashtag #AsylumNO, started by mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness yesterday to canvass opinions on whether people were for or against the Asylum (runs to 11pm on Friday 18th October)
- The corresponding #AsylumOK hashtag didn’t really take off, but here are the tweets – AsylumOK
- A conversation with a tweep who wondered why all the fuss was being made now, 8 years after the attraction had been opened, and suggested the name be changed
- What is twitter saying about Thorpe Park’s Asylum? – Here are tweets that come up when searching “Thorpe Park Asylum” – Friday 18th & Saturday 19th October – Sunday 20th – Monday 21st –
- What is Thorpe Park saying about Asylum? – Here you’ll see all of the tweets sent by Thorpe Park’s twitter team since the story broke. And you’ll soon recognise a familiar pattern because there is no movement: the same arguments are rolled out again and again. There were no responses on Saturday after 11:30am, though the twitter account was active till 7pm – Wednesday 16th to Saturday 19th October and Sunday 20th (a deafening silence: twitter blackout on responding to Asylum complaints) and Monday 21st
The blogosphere (self-published online writing)
- Friday 18th
- An open letter to Thorpe Park from someone sitting on the fence near Asylum – By Jonny Jenkin (twitter @jonny_jenkin) (Friday 18th October) – A plea to head off the bad publicity by simply changing the name of the attraction
- Dear Thorpe Park: re shockingly insensitive “Asylum” event – By Charlotte Walker (twitter @BipolarBlogger) – A personal account of the negative impact of outdated stereotypes about mental illness and psychiatric wards, together with a response (or should that be polite brush off) from Dominic Ashford, Thorpe Park’s Admissions & Guest Services Manager
- Stigma – By Golden Psych (twitter @goldenpsych) – A personal account of the impact negative assumptions have on managing a mental health problem from someone who works in mental health
- Thorpe Park – The Asylum – By Emma Harris (twitter @Harris_Emma) – On discrimination, offence and human decency
- Saturday 19th
- Sunday 20th
- Monday 21st
- Tuesday 22nd
– By the Kracken Wakes (twitter @cathjanes)
The blogosphere – defences of “scary mental patient” Halloween horror experiences
- Wednesday 16th October – The Asylum debate – By Scare Tours UK blog – The defences raised here are (i) these sorts of rides and their “standard” characters have been around a long time; (ii) they are harmless entertainment because people know they are fictitious; and (iii) it’s politically correct killjoys trying to ruin people’s fun. In that case, why not bring back the Black & White Minstrel Show? It’s been around for ages, it’s harmless entertainment, do don’t be a kill joy! It’s obvious, really, isn’t it …?
- 2011 – Review of the Asylum (2011) – By Scare Tours UK blog – “… freaks and misfits … all dressed as inmates (with no doctors) … the underlying story of the lunatics taking over the asylum … exuded a feral energy …” The “scary mental patient” stereotype writ large.
Theme parks and tourist attractions
Theme park industry commentary:
Links to older pieces:
Mainstream media – older pieces:
- October 2008 – Daily Telegraph newspaper – Fright Nights: Thorpe Park’s Hallowe’en mazes – The reviewer describes an attraction aimed at “children and teenagers” and says that, of all the horror mazes in the park, “… I found The Asylum the most effective because it has a plausible mental hospital theme” – That’s right, a “plausible mental hospital theme” for goodness sake.
Farmageddon Psychosis banner, complete with … scary clowns
Farmageddon Insanity banner, complete with blood spattered cleaver