The true horror of Halloween
Posted by NicolaSullivan
29th Oct 2013

The true horror of Halloween is the towering and terrifying stigma around mental health.
It sends shivers down my spine to realise that deeply disturbing attitudes towards those with mental health problems are showing their full colours in tandem with trick or treating, dressing up, pumpkins and live horror shows.
The decision taken by two major retailers to stock mental patient Halloween outfits is evidence enough that the view that mental health can be used to both horrify and entertain is very much part of the mainstream.
Although, the resulting controversy died down, after both Asda and Tesco decided to pull the costumes from their shelves, it wasn’t long before campaigners were yet again tasked with highlighting the damaging impact of using farfetched interpretations of mental health to celebrate Halloween.
This time it was Thorpe Park, which last week had to defend itself over its ‘attraction’ The Asylum – a maze where visitors are chased by chainsaw wielding patients. A promotional video on its website opens with an image of narrow clinical corridors with flickering lights before cutting to shots of people being chased by ‘crazy’ patients, many with blood soaked bandages and hospital-style nightwear.
One visitor collared by the filmmakers as she left The Asylum, said: “There was this crazy guy in there. It looked like he had his throat slit. I swear he was following us for a while.” Breathless with excitement, she added: “It was really fun but it was so scary.”
So The Asylum is all just a bit of harmless fun then? Just like the Insanitorium, at the Dinosaur Adventure park in Norfolk and Psychosis and Insanity, both of which are used to scare visitors at Farmaggedon in Lancashire.
Insanity, which features ‘the treatment plant’ from which its ’inmates’ never return, promises to prey on all six senses, flaunt your phobias and finally leave you a shadow of your former self. Its creators may not know it, but the simple knowledge of its existence is enough to conjure up the same feelings in almost everyone that has come into contact with psychiatric services.
Imagine, if the theme parks really went to town and incorporated other marginalised or minority groups into their attractions – asylum seekers, the homeless, ethnic minorities or people in wheelchairs.
It just wouldn’t happen though would it? This is because thankfully attitudes have moved on, and UK society, although it is far from perfect, is able for the most part to accept and celebrate difference and not openly mock vulnerable groups. Why is it then that time has stood still when it comes to mental health?
After all the ‘theme park’ approach dates back to the 18th century when people used to gawk at patients in institutions such at the infamous Bethlem Hospital in London.
A similar point was made by nine mental health professionals in a letter calling for Thorpe Park to ditch the name and theme of its controversial attraction. It read: “You might recall that, in the bad old days of UK asylums, the public were permitted to come and observe patients for their amusement. You will therefore understand that a “simulated experience” reminiscent of human rights abuses is in very poor taste.”
Sue Baker, director of Time to Change – the anti-stigma programme, run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, said Halloween attractions using ‘mental patient’ themes were “fuelling the deep rooted misconceptions that still surround mental illness” and urged people to challenge “outdated stereotypes.”
Let’s consider the real damage of all of these stereotypes. Mental health professionals believe that attractions like The Asylum “perpetuate the myth that mental health problems are synonymous with dangerous, homicidal behaviour.”
It is no surprise then that 72% of people with schizophrenia feel the need to keep their diagnosis a secret and 79% of people with depression say they have experienced discrimination. If people suffering from these sorts of conditions can’t be open about it then people’s knowledge of mental health will fail to develop or at worst will remain infantile.
Continued ignorance means people will fail to recognise symptoms of mental illness in a friend, family member, someone in the street or even in their own heads. And with the current shortage of beds on mental health wards it is even more important that we are alert to signs of mental distress and equipped to help and support people experiencing difficulties in our own communities.
Anyone that gets their kicks by visiting a mental patient themed attraction this Halloween is tempting fate. Not only, do we all experience mental health on some level, huge numbers of us will encounter problems with it or will know someone that does.
Don’t do as Thorpe Park has done and weakly justify such ghoulish attractions on the grounds that they are not ‘a realistic portrayal of a mental health.’
By all means dress up, but don’t disguise the issue of mental health, which is already grossly misunderstood, with an archaic display of mockery.


Nicola Sullivan is a freelance journalist living in Northamptonshire. She writes on employment, lifestyle, healthcare, personal finance and the public sector.

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