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The Complicated Ethics Of Asylum-Themed Halloween Attractions

The Kingwood Asylum in Houston, Texas (Adapted from flickr/Kirk Fuson)

As a person who has been institutionalized, I am surprisingly okay with this kind of entertainment.

Nine years ago, when I was hospitalized at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York City, I learned the hard way that psychiatric institutions are not like the glamorous and horrible places that populate literature and film. They are sad, tedious boxes where people sit around watching the National Geographic channel and doing crossword puzzles.

Being in a psych ward is boring. Knock-out, drag-down dull. The endless waiting and watching. The dumb activities. Even while at the end of your rope, you are cosmically bored. I remember thinking, “This is not like fucking Girl, Interrupted. No one is doing my nails in solidarity. We haven’t run off to the secret bowling alley.” That I had a well-developed fantasy about what my hospital experience would be like is disturbing in its own right, but there you have it.

When I was hospitalized, I brought a backpack of books with me, like I was going to catch up on my reading (I didn’t). One of the books I packed was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper — a classic story of how a woman descends into psychosis as the result of ineffective and abusive medical treatment.

Being in a psych ward is boring. Knock-out, drag-down dull. Click To Tweet

Today, when I teach the text in my literature class, “Representations of Mental Illness,” I emphasize the connections between the narrator’s madness and the patriarchal culture that oppressed her. However, even all these years later, I waver in my interpretation of the final scene, where the narrator’s husband/physician faints at the sight of her crawling around the room she has been convalescing in:

‘What is the matter?’ he cried. ‘For God’s sake, what are you doing!’

I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.

‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back in!’

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

The two questions I always ask myself are: Does the narrator, in her final moments of unabashed madness, gain a terrible power? Or is she hopelessly powerless?

These two questions are at the core of the debate regarding using the psychiatric institution (or the haunted asylum) as a locus of entertainment during the Halloween season. In particular, Knott’s Berry Farm recently came under scrutiny for its show “Fear VR 5150,” and the project was cancelled after protesters called it unethical. Six Flags Great Adventure was also criticized for its use of wandering “mental patients” in the Halloween Fright Fest extravaganza. Due to pressure from mental health advocacy groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Six Flags eventually replaced the “maniacal inmates” with zombies.

As a person who has been institutionalized, I am surprisingly okay with this kind of entertainment.

In his elegant New York Times article, “Mental Illness is Not a Horror Show,” Andrew Solomon writes:

“I was saddened to see painful lived experiences transmogrified into spooky entertainment. I was also unnerved to consider that I was someone else’s idea of a ghoul, a figure more or less interchangeable with a zombie . . . I think of the effect these attractions would have not only on people without mental illnesses, who might be inspired to patronize, shun, or even harm those of us who do have them, but also on the large portion of the American population who battle these challenges daily. Will they be more hesitant to come out about a psychiatric diagnosis? Will they be less likely to check themselves in for care?”

I understand Solomon’s concerns about the use of mental patients as entertainment in immersive horror experiences. Our treatment of the mentally ill is shameful; many people with mental health issues don’t get treatment, end up homeless, and are seen as threats to public safety. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 124,000 of the 610,000 homeless people in America suffer from a mental illness. An estimated 2–15% of people diagnosed with major depression die by suicide. These problems are not entertaining.

And the stigma surrounding them is very real; it’s so real that I’m terrified to even publicly out myself as a former (and let’s not kid ourselves — maybe future) mental patient, because I might be discriminated against at work. That my work as a writer and educator is focused on mental health and literature about mental illness hasn’t really assuaged my anxiety. I have inside knowledge of a place no one wants to be inside.

Our treatment of the mentally ill is shameful. Click To Tweet

But despite very much understanding the concerns that many like Solomon and other mental health advocates share about immersive horror experiences like “Fear VR 5150,” I want to share a perhaps unorthodox way of thinking about these “performances.” I’ve written about how watching horror movies helps me with my anxiety disorder because it feels soothing to confront unspeakable things that are not ordinary, everyday stressors. This leads me to wonder if there is something curative in the power of spectacle. More specifically: Is it possible to get something out of the asylum simulacrum if you’ve actually been a patient in a real one?

Shortly after my hospitalization, I went to a performance of “Sleep No More.” This immersive theater experience spans multiple levels in a Manhattan warehouse converted into what the New York Times described as “a 1930s pleasure palace called the McKittrick . . . what might have happened had Stanley Kubrick . . . been asked to design the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, with that little old box maker Joseph Cornell as a consultant.” Attendants are given masks and encouraged to meander through the intricately detailed scenarios. While you grow increasingly disoriented, dancers and actors perform fragmented bits of Macbeth. You are encouraged to touch everything, go rifling around in drawers, and aggressively inhabit this alternative space.

The floor that contained a reproduction of a Victorian-ish psychiatric ward was the most compelling, and I spent at least an hour wandering through the elaborate, constructed fantasy world of this mental hospital. I lovingly caressed each half-filled filthy claw-foot bathtub. I sat in an old dentist’s chair and stared at a single, dangling lightbulb. I cut off a lock of hair and placed it in an envelope (as per the doctor’s orders). I pored through the patient paperwork. Facing my past in this immersive, explorative theater experience was both life changing and therapeutic. I felt liberated.

Institutions Don’t Help The Mentally Ill

Perhaps what happened to me at “Sleep No More” was that I experienced a cathartic event. Catharsis, which was originally theorized by Aristotle, relates to how viewing tragic theater can provide the audience with an emotional release from negative feelings. In psychoanalytic theory, these negative emotions are related to some kind of repressed trauma and released through emotional discharge. Catharsis is not limited to psychoanalysis, though; Native American healing rituals, collective crying, ecstatic dance, and Roman Catholic exorcism are just a few examples of how catharsis can be used for healing. And while traditional psychoanalytic theory is no longer popular, there is still professional interest in how catharsis can be used in therapy and debate on whether or not it is effective.

While we all deal with our baggage in highly personalized ways, it’s very human to crave the safety of organized chaos while searching for catharsis. When I told a friend of mine that I felt weird about my reaction to the Knott’s Berry Farm controversy, she surprised me by saying she had similar thoughts in the past about similar exhibits and performances: “Show me the hospital bed behind the jail cell bars, the old school medical tools, the doctors and nurses in dated medical clothing. That shit gives me the creeps but draws me in at the same time . . . Maybe it’s all because I’ve seen a mental hospital in the flesh? Does it make me appreciative of current medical care for the mentally ill?”

The idea that a fake asylum with maniacal inmates could be fascinating, soothing, and even fun for those who have actually experienced the reality complicates the sentiment that these projects lack value. If some find these performances hurtful and offensive and others find them cathartic, what is the appropriate response? Is it better to shut them down because they are triggering and stigmatizing, or to leave them open with the understanding that everyone will have a different reaction — and some may even find them helpful?

There’s no easy answer. But because I’ve sat in the sterile waiting rooms; because my friends were in the hospital and wouldn’t return my calls while I tore my cuticles to bits; because I was in the hospital and bored and tired and worried, I do know this: The tacky version is infinitely preferable to the reality.