A new virtual-reality attraction planned for Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., was announced last month in advance of the peak haunted-house season. The name, “Fear VR 5150,” was significant. The number 5150 is the California psychiatric involuntary commitment code, used for a mentally ill person who is deemed a danger to himself or others.
Upon arrival in an ersatz “psychiatric hospital exam room,” VR 5150 visitors would be strapped into a wheelchair and fitted with headphones. “The VR headset puts you in the middle of the action inside the hospital,” an article in The Orange County Register explained. “One patient seems agitated and attempts to get up from a bed. Security officers try to subdue him. A nurse gives you a shot (which you will feel), knocking you out. When you wake up in the next scene, all hell has broken loose. Look left, right and down, bloody bodies lie on the floor. You hear people whimpering in pain.” Knott’s Berry Farm is operated by Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, and Fear VR 5150 was to be featured at two other Cedar Fair parks as well.
Almost simultaneously, two similar attractions were started at Six Flags. A news release for one explained: “Our new haunted house brings you face-to-face with the world’s worst psychiatric patients. Traverse the haunted hallways of Dark Oaks Asylum and try not to bump into any of the grunting inmates around every turn. Maniacal inmates yell out from their bloodstained rooms and deranged guards wander the corridors in search of those who have escaped.”
The Orange County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sprang into action, and Doris Schwartz, a Westchester, N.Y.-based mental-health professional, immediately emailed a roster of 130 grass-roots activists, including me, many of whom flooded Cedar Fair and Six Flags with phone calls, petitions and emails. After some heated back-and-forth, Fear VR 5150 was shelved, and Six Flags changed the mental patients in its maze into zombies.
As both a psychiatric patient and a professor of clinical psychology, 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 became severely, clinically depressed for the first time in 1994. I was unable to speak, unable to get out of bed, unable to function in the world, and I thought of suicide constantly. I was afraid all the time but didn’t know what I was afraid of; I was numb to my own emotions and stripped of vitality.
I have mostly done better these last two decades through the rigors of intensive treatment by both a psychoanalyst and a psychopharmacologist. I now take a cocktail of five medications and I go to therapy weekly. My mental illness is largely (though not entirely) under control, but as my therapist pointed out recently when I was cavalier about some warning signs, “In this room, Andrew, we never forget that you are entirely capable of taking the express elevator to the bargain basement of mental health.”
I wrote about my experiences with depression in a book, “The Noonday Demon,” and spoke about them in a TED talk, and I now get floods of mail from people who are dealing with mental illness — most of them isolated, terrified and bewildered; many of them unable to access the kind of decent care that has been so transformative for me.
For those of us with firsthand experience with mental illness — especially those who have experienced trauma in a mental hospital — such entertainment ventures cut much too close to the bone. When my mother was dying of cancer, she was admitted to some miserable wards, but I find it hard to envision a Halloween event at which you would pretend to be getting chemotherapy and vomiting constantly while surrounded by patients driven into the quasi-dementia that comes of unremitting pain.
Sanity and mental illness lie on a spectrum, and most people occasionally cross over from one side to the other. It’s the proximity of mental illness rather than its obscurity that makes it so scary. But it should be scary in a “fix the broken care system” way or in a “figure out the brain’s biology” way, and not in a “scream for laughs” kind of way.
The rhetoric with which Cedar Fair attempted to mollify the activists was troubling. The company wrote by way of explanation, “Our evening attractions are designed to be edgy, and are aimed at an adult-only audience.” But “edgy” is not in general a euphemism for “stigmatizing of a disenfranchised population,” and the defense that the attraction was for adults only seemed a very token mitigation — as though adults were not the progenitors of most chauvinism and hatred.
The attractions at Cedar Fair and Six Flags were not intended as representations of what mental illness is really like; they were incidentally demeaning, rather than willfully so. But how readily do such lapses approximate hate speech? And with what potential to provoke misunderstanding, fear and even harm to people with few defenses?
The misperception that mentally ill people are inherently dangerous is one of the most treacherous ideas in circulation about us. It surfaces widely every time a mass shooter is on the loose, and results in the subjugation of people who are not menacing in any way.
I recognize the free-speech claim that individuals and entertainment companies have every right to demean people with mental illnesses, but these representations have very real consequences — the stigmatization of the mentally ill, and the prejudice, poor treatment and violations of their rights that naturally follow.
Other people’s fear of us can have terrible consequences. There are regular reports of police who respond aggressively or violently to the erratic behavior of mentally ill people, whether they are armed or not — the latest being the killing of Deborah Danner, a woman with schizophrenia, by a New York City Police Officer. There are more mentally ill people in our prison system than in our health care system.
It is possible to honor the power of burlesque even as we insist on respect for people who are too frequently harmed by it. In some hypothetical Venn diagram, there is an extravagant overlap between fun and cruelty. Slapstick, farce, satire — all these involve laughing at people who are slipping on a banana peel, or knocking their teeth in, or sitting down on a chair that isn’t there to find themselves splayed on the floor. We laugh at big noses or flat noses, at vulgarity and buffoonery, at politics antithetical to our own. Clowns did this creepy work before there were creepy clowns on the loose.
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? The injury is not only disrespect from the outside, but also a terrible doubting from within.
Our nation is in a moment when prejudice runs riot. In this election season, assertions of strength have often overtaken moral righteousness in the public imagination; success has been posited as incompatible with empathy. That rejection of empathy is an authentic poison, pressing some people to understand themselves as less human than others, a danger associated with a proliferation of suicides. It’s hard to think well of yourself in a world that sees you as a threat.