Friday, October 12, 2012

Halloween Protests: Haunted Asylums and Mental Illness

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

Halloween will soon be here!

Unfortunately, “Halloween Horrors” have already arrived.

They involve “haunted asylum” attractions with depictions of residents as violent monsters. In other cases, stores sell “mental patient” costumes with straitjackets. They perpetuate stigmatizing, offensive stereotypes of people living with mental illness.

Don’t get me wrong, NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone else. But would anyone sponsor an attraction based on a cancer ward? Take middle school kids on a field trip to see one? Promote one based on offensive racial or ethnic stereotypes?

The U.S. Surgeon General has identified stigma as a major barrier to people in reaching out for mental health care when they need it. People struggling with mental illness also often internalize it, impeding recovery.

In 2010, NAMI Ohio led a protest of a major amusement park's special Halloween attraction “Dr. D. Mented's Asylum for the Criminally Insane.” It provided an important “teaching moment” in the news media and dialogue with the park, which to its credit, ultimately agreed to change the name and theme of the attraction for future years.

Here are just a few targets for protest this year. Contact information is included if you wish to lend your voice (Don’t forget to also post a comment on their Facebook pages!) See also the tactics outlined below.

  • In Lancaster, Pa., “Field of Screams” includes a Frightmare Asylum that features an “axe murderer,” a padded room and a “chainsaw-wielding lunatic.” .Send comments via this page and/or
  • In Provo, Utah, the Anguish Asylum Haunted House asks “how much fear would it take to drive you to insanity?” Ironically (or bizarrely), the operators thank 4 the Youth, which provides therapy to at-risk youth and families,” for their support and friendship.” Contact
  • features “Goin’ Out of My Mind,” “Straightjacket” and “Cell Block Psycho” adult costumes. The company claims to be the “#1 online costume retailer worldwide for kids and adults and also has its costumes carried in big-box retail stores. Its corporate headquarters Buyseasons, Inc. is located outside Milwaukee. Please contact it through its service page and/or Kristen Crump, Manager, Public & Community Relations at and Karen Van Ert, Director of Marketing at

So What Can You Do?

Is there a “Halloween Horror” in your own community? Do you want to speak out? Here are some tactics to consider:

  • Contact sponsors, companies or store managers personally. Start a polite dialogue. Educate them. Ask them to remove offensive parts of any attraction, advertisements or merchandise that mock mental illness. Don’t underestimate the power of one person to make a difference.
  • Alert other NAMI members, family and friends to phone, send letters or e-mail the sponsors or stores. Check the websites of the sponsoring company or attraction. Most have connections to Facebook. Post comments and put them on your news feed to friends. Ask them to do the same.
  • Contact local newspaper editors and television news directors. Educate them about stigma and your concerns. If they have run promotional stories about a “Haunted Attraction” ask them to run a story about the protest. (Fair is fair). Make the protest both a "news event" and a "teaching moment." Offer local individual or family members who have been affected by mental illness for personal interviews
  • Organize local leaders in the mental health community. Request a private meeting with the sponsors of an attraction or store owner to start a dialogue about how to resolve the controversy and to work together in the future. Be flexible. In some cases a company or sponsor can’t make changes immediately but will agree to do so in the future. In some cases, they have become ongoing partners and supporters.
  • Local civic organizations, high schools or similar community groups may be the sponsor of an offensive attraction. Keep in mind that they often have no awareness of stigma and did not intend to offend. They often have a strong desire to resolve controversy. Be neighborly and in finding solutions.
  • A portion (or all) of ticket sales to haunted asylum attractions sometimes are donated to worthy non-profit causes in the community. Privately approach local leaders of those organizations and ask them to join in communicating concerns with the sponsors of the attraction. Publicly suggest that people in the community donate to the cause directly, rather than buy a ticket, if they agree with your concerns.
  • Be prepared for some backlash. Many people in the community may say “It’s only Halloween” or even something nasty (particularly on Facebook). Take the high road. Stay polite and respectful in the public dialogue. Even if it seems that too many people disagree with your position, you win simply by raising awareness.


Gene Gilbreath, author said...

This last article about this subject comes so close to my personal response. My response is self-explanatory since it involved my father. I cannot take the subject lightly. My comment in 2007 is the same today.
Halloween and Stigma

On October 30, 2007 I heard a segment on the local TV advertising a haunted house event. It caught my attention because the location would be at the former nursing home where my father Pete lived for about 16 years following his stay at the Evansville State Hospital.
My interest was piqued further as they showed cells in which mental patients had been confined a hundred years previously to my father's stay in this former county home. I had been on each of the three floors of the institution but was not aware of these cells in the basement nor their history. The actual jail cells were shown with someone acting obviously mentally disturbed. Since haunted houses often include such displays of the mentally ill, I was on my way in a matter of minutes to travel about 35 miles to the location.
At the entrance to the event, I paid my $8 for admission for what was to be, I was told, about a twenty minute tour of the facilities. As I walked across the yard where my father had often strolled, I naturally thought of him. A few people were awaiting their turn to enter at the old main entrance of which I was familiar.
A young mother said she was back for a second night to bring another youth. I asked what special interest brought her back. She commented that it was educational. Just maybe it would be. I pursued the question further and she soon withdrew that description when I commented that portraying mentally ill people for entertainment purposes was hardly educational. Actually, it was educational to me since I soon encountered once again the public's attitude toward mentally ill persons.
Sure enough the cells were occupied by "mental patients" who variously portrayed the actions of patients whom I had seen at Central State Hospital and at Evansville State Hospital in Indiana. Two of those were asked if they were mentally ill or knew of someone who was. Another was asked why he wore chains, or another why he was flashing a butcher knife. These people unwittingly promulgating stigma were four of a dozen or so with whom I spoke.
One young lad about 14 years old, not in costume late in the tour, took me by the arm late in the tour and kindly asked if I was OK. "Oh, yes, thank you, why do you ask?" I responded. He said he was told I was disturbed and just wanted to make sure I was alright. Briefly, I explained why that was true and culminating the brief conversation, I told him I hoped he understood and would not participate next year. Similarly, I suggested to another young man who led me out a different door so I would not be going down the fire escape chute that he also would give a second thought about such activity.
Another highly advertised haunted house in our locale was presented as a shadow asylum. Without forethought participants in such events are unaware of the statistic that one in five will be needing mental treatment in their lifetime. Mental patients need respect and our caring support rather than be used for entertainment, or even to raise money for otherwise good causes.
Except for my dad, Pete, I might be one of them who do not understand. Chapter Five, "Woodmere to Woodlawn", in FOR PETE'S SAKE, critiques the medical treatment my father experienced at this nursing home and two other locations. Such is not just a Halloween night! It is STIGMA.

Anonymous said...

This is a excellent story. It's amazing that many people simply don't realize the hurt caused by their actions and that they are perpetuating stigma. I'll do all I can to help.


Anonymous said...

i came here wondering why there is no national protest by NAMI or oh, say the catholic church for this season of AMerican Horror Story- is this really the image we want to promote of mental hospitals and the mentally ill themselves?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding me, a person diagnosed with Bipolar 1 and some other mental health issues why I should not watch the movie Halloween. I have been watching it so long I failed to realize I am directly supporting stigmatizing myself and others with mental health issues.