Knott’s Berry Farm Opens Stigmatizing Ride: LA Times Gushes About It: Shame On Both

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(9-26-16) Mental health advocates are expressing outrage about a new Halloween amusement park ride that demonizes individuals with psychiatric disorders.

Initially called: Fear VR: 5150, the virtual reality “haunted experience” promises to scare patrons by transporting them inside a psychiatric hospital where a demonically possessed patient is on the loose.

The 5150, which refers to California police code for a mentally ill person who is a danger to himself or others, was dropped from the title last week after several bloggers, including my friend, Chrisa Hickey at The Mindstorm, joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter in Orange County in complaining to the ride’s makers — Hollow Studios — and Knott’s Berry Farm where it is being featured.

Knott’s Berry Farms is offering the ride as part of a seasonal Halloween Haunt. It also is being featured at California’s Great America park in Santa Clara and Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto.

News of the offensive ride spread after The Los Angeles Times (a paper whose editors should have known better) published a flattering review of the ride written by Brady MacDonald who described his five minute “VR experience” as “immersive, captivating and scary.”

Visitors are strapped into a wheelchair in the psychiatric hospital’s exam room and fitted with a Samsung VR headset and headphones… (From there, they follow a) demonically possessed patient named Katie, who unleashes chaos throughout the hospital and takes mental control of the medical staff. A panic button attached to the wheelchair is available if the action becomes too intense.

You might recall that The Times is the newspaper that published Steve Lopez’s award winning columns about Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless and mentally ill musician featured in the movie, The Soloist. As such, the paper should have been aware of how harmful and inaccurate it is to stigmatize persons with mental illnesses.

The Associated Press stylebook, which is a bible for journalists when it comes to writing style and ethics, added language in 2013 cautioning writers to avoid stereotyping individuals with mental disorders.

Would the newspaper had printed a gushing review of a ride that enabled participants to be whisked into the Deep South for a lynching? How about a gang rape? Of course, it wouldn’t. Yet no one at the Times apparently thought there was anything inappropriate about a ride that clearly promotes prejudice and marginalizes individuals.

Every year when Halloween approaches, mental health advocates are forced to complain about costumes, games or television shows that belittle persons with mental illnesses, falsely accuses them of being dangerous and violent, and/or makes fun of mental health problems.

Last year, it was the popular television series Modern Family that broadcast a tasteless Halloween episode that belittled individuals who sought help for their mental disorders.

Is it any wonder that persons,  such as my son, often are reluctant to seek treatment because of stigma associated with their disorders? Is it any wonder that employers are reluctant to hire persons with mental illnesses because of untrue perceptions promoted through our entertainment venues? Is it any wonder that our wounded warriors suffer in silence because they are afraid that if they reveal they are having re-occurring nightmares or suicidal thoughts they will be fingered as one of those deranged patients?

Of course, every time we complain about this marginalization, we are accused of being politically correct. Why can’t everyone just relax and understand that this is a joke?

Maybe it’s because for many of us who love someone with a mental disorder and have seen how it impacts their lives and how stigma denies them jobs, friends, housing, and attacks their self-esteem — nothing about their disorders is funny and making people fearful of them or turning them into the butts of a joke isn’t humorous either.

When advocates began complaining, the owners of Knott’s Berry Farm added insult by denying that the ride was about mental illnesses.  Here is what it told Chrisa at The Mindstorm:

From Knott’s Berry Farm:

It is never our intent to be disrespectful to any individual or group.  The virtual reality experience is actually built around paranormal, zombie-like activity in a medical hospital setting.

Cedar Fair recognizes that the press depiction of our experience, while inaccurate, has raised concerns around the insensitivity to the stigmas surrounding mental health.  Part of the confusion stems from the use of the code 5150 in the experience’s original name.  For that reason, the name has been changed to FearVR. 

Again, we thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention. 

From David Love of Hollow Studios:

5150 has been dropped from the title. It’s now called “Fear VR”. It is a Virtual Reality short movie telling a story of a girl that has telekinetic powers.The story has nothing to do with a mental hospital and it was never intended to offend anyone.

Right.

And if you believe that, please call me about a bridge that I wish to sell you in Brooklyn.

Wouldn’t it have been refreshing if either Hollow Studios or Knott’s Berry Farm had simply said, “Hey, we blew it. We are sorry and we are dropping the ride.” Wouldn’t it have been great if they agreed to put an educational note at the beginning of the ride explaining that this is about zombies and not persons with mental disorders? Wouldn’t it have been thoughtful, if it had offered to donate part of the profits that it is going to reap marginalizing persons who are ill to NAMI Orange County?

But those actions would show real concern and regret.

Chrisa noted in her blog that a petition has been started to get the ride removed from all parks.  You can sign it here.

I’d also suggest you take a moment to register your complaint with The Los Angeles Times either through a letter or email to Davan Maharaj, the editor and publisher, at [email protected] and tell him that the newspaper should have never published a flattering review of a ride that stigmatizes people. It has a public duty to not encourage prejudice.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.