"Mental Health" Monday

Let’s Talk About It: The Unfortunate Portrayal of Mental Illness During the Halloween Season!


Though Halloween is long gone by now, the holiday season is still upon us, which means that fun activities like hayrides, pumpkin picking, and haunted houses are still activities we all love to enjoy as the weather gets chillier.

Halloween is an exciting day—weekend, if you’re a college student—to dress-up in colorful and elaborate costumes and drink the night away. Some people dress-up as bunnies and cats, others as Waldo, Popeye, or the Scooby Doo gang. Unfortunately, sometimes when we dress-up as certain characters, we may run into the issue of offending people. Halloween costumes can straddle that fine line between playful and creative, to downright cruel, but a lot of times people do not outwardly realize this.

This is especially true when considering costumes that may intentionally or unintentionally mock mental health disorders or conditions. Fortunately, I didn’t see any outstanding examples of these in Syracuse this Halloween. But what immediately comes to my mind is asylum-themed amusement parks or attractions based around psychiatric wards that display actors in straight jackets, nurses covered in blood, or patients with tousled hair and a butcher’s knife.

This Halloween, an attraction at an amusement park in California at Knott’s Berry Farm’s—“FearVR: 5150”—received national attention. It was criticized for their insensitive portrayal of mental illness, encouraging them, as well as other fright-night like fairs, to eventually close the attraction.


Let’s Talk About It!

This controversial attraction first came to light when a man, whose mentally ill son was beaten to death by police officers several years ago, came to the park and heard that visitors were being strapped to wheelchairs in a psychiatric institute in the midst of being chased by a so-called terrifying patient named Katie. I cannot imagine the trauma this would cause a father who has lost his son to a mental disease, let alone the trauma it would cause any individual.

With the fear this kind of attraction induces, it’s no wonder that mental illness is so stigmatized. Based off of experiences like these and the way that television and movies often depict the mentally ill, people may go on to think that mentally disordered individuals are fearful and harmful, which are not fair descriptions to be applied so freely. When mental health is stigmatized in these manners, it makes it even more difficult for sufferers to reach out for the help that they need.

Besides these themed attractions, there are costumes sold in stores for all ages such as straight jackets, t-shirts that read “PSYCH WARD: OUT PATIENT,” the Joker from Batman who is described as a “schizophrenic clown,” or most shocking to me, ‘suicide scar’ makeup kits.  Although some have been pulled from the shelves, others will still pop up next Halloween and be chosen by people who may not consider the impact of their decisions.

It is entirely possible that some of those that struggle with mental health disorders would not be offended by these costumes or Halloween depictions, but it is definitely true that there are people who do find them very unsettling. To be safe, next year I suggest sticking with dressing-up as Wednesday Addams, a Dr. Seuss character, or even Chewbacca. Protest attractions that stereotype mental illness and portray those with mental illness in a negative light.  That way, mental health stays out of the Halloween culture and we can all continue to dance and party in our silly costumes!

       By: Laurie Thompson