A new Halloween horror attraction that opened Thursday at Knott’s Berry Farm has drawn criticism from mental health advocates, who say it includes offensive and dehumanizing depictions of mental health patients.
Knott’s responded Thursday by changing its website to remove references to mental health from the attraction’s name.
But Ron Thomas, whose son, Kelly Thomas, had serious mental disabilities and was beaten and suffocated to death in 2011 by Fullerton police officers, tried to see the virtual reality show Thursday night and said the web site changes were "cosmetic."
"You can call a duck a dog, but it's still a duck," said Thomas.
He said the show was sold out but he talked to people as they came out. From what they told him, he said "the message is clear. 'The mentally ill are going to kill you.' It's just wrong. Totally wrong."
Since the attraction was announced a little over two weeks ago, the virtual-reality experience had been promoted as “FearVR: 5150,” as part of the theme park’s “Knott’s Scary Farm” season.
It takes place in a mental hospital where a possessed patient “unleashes chaos throughout the hospital,” according to an LA Times preview article. “5150” refers to a section of California law used to hold someone for 72 hours at a psychiatric facility if he or she is considered a danger to themselves or others.
Local mental health advocates emailed a strongly-worded letter to Knott’s parent company Wednesday objecting to using mental illness as scary entertainment.
The attraction “adds to the hurtful, dehumanizing, discriminatory, prejudicial, insensitive, offensive and stigmatizing of mental illness,” wrote John Leyerle, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in his letter to Cedar Fair Entertainment President and CEO Mathew Quimet.
“NAMI-OC believes it is in the poorest taste that mental illness stereotypes are being used by entertainment sources for commercial gain,” the letter adds.
Leyerle expressed “a sense of outrage,” as well as hope that “Knott’s will act to stop this unintentionally negative affront to the Orange County community and its residents.”
Neither Knott’s nor Cedar Fair Entertainment returned Voice of OC’s calls Thursday for comment.
But following the letter from advocates, the website for the Knott’s attraction was taken down Thursday and replaced with a re-worked page that removes the “5150” reference.
In a statement to advocates Thursday evening, the theme park said they didn’t intend “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,” the statement says.
“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.”
But Ron Thomas said mentally ill human beings should not be used for entertainment.
“You can have ghouls and goblins and things, but they’re not real,” Ron Thomas said. Individuals with mental illnesses are “real people and you can’t use them like this.”
He said he hoped Cedar Fair would cancel the show and publicly say it was "taking it down because they realize it was a mistake, insensitive and they apologize to the mental health community."
But, he said he didn't expect that to happen because of the money Cedar Fair would lose.
Even so, he said he and other mental health advocates would continue to protest.
"We're not done yet," Thomas said.
The Halloween event opened to the public Thursday and runs through Oct. 31 at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, the California’s Great America park in Santa Clara and the Canada’s Wonderland park near Toronto.
As part of its promotion of the attraction, Knott's allowed reporters to preview the ride.
“After checking into the mythical Meadowbrook Institute, visitors are strapped into a wheelchair in the psychiatric hospital’s exam room and fitted with a Samsung VR headset and headphones,” the Times reported in its Sept. 6 article.
“The VR experience follows 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.”
The Orange County Register, in its Sept. 6 review, reported that “the VR headset puts you in the middle of the action inside the hospital.
“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.”
Matt Holzmann, a local advocate who volunteers with NAMI-OC, said in a telephone interview that the use of mental illness to scare people is “highly offensive to those with mental illness and their families. It’s terrible.”
He said as word of the ride spread through social media and other contacts, NAMI has received support from groups in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles County.
“There are a lot of people who are deeply offended,” he said, adding that Knott’s move to change the name doesn’t go far enough.
“The Fear VR 5150 attraction was marketed heavily and I believe hasn't changed a bit in content. The publicity has gone national,” Holzmann said in a follow-up email.
“This stigmatization of individuals living with a mental illness is wholly inappropriate and puts our efforts at de-stigmatization back years.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Ron Thomas attended the show Sept. 22. Voice of OC regrets the error.
You can contact Tracy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.