Thousands Urge Knott’s to Reopen Controversial Halloween Show

Thousands of people have signed an online petition urging Knott’s Berry Farm to reopen a Halloween attraction that was shut down this week because mental health advocates said it contributed to the stigma of mental illness.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, 3,791 supporters had signed the change.org petition asking Knott’s to reverse its decision Tuesday to close a virtual reality scare show featuring patients in a mental institution less than a week after it opened.

Knott’s did not respond to telephone and email questions about whether the petition would cause the attraction to reopen.

The petition was created by Jennifer Ailey of Inglewood, according to the posting on change.org and she set a goal of 5,000 signatures that she would forward to executives at Knott’s and its parent company, Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment. Knott’s averages about 300,000 visitors a month, with more typically during its popular Halloween events.

“It is completely unfair and unrealistic that a multi-billion-dollar company like Knott’s Berry Farm & their parent company Cedar Fair should be forced to shut down an attraction based on the words of people who had not even experienced the attraction and because over all people these days are too easily offended,” Ailey wrote in her petition.

The decision to halt the show, drew largely negative comments on news sites that reported the shutdown.

“What’s next? Cancel Halloween because it brings to light dead people? Cancel Thanksgiving because some people don’t have anything to be thankful for and turkeys don’t get a say? Cancel Christmas because little people might be offended by the elf’s in Santa’s village? I’m so tired of this political correctness BS. Grow a pair,” wrote a Voice of OC commenter who identified himself as “Don.”

For a few hours Thursday morning, news stories on the issue were a “trending” spike on Facebook, with commenters posting mostly complaints.

The Knott’s attraction originally was named “Fear VR: 5150.”  A 5150 is the section of the California Welfare and Institutions code used to hold someone for 72 hours at a psychiatric facility if he or she is considered a danger to themselves or others.

The Orange County Register, in its Sept. 6 review, reported “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.”

After protests from John Leyerle, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and Ron Thomas, whose mentally ill son, Kelley Thomas died after a 2011 beating by Fullerton police, Cedar Fair changed the name to simply Fear VR.  The attraction also was running in Santa Clara and Canada.

In his Sept. 21 letter to Cedar Fair President and CEO Mathew Quimet, 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.”

The attraction, he wrote, “adds to the hurtful, dehumanizing, discriminatory, prejudicial, insensitive, offensive and stigmatizing of mental illness.”

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.