What Frightens Mental Health Advocates On Halloween? The Spread Of Stereotypes

Published: Friday, October 28, 2016 - 3:31pm
Updated: Friday, October 28, 2016 - 4:03pm
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(Photo via Amazon.com)
The 'Gone Mental' costume is still available through some online retailers, like Amazon.

Some people love a good scare. It’s why haunted-house attractions pop up every year, along with creepy costumes and spooky scenery. But there is a concern among mental-health advocates about how some of those places and costumes depict people with a mental illness. 

The pushback was enough to close one asylum-themed attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm in California this season. But the theme remains popular around Halloween.

For Gayle Ayres, the concern started with a costume.

“It was called the Gone Mental costume,” she said.

The photo shows a boy in a blood-spattered straight jacket with straps. His arms are tied together and he stares through dark eye makeup. What really worried Ayres was when her daughter discovered it.

“The costume happened to pop up in an advertisement on Facebook,” Ayres said. “And when she saw it she looked at me, just stunned, and she said, ‘Mom, is this supposed to be scary, or is it supposed to be funny? Because I’m not scary and this isn’t funny.’”

Ayres’ daughter has schizoaffective disorder. Last year, Ayres contacted companies selling the costume and even got a petition going to take it off the market.

She said some places removed it, but you can still find it online, “where it’s been discounted on a number of markets, showing up on Ebay, Amazon."

Ayres said she’s not against Halloween. She’s just wary of the way people with a mental illness are being portrayed, whether through this costume or in the asylum-themed attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm, which she also petitioned against. She said she doesn’t get why the theme keeps popping up each year, but one of the costume company executives she spoke to explained it like this:

“We’re just supplying a product that people want,” Ayres said. “He alluded to the fact that a lot of this is driven by Hollywood, by movies and by television.”

There are movies like "Shutter Island," in which U.S. Marshall “Teddy” Daniels asks a doctor at a mental hospital, “These are all violent offenders, right? They’ve hurt people. Murdered them in some cases.”

“In almost all cases, yes,” the doctor responds.

The asylum has received the Hollywood treatment many times. Sometimes the inmates are the villains, but sometimes they’re the heroes, like Randle McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."

“I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out?” McMurphy says, addressing his fellows inmates. “What do you think you are for Christ’s sake, crazy or something?”

“'Cuckoo’s Nest' is not what gets the fun reaction during Halloween. I think what you see at Halloween is much more 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and Freddy Krueger,” said Patrick Corrigan, who researches stigma around mental illness at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

And he said the stigma is getting worse.

“Population studies have suggested that the degree to which we’ll accept a neighbor or a worker with serious mental illness is getting worse.”

He said those negative attitudes toward mental illness spike right after a major event like a shooting, when the shooter’s mental health makes headlines. As for Halloween’s influence — that’s not so clear. Haunted house-goers might argue it’s just fun.

The Asylum haunted house in Denver has been praised as one of the scariest in the country. I tried reaching out to this and other attractions, but all declined to comment for this story. But I did find that not everyone involved in the mental health community is worried.

At an event in Phoenix this month, local mental-health groups set up booths and talked about the issue of stigma. And Halloween wasn’t on the agenda.

“I’ve been in the business for over 40 years and really Halloween hasn’t come up around being a problem,” said Dick Geasland, CEO of MIKID, a non-profit focused on youth.

He sees this season as mostly positive for kids who have a mental illness.

“Halloween’s kind of a chance for them to cover up, put on costumes and maybe even hide a little bit and also pretend like they’re somebody else,” Geasland said.

Halloween really is a mixed bag of sweet and sour for advocates, but the stigma is something they all want to eradicate year-round.

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