Mental Health Advocates Protest Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Attraction, Fear VR: 5150

Update: FearVR:5150 has been removed from Knott’s Berry Farm and California’s Great America theme park as of Wednesday, 9/28/16, according to a statement released by Cedar Fair Entertainment. 

“California’s Great America is proud of its popular annual Halloween Haunt event. For nine years we have delivered unique and immersive haunted experiences to our fans and loyal guests. Our evening attractions are designed to be edgy, and are aimed at an adult-only audience. Over the past week we have heard from a number of people expressing their concern that one of our temporary, Halloween attractions – FearVR – is hurtful to those who suffer from mental illnesses. Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness. As it is impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween timeframe, at this time we have decided to close the attraction.”

Since the attraction closed on Wednesday, a counter-petition has been created to reinstate FearVR at all three theme parks. 

Mental health advocates are protesting a psychiatric hospital-themed Halloween attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm and two other California-based theme parks. The attraction, which is 10 minutes long and features a 4-minute virtual reality video, starts with attendees being strapped into a wheelchair and “admitted” to a mental hospital.

After receiving a letter from John Leyerle, president of  the Orange County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Knott’s Berry Farm changed the name of its attraction from FearVR:5150 – the California police code indicating a person with a mental illness may harm themselves or others – to just FearVR.

“It is never our intent to be disrespectful to any individual or group,” Cedar Fair Entertainment, parent company of Knott’s Berry Farm responded in a statement. “The virtual reality experience is actually built around paranormal, zombie-like activity in a medical hospital setting. 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.”

Mental health advocates say changing the name is not enough, launching a petition on asking Knott’s Berry Farm to shut the attraction down. “If you’ve never been treated in-patient or institutionalized for any time, you have no idea what it’s like,” Steve Austin, a mental health advocate, told The Mighty. “We certainly don’t think it’s fun or entertaining. The psych ward exists for ill people who are often in desperate need of help. Those patients can tell you what the end of the rope looks like because they have been there.”

In their statement, Cedar Fair says the attraction was modeled after a hospital and not a psychiatric hospital, despite a review by Brady MacDonald, a Los Angeles Times reporter, who experienced the attraction during a press event. According to MacDonald, the virtual reality portion shows a “mental hospital where a psychiatric patient with demonic powers is on the loose.”

“Attractions like FearVR perpetuate the stigma that persons with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are dangerous and scary,” Chrisa Hickey, mental health advocate and parent to a child with childhood-onset schizophrenia, said. “They also perpetuate the stereotype that mental health facilities are horrible, dirty, abusive institutions. More than 60 percent of the adolescents and young adults in this country don’t get the mental healthcare they need and one of the top reasons is their and their parents’ fear that they will be seen as exactly this stereotype.”

“We don’t use any other illness as entertainment,” Hickey said. “Why is it OK to use mental illness?”

Do you think the FearVR attraction is offensive? Let us know in the comments below.

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