Is it okay to base horror mazes on mental health?

By Michael Mander

Mental health campaigners are fighting for the removal of ‘Asylum’ from Thorpe Park’s Halloween line up for the negative stigma it attaches to mental health.

For years, mental health charities have fought to remove the stigma attached to mental health problems. “Mental patient fancy dress costumes” was quickly removed from the shelves of Asda and Tesco earlier this year: and yet Thorpe Park has ran the ‘Asylum’ maze for eight years without complaint.

This year, charities and individuals are campaigning to remove the maze from Thorpe Park.

Sectioned‘ is a prolific mental health tweeter. Her views are informed by recent personal experience, having been detained in 2011 in one of the UK’s busiest acute psychiatric hospitals. She described why Asylum is such a set-back in her attempts to remove the stigma attached to mental health: “Yet again, a high profile British business is showing staggering insensitivity to the harmful effects of evoking negative stereotypes to make money.”

“So, if Thorpe Park thinks it’s okay to make money from ridiculing and demonising a stigmatised group who face discrimination – and worse – daily, who else does it think is fair game? Now discrimination against people on the basis of race or sexuality is no longer part of the mainstream, who’s left? Which vulnerable groups can be picked on without fear of criticism? Clearly it’s people with mental health problems, as Thorpe Park’s Asylum shows.”

"Is this how Thorpe Park customers think I look?" asks 'Sanctioned'.
“Is this how Thorpe Park customers think I look?” asks ‘Sectioned’.

Katie Sutton, from Stockport, started a petition on to remove the Asylum maze two days ago. In that time, the petitions has reached almost 100 signatures. The petition demands Thorpe Park closes the “stigmatising Asylum maze”, issue an apology, and make a donation to Time to Change.

She told Airgates: “I started the petition because I noticed that Thorpe Park kept saying over and over again that they hadn’t received a significant level of complaint about the maze”.

Katie wanted to show Thorpe Park that there was a significant complaint. She says “It’s now time for Thorpe to stop pretending it’s not a big deal, and admit they were wrong.”

Time to Change is a mental health anti-stigma programme run collectively by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. The director of the programme, Sue Baker, said:  “Imagine how you’d feel if you, or a member of your family, had just been in a psychiatric hospital and were enjoying a fun day out, only to be faced with this type of ‘entertainment?”

“We are finally starting to see attitudes change and there is a shift in the public mood.   What these ‘attractions’ highlight is that there is still work to be done in tackling mental health stigma and discrimination and we’d encourage people to challenge these outdated stereotypes that only serve to reinforce negative views of those who experience mental health problems.”

HIV maze? Facebook post from an outraged fan.
HIV maze? Facebook post from an outraged fan.

In response to complaints on Facebook, Thorpe Park has said: “We’re really sorry for any offence our Asylum maze may have caused – that was certainly not our intention.”

“However, it has been a key element of our Fright Nights maze offerings for the past 8 years [and] it has never attracted any serious level of complaint.”

They added on Twitter: “Asylum is one of our most popular mazes and will remain this year.”

Thorpe Park called the maze: “entirely fantastical”

Others agree with Thorpe Park in the debate. On Facebook, Claire Joanne Thomas said: ” If you don’t like it, don’t go on it. No one’s saying anything about The Sanctuary at Alton towers though… Just saying!”.

Craig Hayden Davies on Twitter said of the #AsylumNO campaign: “Never heard so much **** in all my life. Get over it, I went last week and I couldn’t recommend anything better!!”

“If only certain members of the public knew how to have fun”

In an open letter to the park, Charlotte Walker (a ’30-something mother living with bipolar disorder’) said: “Every time someone runs a stunt like this, it sets us back. It reinforces the stigma around mental illness and false stereotypes that make us more likely to be the victims of crime and discrimination.”

“Thorpe Park needs to wake up to the fact that this 2013, not 1913.”

Campaigners want Thorpe Park to change Asylum's theming back to The Freezer (image source: Total Thorpe Park)
Campaigners want Thorpe Park to change Asylum’s theming back to The Freezer (image source: Total Thorpe Park)

ScareTourUK defended the attraction, saying: “We believe that most customers are educated in their own right to understand that these attractions are far removed from everyday real life and that they aren’t meant to be a true depiction of those suffering from mental illness”.

Thorpe Park aren’t the only park to make a horror maze of mental health. Farmaggedon in Lancashire has two mazes with the same theme: Psychosis and Insanity. Primevil Scare, in Norfolk, has Insanitarium (“The inmates have overrun the guards, and are out of control!”).

Over the last two days, campaigners have used Wikipedia to get their word out: adding that the park “attracted a wave of negative criticism” regarding its Asylum attraction. An anonymous Wikipedia user located in Surrey repeatedly removes the claims.

Update: Thorpe Park today released a statement: “These comments are not universally representative either of many of our guests who have given us very positive feedback, or of others working within the mental health sector.”

“Unlike the other examples given (Tesco and Asda), the maze is not something you might happen upon when out shopping. It is set within a single closed environment and is a very small element of an event aimed at adult visitors – all of whom chose to visit, and have paid for entry to the overall event. ”

“This maze is also in its 8th year of operation and is an obviously extreme and simulated experience which draws on classic horror film content. It is not intended, nor is it deemed to be by those who have actually experienced it, to be in any way offensive or to be a realistic portrayal of a mental health or indeed any other institution.”


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