FearVR Touches a Sensitive Reality

vr horror

Let’s keep it spooky, but unrealistic

Natalee Coloman   Contributor, Illustration by John Mueller  Graphics Illustrator

On Sept. 27, Knott’s Berry Farm shut down it’s Halloween Haunt attraction, FearVR, after controversy over insensitivity to mental hospital patients. 

While I think that the reason behind closing the attraction is valid, Knott’s should have rebranded and emphasized the true purpose of the experience.

The name originally was titled ‘FearVR: 5150.’ However, it was decided to drop the code. 5150 is the police code used for an involuntary psychiatric hold, when police officers or doctors believe a person is a danger  to themselves and others.. 

The attraction, which was an extra cost to  Haunt attendees, strapped participants to a hospital wheelchair while wearing a virtual reality headset. 

In reviewing the Santa Clara park’s attraction, Mercury News/Bay Area News Group reporter Jim Harrington wrote,  “The journey into terror begins as you’re greeted by so-called medical professionals from some place called Meadowbrook Hospital.”

The attendee has no control to take off the headset and is placed in the virtual world without an escape.

“You are, however, given a ‘panic button’ to push in case the experience is too much,” Harrington continues, “But that doesn’t exactly bring down the anxiety level, does it? For with a panic button comes the understanding that, well, you might need to use it.”

After the first week of Halloween Haunt, theme parks Knott’s Berry Farm and Santa Clara’s California’s Great America closed down the attraction after several complaints from the public and mental health advocates.

Knott’s actions to close down the ride did not help the controversy. The theme park should have changed the name, and themed the experience around the demonic patient —  like they originally intended. It is okay to create an attraction that steps out of society’s comfort zone, but Knott’s created something that pushed the public a little too far. 

In a statement to the LA times, the park said, “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 time frame, at this time we have decided to close the attraction.”

Mental institutions are a common theme in horror. There are more than 100 horror films set in a mental ward, or revolving around mental hospital patients. Knott’s Scary Farm has used the theme throughout the years, with multiple asylum mazes, including this year’s Paranormal Inc.

By using the code 5150, the theme park took a risk by striking too close to home with mental health patients. The past asylum themes didn’t personally identify with specific people, especially those who’re mentally ill. There is a fine line defining reality and entertainment, and it appears that Knott’s crossed the line with the unclear theme of the attraction.

Kay Warren, who has been the public figure for mental health advocacy, voiced her opinion through social media. She stated on Facebook, “Knott’s Berry Farm has a psychiatric ward with a demonic patient in their Halloween set. This is NOT entertainment. I’m infuriated that they use the pain and suffering of millions of people for laughs or thrills. Take it down!”

Warren and her husband, a pastor at Saddleback church, have recently lost their son to suicide after being diagnosed with clinical depression. 

Warren has a right to be an advocate for mental health, and she is more than welcome to address her concerns and opinions about the attraction. However, Warren mentions in the post that the set has a demonic patient, which is nothing close to what is true mental illness. 

Bruce Forrest, a Facebook user who responded to Warren’s post stated: “We can not, in the year of 2016, start nitpicking every aspect of everything out there, and taking it personal. I understand your complaint, but I don’t feel Knott’s is passing off or demeaning any mental issues out there.” Forrest also mentioned his mental health issues, and respects Warren’s point. 

Forrest does have a point -- and while Warren is fighting for a good cause -- the theme parks should have defended their case stronger, again emphasizing the true plot of FearVR and indicating that the attraction has no relation to mental illness. 

It seems that theme parks and haunted houses consistently need to up their game, competing with what is considered scary for Halloween fanatics. As the years progress, and more horrifying realities occur, such as police brutalities and terrorist attacks, the world becomes more desensitized. This ideally leaves the haunt designers wondering what they can do next to scare their fans without going over the top or falling short and leaving them dissatisfied.

It is understandable that the theme parks would choose to use virtual reality --it’s a really cool concept-- and the asylum theme is interesting to use to create this digital experience for fans. Hopefully the theme park re-creates this attraction, with a better name and a more defined theme. 

It’s okay to get spooky with it, but haunted attractions should keep in mind that the public might not always approve. Halloween emphasizes death and horror, but let’s keep the themes as unrealistic as possible.

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