Dear Thorpe Park: re shockingly insensitive “Asylum” event

Dear Guest Services,

I understand that you plan to plan to run a Fright NIght event entitled “The Asylum.” Your website promises “a chaotic environment of noise, light and like action” where guests must “watch [their] back as [they] encounter dead ends, hidden corners and eyes that watch you from the shadows.”

I was deeply shocked when I read this, and expressed concern to your Twitter person, who replied, “The Asylum represents general chaos and scary fun and was never meant to cause offence.”

Do you have any idea what asylums are really like?

I grew up in a village next to a street called Hospital Road, but the older people grumbled because they knew it as “Asylum Road” and they didn’t like change. If you walked along the road for a mile or so you came to a gothic Victorian structure built as an “asylum”. By the time I was aware of this hospital, it contained more than 2000 people across 63 fully-occupied wards; around of a quarter of those wards were locked so patients could not even walk in the grounds. They were completely hidden away from society because they happened to have a mental illness and there was little public transport so many must have gone without visitors. The “luckier” patients were permitted to walk down in the village. They were a sad bunch; some seemed unable to speak, others had problems with twitching muscles from long term medication and they often appeared quite old. My mum taught me not to be scared of these patients. Many, she told me, had been locked up decades ago, for seeming odd or eccentric, or for having a baby out of wedlock; they needed our sympathy, not our fear.

Fast forward to today. Now I am the one with severe and enduring mental health problems. Yesterday I had a conversation with my psychiatrist about the possibility of being admitted to that modern day equivalent of at the asylum, the NHS psychiatric inpatient unit. I am not keen to go in, even though the intent is still to give “asylum” to people like me, people who are so distressed that their own house feels like a maze, people who are terrified of being watched from the shadows and cannot escape from the horrors their own brain generates. I am not keen because I have seen and heard what friends go through; inpatient wards can often feel like “general chaos” to patients and are often extremely scary, involving people being detained against their will, little privacy, mixed-sex wards, being held down by staff and/or forcibly injected. There is nothing – I repeat NOTHING – fun about this but all the terror is caused against, rather by, the patients.

In case I haven’t been clear enough, to imply that “fun” is to be had by making guests terrorised by people pretending to be “patients” reinforces the idea that people with severe mental health problem are dangerous and frightening. It is beyond belief that over 30 years since my mum taught me the simple truth that inpatients are vulnerable and need our care, not our fear, Thorpe Park thinks it’s acceptable to portray people like me as scary. People whose careers and relationships have been destroyed by their illnesses, people who are more likely to the be the victims not perpetrators of crime, people who die up to 10-15 years earlier than the general population.

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.

One in four people at any one time has a mental illness. Please read the facts. Please educate yourselves. Please pull this grossly distressing and callous event from your schedule.

Yours faithfully,

Charlotte Walker

On 18 Oct 2013, at 17:18, TP Guest Services <> wrote:

Dear Charlotte,

Thank you for taking the time to contact THORPE PARK Guest services.

Firstly I would like to say that our only objective here at THORPE PARK is to ensure that our guests have a thoroughly enjoyable experience with us and so we are always concerned, and take very seriously any feedback that suggest our guess or the public have concerns. We are of course always grateful to receive feedback that helps us to make changes for the better. It is also our policy to be honest, open and upfront when dealing with visitor concerns.

I am sorry to learn of your disappointment surrounding an element of our overall Halloween operation. I am also sorry for any offence our Asylum maze may have caused as this is certainly not our intention.

However, it has been a key element of our Fright Nights maze offerings for the past 8 years. Aimed primarily at our adult visitors who very much enjoy the overall Fright Nights event, it has never attracted any serious level of complaint.

As mentioned above we always listen to our customer’s feedback and are continually monitoring comments and we will consider these and take appropriate action in the future where necessary.

Thank you once again for your feedback I can assure you that this is thoroughly appreciated.

Kind regards,


Dominic Ashford | Admissions & Guest Services Manager

Hi Dominic

It really doesn’t matter if there has been no outcry in the past. That’s the thing with stigmatised groups; people are scared to come out and say, “Yes, I am a mental patient and I disagree with this” precisely because of events like yours! Who wants to come out as identify as a mental health service user with stereotypes around that we are violent and scary and figures of fun?

In any event, and outcry is happening NOW. Have you actually looked at your Twitter feed? Have you seen the huge number of people your poor Twitter person is having to field? Are you aware some of these comments are from some of the country’s biggest mental health charities, and that people are blogging about the “Asylum” and your insensitive attitudes?

Are you aware of how Asda and Tesco had to accept that selling consumes perpetuating the same stereotypes were very publicly – in mainstream TV and radio as well as online – shamed for their appalling attitudes and that they ended up having make significant donations to mental health charities and issue significant apologies?

Times are changing, and it is no longer acceptable not plan this kind of event without considering where it would cause distress. “Not intending” to hurt a vulnerable group is part of the problem and shows a lack of awareness – it’s not an excuse, but an admission of insensitivity and laziness. 

At no point has Thorpe Park shown any glimmer of understanding as to why this is a problem. Saying, “But we’ve always done it!” is exactly the kind of excuse used to perpetuate paying women far less than men, carrying on the Black and White Minstrel Show, etc. All it shows is that you’re out of touch with the fact that things have changed in the the last 8 years (especially with big anti-stigma campaigns such as Time to Change), and you need to listen to people. If you don’t, you’ll be very clearly demonstrating you are happy to discriminate against the 1:4 people with mental health problems for the sake of profit. 

Is that *really* the kind of company you want to be? 




About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
This entry was posted in History of mental health, Mental health, Stigma and discrimination and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Dear Thorpe Park: re shockingly insensitive “Asylum” event

  1. Well put. Your strength is to be admired.

  2. Kate Blair says:

    The sheer insenstivy especially given recent costume debacle is mindblowing.

  3. Hi Charlotte, it’s Mel from Twitter :o) – Now at (@MelJayMH)

    So very glad to have someone like you in the army fighting stigma- the leniency towards such situations as this is horrendous- as Kate Blair says, surely they should know better and take a leaf out of Asda’s books after objection was raised.

    Your letter is just spot on and so intelligent- the excuses from Thorpe Park just aren’t good enough. Similar treatment to any other social division would rightly be frowned upon and called racism, homophobia etc- we need a name for this practice of stigma and it needs the same condemnation.

    I want you to know what an inspiration you are to me and I will continue to find strength in your lead- I am there fighting with you and providing the cheer you need to keep going ❤ XXX

    • Thanks so much Mel – your ongoing support is more valuable to me than you probably know! Yes, I feel that we are one of the last groups (along, perhaps, with gypsies and Roma people) that it’s considered OK to stereotype for entertainment. I’m going to keep challenging it, but we have such a long way to go….! C xx

      • Luke Powell says:

        I don’t see how this is offensive. I respect your opinion in all but Asylums arn’t like that that anymore, and they are more commited to helping these people not hurting them. The Asylum is general chaos as they have TAKEN OVER the Asylum, and some Mentaly ill people ARE like that such as criminally insane people. My expierience of this maze at 13 and even i understand that this made up portrayal of a Asylum is a worse enviroment then any Mental Asylum ever was. It is intended to be a fun scary atmosphere and i personally enjoyed it and i hope it stays!

      • Well, sorry, enough people did feel it was offensive that follow media coverage and a petition it’s been pulled this year. And I for one are extremely glad.

  4. Reblogged this on Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill: real world, virtual world, tech, & health and commented:
    This is live on twitter now. Please Hashtag AsylumNo to tell Thorpe Park that this is unacceptable.

  5. I’m with you on this journey no matter how long it takes! Can we reconnect on twitter? I’ve protected my tweets, but if you send me a follow request, I’ll accept 🙂 XXX

  6. goldenpsych says:

    There’s so much of this around at the moment. I really would have thought by now that people would be more aware of the potential upset they can cause by labelling events such as these. Just recently there has been the Tesco/Asda/Amazon thing and the Sun Newspaper. It’s disgusting.

    Like you I grew up near a Psychiatric hospital. We used to call it the mental asylum and as kids we were actually scared to go near the place on our own as you would hear stories about the old women who hunted down children and killed them. I had no understanding of mental health when I was young. It was only when I got to about 14 or so that I started to understand it a bit more. I never would have thought growing up that I would spend the best part of a year in that very hospital.

    I would love to be able to have the stigma of mental illness reduced. But, sadly I still hide behind an anonymous name and keep my blog and facebook hidden from family and friends. I don’t want people to know what I am thinking and feeling. I don’t want people to know how I spent a year in hospital, most of that on a PICU because I was so unwell I couldn’t keep myself safe. But then, I don’t want my cousin’s friend, or brothers friend’s wife, or a friend I haven’t seen since primary school knowing what is private to me…..

    I am really waffling on now…time to actually write a post on this I think.

  7. rithompson says:

    Agree 100%.

    I thought we had moved on from treating mental illness like it was something scary. Guess I was wrong.

  8. goldenpsych says:

    I’ve linked in this blog in my latest post. Hope you don’t mind

  9. Jon says:

    Thanks for highlighting this. Like you say, this is 2013 not 1913!

    This kind of damaging stereotyping of people who suffer from mental illness is really not acceptable.

    Here are some pictures of the scary ‘inmates’ in the Thorpe Park Asylum (scroll down to The Asylum).

    The dangerous looking girl covered in blood, wearing a hospital nightdress, in what appears to be some kind of cell (also covered in blood!). Is really quiet offence!

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  12. Lord Manley says:

    The Asylums were sad scary places where abuses undoubtedly occurred. This makes them great location for fright night events.

    To say that the horror movie style ‘baddies’ in a haunted house reflect actual mental illness is just horrible. My mental illness does not define me and the actions of one mentally ill person do not reflect on others. To say that a horror patient is reflective of all sufferers is to say that all janitors suffer because of Freddy Kruger.

    Real people do not see Freddy and think ‘oh no, all janitors must be like that’. It does not happen.

    If you truly believe that mental illness is a defining feature then that is a problem.

    • But can you not see that every event like this that links us with violence and fear in the public’s eyes contributes to stereotypes and stigma? People with severe mental illness are often victims, rarely perpetrators, of violence yet in the press and in movies and in events just like this, we are portrayed as scary! THAT is what’s horrible! How on earth am *I* linking fear and actual mental illness, when its Thorpe Park that’s saying, “Come and be scared by scary patients in a scary asylum?” You appear to have a very topsy-turvy way of looking at stigma – I suggest you read the other comments here and the #AsylumNO hashtag thread on Twitter.

      • I do not see that this says that patients are scary, it says that the patients which have turned bad in this asylum are scary.

        An asylum is a scary sort of place, just as a hospital, prison, church or empty school can be. If this was pupils running wild in a school then I would not think it suggested that school children were scary.

      • Not measuring the same things! School children are not a marginalised group who people say in surveys they would be afraid to live next door to. No one says schoolchildren should not have a right to a job when they grow up. No one says it is frightening to live in the same are as a school child, or that putting schools or other facilities for children in a neighbourhood has the effect of downgrading it. People say all these things and more about people with mental health problems and comparing a stigmatised group with a non-stigmatised one. You are focusing on the quality of the *building* which is nonsensical since the Thorpe Park “asylum” is just an ordinary building designated an “asylum” -it could be made to be anything at all, there is nothing about the structure that is inherently scary. What’s scary is the strobe lights, the dead ends, the sirens and the people dressed as “mental patients.” Extremely clear that ALL that is going on here is the designation of “mental patient” as a “scary” roll. I keep referring to “the Asylum” not because it *is* or was one, but because that’s the name Thorpe Park have chosen to give a scary event.

      • Okay, I understand why you feel that a marginalised group is possibly going to be further stigmatised by this, but I argue that this is something which we need to work on with education and that stopping this fun event is not going to achieve that. Indeed I think that suggesting that mentally ill people cannot be something in the region of 1/4 of fantasy bad guys is going to exacerbate the situation, as that is not realistic.

        As for your second point, I am sorry that you did not understand. The location is also fantasy – this is a building which is decked out as an asylum, which is a scary sort of place, just as a hospital set, prison set, church set or empty school set can be.

  13. Lily says:

    Jesus Christ, if you don’t like it don’t go….

    • CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve just won the Blunt Pencil Award for spectacularly missing the point.

    • Disagree wholeheartedly with Lily because that’s like saying if you don’t like bullying, don’t go to the playground. Yes we don’t have to go, but the fact that such stigma is being practiced is something we’re not willing to stand for- just like I will not stand for racism, homophobia, sexism. It may not happen at my doorstep, but whilst it is present in the world I live in, affecting precious lives, I see it my duty to challenge and fight it.

    • I have to disagree with this. It is important to stand up to bigotry and not just ignore it.

      I do not believe that this particular case is bigotry, I think it is absolutely fine to have ‘bad guys’ which are mentally ill, because 1 in 4 of us suffers from mental illness at some point and thus it would be reasonable to extrapolate that 1 in 4 bad guys would too, but if they see it (wrongly in my opinion) as bigotry then they should stand up to it and not just ignore it.

  14. Connor says:

    Im a regular attendee of Fright Nights at Thorpe Park and I can see why this has caused an issue, however it feels as if you expect instant change. What people dont know is Thorpe Park have hired alot of people during the event to work on the maze and closing it down is going to be a big price to pay and will also force actors to become un-payed. Also, you all seem to have complaints which seem to focus on the name of the maze so would a name change be enough?

    • Hi Connor, I don’t think everyone expects instant change – they DO expect instant recognition that it is inappropriate. Personally I would be very happy with a response along the lines of, we have taken the points raised into consideration and have decided this will be the last year we run the “asylum” (because yes, it’s the name and the characterisation, call it anything else and the stigma’s gone) and we hope you will visit our new attraction next year. Job done. Asda apologised immediately. Tesco apologised immediately. Both made hefty donations to Time to Change. Totally understand that pulling one product and one web change is a lot simpler, but really it was the acknowledgement that times had changed and the costumes were out of step with current attitudes that redeemed them in the eyes of the mental health community. Thorpe Park/Merlin remaining deliberately or genuinely obtuse about the issue.

  15. Pingback: Halloween: What’s wrong with evoking the “scarey mental patient” stereotype? | Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill: real world, virtual world, tech, & health

  16. You tell him i sick of this discrimination

  17. butterflywgs says:

    *Sigh* *head/keyboard* :-(((((

  18. Neal says:

    Much better put than I could manage!

  19. Pingback: #AsylumNO – a message from the 1:4 people with a mental health condition | purplepersuasion

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