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.
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.
Dominic Ashford | Admissions & Guest Services Manager
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?