Thorpe Park’s ‘Asylum’ maze is unrealistic. Does this make it more or less inappropriate?

There has been much discussion this week about whether Thorpe Park’s ‘Asylum’ maze perpetuates the stigma that sometimes surrounds mental illness. The live action horror maze is an attraction that has opened for Halloween for the last eight years. Replete with special effects, its interior is set up to look like the intermittently-lit corridors of a dilapidated hospital. As the maze-goers try to find their way through the corridors, actors dressed as ‘patients’ jump out, scare and chase them until they find the exit. You can get a sense of the maze here.

Polls have been set up to gauge the public response to the maze and petitions started in an attempt to get Thorpe Park to close it down. Having set up a poll on Twitter, Paul Jenkins, the chief executive officer of the charity Rethink Mental Illness has been quoted as saying ‘While of course there’s nothing wrong with a bit of Halloween fun, explicit references to ‘patients’ crosses a line and reinforces damaging stereotypes about mental illness.’

The response from Thorpe Park to complaints had been to defend the attraction.

A Thorpe Park spokesperson said: “We have listened to the feedback and respect the opinions of everyone who has been in touch. However, 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.

“The maze is not something you 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 eighth 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 mental health or indeed any other institution.”

Those arguing against the permissibility of the maze suggest that it reaffirms misconceptions about the dangerousness of people with mental illness. This, they believe, has consequences for both those suffering with mental illness and those who might interact with them: misconceptions make it more difficult for sufferers to speak out and make it more likely that people will respond to them with fear instead of compassion.

Many of those arguing for the permissibility of the maze emphasise the horror movie influences and suggest that such influences mean that the (fictional) characters depicted are restricted to the so-called ‘criminally insane’.  As such, the Asylum, they say, is not intended to portray the mentally ill as dangerous; it is intended to portray a small subset of violent offenders in the context of the historical asylums to which they once would have been committed.

What is particularly interesting in the debate is that, in addition to the arguments outlined above, both those arguing for and against the acceptability of the maze frequently rely on the very same point to advance their opposing positions: the maze is not representative of mental illness.

The spokesperson from Thorpe Park makes this point: the maze is not objectionable because it is not intended to be ‘a realistic portrayal of mental health or indeed any other institution’. But, those arguing against the maze invoke the same point: it is objectionable because it provides a gross misrepresentation of mental illness. How can the same point be made to advance opposing arguments?

The maze supporters use this point to emphasise the fantasy nature of the attraction. Everything is exaggerated to the point of the absurd and the backdrop of the asylum just provides a context. The archaic use of the word ‘asylum’ cements the maze firmly in the realm of the fictional and, it is argued, maze-goers suspend all notions of reality when they enter the theme park. The unrealistic nature of the maze, then, is seen to make it acceptable as it makes it implausible that any comparisons will be drawn to real life and real patients.

The maze denouncers, on the other hand, argue that the maze’s unrealistic portrayal in fact aggravates its impropriety. By caricaturing the mentally ill, it perpetuates a misconception of sufferers as being irrationally violent and as being appropriate objects of fear. The worry is that the misrepresentation, as well as being offensive per se, will have harmful social consequences in the form of maintaining stereotypes borne of ignorance.

To illustrate this argumentative vacillation: one commentator on Mumsnet rhetorically asks: ‘Thorpe Park has a Halloween attraction that is a supposed mental asylum with “patients” that chase the visitors. Have we really not moved on from Victorian attitudes about the mentally ill?’ To this commentator, the archaic representation counts against the maze – the maze takes attitudes towards mental illness back a century. To a maze supporter, however, the antiquated depiction confirms just how detached from and irrelevant to modern day attitudes the maze is. Of relevance to whether the maze either perpetuates or flies in the face of attitudes towards the mentally ill is how well formed (and informed) the maze-goers attitudes already are. Thorpe Park’s spokesperson said that the maze is aimed at adults, but publicity material suggests that it has been assessed as suitable for children over 12. The experience is less likely to be formative of an adult’s attitudes in the way that it might be for a child, although that is not to say that it could not perpetuate any damaging stereotypes already entertained by an adult.

Whether the fact that the maze is not realistic works to advance the arguments of the maze supporters or the maze denouncers is probably an empirical question. If it is the case that maze-goers tend to approach the experience in the same way as they approach a ride about fantastical characters or creatures, then the more exaggerated, the more ludicrous, the better. If, however, the maze has the effect of reinforcing the misconceptions of the ill-informed and/or stifling the help-seeking of those suffering with mental illness, then it will indeed be doing harm. But, in order for either the supporters or denouncers to rely solely on arguments about incongruity with reality, they will need to show which of these possibilities is in fact the case.

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8 Responses to Thorpe Park’s ‘Asylum’ maze is unrealistic. Does this make it more or less inappropriate?

  • Anonymous says:

    I am amazed by just how generous this article has been to the ‘anti-Asylum’ camp.

    “Have we really not moved on from Victorian attitudes about the mentally ill?’

    The hypocrisy of this statement is almost beyond belief. Consider instead the question: have we really not moved on from the Victorian attitudes of banning all ideas that we disagree with or think nefarious? This is a ridiculous petition. Not least because the ride is clearly fantasy. Yet even if it did perpetuate a stigma towards the mentally ill, all this petition is saying, at its core, is that we should stop people from developing particular opinions. “I am sorry, you can’t enjoy a fantasy ride because of the opinions you will develop as a result.” You can point to the further harm that may occur, but this petition is saying we stamp out the *formation* of particular opinions through law. Shall we ban silence of the lambs then? Psycho?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I would like to anounce yet another new attraction, unashamedly based on Thorpe Park’s “Asylum”. Replete with special effects, its interior is set up to look like the intermittently-lit corridors of the dilapidated Warsaw ghetto. As the maze-goers try to find their way through the corridors, actors dressed as famous imaginary Jews (Fagin, Shylock, Svengali…) jump out, scare and chase them until they find the exit.
    “The maze is not objectionable because it is not intended to be a realistic portrayal of Jews or indeed any other race”, says organiser, Justin Innit-Faugthemonie. “Next year we are planning a “Slave Plantation” maze and who knows what we’ll come up with in the future..”

    Sorry, must have had a bad dream….

    • Anonymous says:

      Anthony, perhaps unbeknownst to you, you pretty much described the ‘running of the jew’ scene from the film Borat. If we are to follow the ‘bad dream’ theme of ethical argument I had a bad dream people actually didn’t have any rational faculties and couldn’t distinguish film from truth. Nor could the people who petition distinguish ‘objectionable’ from ‘ban-worthy’. You may not have awoken from that one; so you may need to start a petition!

      Interestingly, it always seems to be the people who write these petitions that have this new founded ability to think critically for themselves. Everyone else is just a mass of aimless sheep that need shepherding.

      • Anthony Drinkwater says:

        Hi Anonymous,
        Nowhere in my dream did I suggest petitioning, banning or shepherding aimless sheep. I just find it sad that such stereotypes exist, and even sadder that they are exploited so crassly.
        (I haven’t seen Borat, but I gather that it’s an ironic satire. Perhaps this is really what “Asylum” is ? I doubt it somehow)

  • Caroline says:

    I believe that people running these kinds of attractions have a responsibility to the public. Even if this attraction is supposed to represent historic asylums from the past, is that made clear as in a huge sign saying eg. “1845″?. And even if it was made clear that this refers to a historic asylum and is not representative of current mental health sufferers or their care, is this not hugely insulting and making fun of what were tragic circumstances for the patients of the time? These patients from the past must have suffered hugely. Not only were some of them battling with terrifying experiences in their minds without modern medication to ease it, they were also set up for public ridicule at the time as I have read that people paid to go and look at them for entertainment. The suffering of people with mental health conditions in the past was huge I believe. Yes it’s a “fun fair” and yes it’s supposed to be fun, but by perpetuating myths that people suffering mental health problems are out of control dangerous frightening ‘lunatics’ as featured in a horror attraction is hugely damaging to those suffering mental health conditions. It deeply concerns me that those going to the attraction may be influenced in their perceptions of mental health and it is a big battle anyway to combat the deeply rooted fears and stigma surrounding mental health as it is. I hope the organisers recognise that this is somewhat insensitive and I feel inappropriate.

  • mega_chum says:

    Yup, visiting an attraction at a theme park affects my perception of the mentally ill about as much as my opinion of aquatic life forms was influenced by finding nemo.

  • R.Wulfe says:

    While Fish themselves don’t often suffer due to Maritime stereotypes, other than they’re usually depicted as delicious Fish Fingers. I’m also really surprised over how Neutral this article is towards both sides. So I really must congratulate for that. But there is going to be a difficulty for either side to prove just a case, the ‘Pro-Asylum’ camp don’t have the burden of proof to show that they aren’t affected as it’s effectively proving a negative, but from my limited experience of Psychology is that we’re often biased in ways we don’t consciously realize. This doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence, it’s like (to use a trite example) asking people if something is sexist or racist, which some people say it is, but the people your asking respond “No” because it’s funny or amusing because it only superficially refers to those people.

    So conceptually, I’m viewing this as your trading off people’s happiness for another group’s misery. I’m not a utilitarian , but this seems to be what this is boiling down to, and it’s not clear cut. The ‘Anti-Asylum’ group who suffer most from this, aren’t going to be Psychologists or leading Researchers (They may, but it’ll be the overlap on a Venn Diagram.) they’re going to be people with mental health conditions who interact with people on a daily basis. So what is asked is to validate people’s personal experiences. This isn’t a problem unique to people opposing the Asylum, but every disenfranchised minority as their experiences are rationalized to not having been acts of prejudice, or isn’t against them collectively.

    I don’t expect this debate to end anytime soon. In the meantime, I’m making a Bingo Card of buzzwords like ‘Censorship’ and ‘political correctness’ (gone mad) which I often think are confused terms for ‘Human Decency’ and giving people dignity.

  • Candy Clouston says:

    With the popularity of zombies and vampires, must we rely on the asylum for entertainment? The mentally ill can be stigmatized quite blatantly by headlines in The Sun that exaggerate the number of deaths at the hands of the mentally ill. You haven’t lived until you casually remark that you weren’t about to “go postal” (a turn of phrase I would avoid in deference to the sensibilities of people who have lost co-workers or loved ones to workplace violence) and found yourself in the employee assistance office because your boss, knowing you’ve been on disability in the past FOR DEPRESSION, freaks out. Counterproductive attitudes about people who are different come from sources both obvious and subtle. This being a discussion of ethics, as opposed to regulation, I’d suggest that avoiding the potential for exacerbating the negative beliefs people may have about the mentally ill would be the ethical thing to do. While making an effort to avoid offending others who are at a disadvantage may be tedious, it is also humane.

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