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.