BUENA PARK, Calif. – A popular Halloween attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm and California’s Great America was shut down, officials announced Wednesday, after some took to social media calling the display “offensive.”
The virtual reality attraction, which essentially focuses on a story line about a possessed patient named “Katie” running wild in a hospital, consists of strapping parkgoers into a chair before they are given VR goggles.
A statement issued Tuesday night by Cedar Fair, parent company of the Santa Clara and Buena Park theme parks, said the “edgy, adult-only” attraction was never meant to “portray mental illness.” However, “As it is impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween timeframe, at this time we have decided to close the attraction.”
A Southern California mental health advocate, Kay Warren, praised the decision. “I’m so grateful (Cedar Fair) listened to the voices of the mental health community,” she told the Orange County Register.
According to an article on the Voice of OC website, concerns were raised last week in Orange County, with mental health advocates sending a letter to Cedar Fair. “The attraction ‘adds to the hurtful, dehumanizing, discriminatory, prejudicial, insensitive, offensive and stigmatizing of mental illness,’ ” wrote John Leyerle, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in his letter to Cedar Fair Entertainment President and CEO Mathew Quimet.
“NAMI-OC believes it is in the poorest taste that mental illness stereotypes are being used by entertainment sources for commercial gain,” the letter added.
Cedar Fair initially responded by dropping the “5150” subtitle — code for a possibly disturbed individual who could be a danger to himself or others — from the original “FearVR: 5150” name, the Voice of OC said. But mental health advocates didn’t think that change went far enough.
The controversy was reminiscent of the brouhaha that erupted in the Bay Area in 2009 when Psycho Donuts opened in Campbell with straitjacket decor and an array of doughnuts whose names were deemed offensive by the mental health community. A truce was eventually reached, with Psycho toning down the decor and dropping the most egregious names.
Before FearVR opened to the public, reporters from the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times previewed the attraction and published reviews and photos online and/or in print.
“Forget the 1,000 costumed monsters that jump out of the fog to scare guests” at Knott’s “Scary Farm” every autumn, wrote Orange County Register staff writer Joseph Pimentel. “These new monsters will invade their psyche.”
In reviewing the Santa Clara park’s attraction, Mercury News/Bay Area News Group reporter Jim Harrington wrote: “Haunted house veterans and newcomers have likely never experienced anything quite like this cutting-edge, utterly Silicon Valley attraction, which utilizes both Samsung and Oculus technology.
“The journey into terror begins as you’re greeted by so-called medical professionals from some place called Meadowbrook Hospital,” he wrote. “Just go with the flow and sit right down in the wheelchair, and strap on the VR goggles and earphones, basically blocking out any sign of the outside world. A nurse adds arm straps, so you can’t remove the VR equipment on your own. Seconds later comes the horrifying realization that you’re absolutely at the mercy of the hospital staff.
“You are, however, given a ‘panic button’ to push in case the experience is too much. 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.”