Knott’s Berry Farm, also known as Knott’s Scary Farm during the Halloween season, may have gone too far this year when it created the “Fear VR” attraction. The ride was shut down last Tuesday after numerous complaints from mental health advocates.
Fear VR opened on September 22 during Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween event and featured a storyline about a possessed patient running around a hospital. Riders were strapped into chairs and wore virtual reality headsets. The attraction was originally called Fear VR 5150. The numbers “5150” is an actual code used by authorities when a person is thought to be suffering a mental disorder that is so great that he or she may be a danger to themselves or others.
Kay Warren, wife of Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, was one of the first to complain about Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween attraction telling the O.C. Register that the name “struck a nerve” with her because her son was “held on a 5150” several times. He committed suicide in 2013.
One of Knott’s first attempts of appeasing the public outcries of the Halloween attraction was to change the name to just “Fear VR” on the opening day, but it wasn’t enough and complaints continued to pour in. Julia Robinson Shimizu sent a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, stating as follows.
“Knott’s Berry Farm is horrifying because it demonizes people with mental illness. Shame on Knott’s Berry Farm and on Los Angeles Times for presenting illness as entertainment. People with mental illness are our loved ones and yours …. People with mental illness are statistically more likely to be a victim of a crime than to commit a crime. Stigma and misrepresentation of the nature of mental illness continue to make it difficult for people with mental illness to get the treatment they need and even more difficult to find understanding in a world that demonizes them.”
Martha Giffen also urged Los Angeles Times to focus writing about real problems with mental health.
“Please encourage your reporters to write about the shortage of psychiatric beds in hospitals, the extreme difficulty of getting very ill people into treatment, the unavailability of long-term effective treatment because of misuse of funding. The real story is the slow holocaust of people dying on the streets from lack of treatment, decent food, drug abuse, homelessness, no medical care, and violence. Please shine a light on that.”
— MousePlanet (@MousePlanet) September 27, 2016
Knott’s Berry Farm finally admitted defeat and closed the Halloween attraction two days ago. The following statement was sent to the Los Angeles Times.
“Over the past week we have heard from a number of people expressing their concern that one of our temporary, Halloween attractions — Fear VR — is hurtful to those who suffer from mental illnesses. Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness. As it is impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween timeframe, at this time we have decided to close the attraction.”
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— HorrorBuzz (@Horror_Buzz) September 28, 2016
Other versions of Fear VR were to appear at California’s Great America in Santa Clara, California, and Wonderland in Toronto, Canada (two parks that are also owned by Knott’s Berry Farm’s parent company, Cedar Fair) have been canceled, as well. Warren told the O.C. Register that she is very happy with the recent news.
“I’m so grateful (Knott’s and Cedar Fair) listened to the voices of the mental health community, but, I get that someone wouldn’t know what that’s like unless they have a family member or themselves going through this pain… We wouldn’t use a person suffering from cancer or heart attack and leverage it to create a thrill ride. It glorifies stigma and exacerbates people’s pain.”
Advocates for mental health, like John Leyerle, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Orange County, consider the move a victory. “I feel good about what happened here,” Leyerle told the OC Register. “Thankfully, this attraction will no longer further mental health stigma. By closing this ride down, they’ve moved things away from a negative place.” However, fans of the attraction are not amused with the decision. On Wednesday, a new petition was formed demanding that Knott’s reconsider its decision. Currently, over 3,300 people have signed the petition.
[Featured Image by Handout/Getty Images]