Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

The Problem with Haunted Asylums

What's wrong with haunted asylums, and why should writers care?

Yard sign that says Haunted Hill Insane Asylum

Popular Halloween yard sign

"Haunted" places are popular Halloween attractions, but seasonal haunted asylums in particular draw fire from mental health advocacy groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI argues that such attractions "contribute to the stigma by encouraging false stereotypes and barricading the path toward an educated society" and asks the sites to remove the displays.

One spot on NAMI's 2010 list is the Sandusky, Ohio, amusement park Cedar Point, which advertises "Dr. D. Mented's Asylum for the Criminally Insane" this way: "Torture. Suffering. The twisted and evil Dr. D. Mented has practiced inhumane experiments for many years."

In Michigan, a similar attraction, "Saint Lucifer's Haunted Asylum" lures people in by telling them about  "that crazy doctor [who] ran evil experiments." The hospital specialized "in electroshock therapy. But things were far from normal. Patients frequently chewing their tongues off, body counts unusually high... people that lost their facial features. Many...disappearing into the 5 miles of underground tunnels..."

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Upon receiving a letter from NAMI, Cedar Point officials stated that haunted houses "are not designed to depict reality" and therefore do not promote false stereotypes, e.g. "that people with mental illness are dangerous and deranged and that the general public should be frightened of such people." Many online commenters believe that NAMI is taking itself too seriously, and should spend its time and money doing more concrete things to help the people who need it.

Let's look at both sides.

On the one hand, asking a highly popular, entertainment-oriented, money-making attraction that's already in full swing to tear it all down in hopes that people will realize that the depictions were unrealistic may be overly optimistic, at least for this year.

On the other hand, haunted asylums do play up scary stereotypes: that the clinical staff uses patients for ugly experiments; and that people who need to be hospitalized are radically different from everyone else, completely out of control, and savagely dangerous.

Maybe that wouldn't be so bad if the stigma against mental illness weren't already so high. I haven't met anyone who'd hesitate to say they needed to go to the hospital for a broken leg, for example, but if a student remarks in an Abnormal Psychology class that she's been hospitalized for psychological reasons, the entire room tends to recoil.

How does this affect you, the writer?

Well, you may think it would be a great idea to grab a flamboyant stereotype like "Dr. D. Mented." But if you just say "my character, Dr. D. Mented, tormented his patients with electroshock therapy," you're probably going to end up with a boring story, because we've all seen many variations of it before. (Just off the top of my head: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, the movie The House on Haunted Hill, and the television show Supernatural's episode "Asylum.")  

You may think I'm being ironic when I tell you besides helping to reduce stigma, the biggest argument against clichés is that they're boring (especially the ones that are more than 50 years outdated, like the average "electroshock" portrayal). After all, Cedar Point is making plenty of money with their version of the cliché. But is it really the asylum that draws you in, or what supposedly happened in the asylum? It's what supposedly happened, of course. (Okay, and the pop scares.)

That's what makes a good story—detailing what happened to your characters, how they reacted, what they did in response, how it changed them. Maybe the line that intrigues you most from the St. Lucifer's description is people chewing their tongues off (What would compel someone to do such a thing?! Figure it out and you have a story), or how people lost their facial features (Are their faces completely smooth? How would such a thing happen? Figure it out and you have a story), but what really draws me in is the "5 miles of underground tunnels." Ooh, creepy. (What might a villain do with 5 whole miles of secret playground? You know the drill: Figure it out and you have a story!)

Do a little delving into what most intrigues you about any given stereotype, put it together with 5 miles of underground tunnels commanded by a well-drawn villain (or whatever setting grabs your fancy), and you might just have something a lot better than a worn and tattered stereotype that's only interesting for a few pop scares at Halloween.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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