The Real American Horror Story

Halloween is a time of ghosts and ghouls, screams and squeal… and ableism?

It’s not a secret that our society loves to stigmatize people with abnormalities. Particularly, mental illness is viewed as something to be both amused and terrified by. Look no further than American Horror Story: Asylum.

I was browsing through Halloween costumes on Party City’s website when I came across an “asylum” costume, which comprised of a straight jacket that said “County Asylum” on the back. When placed beside terrifying costumes like mummies, ghosts, and demons, it’s clear that our society fears the mentally ill.

Asylums have a history comprised of some of the greatest crimes against humanity, and that’s not something made up by Ryan Murphy for good TV.

Patients in these asylums were neglected and treated like animals. In Bedlam, a 16th century London asylum, the public could pay a penny to go watch the mentally ill like they would in a zoo. Patients who were less violent, and therefore, less “fun” for pedestrians to gawk at would take to the streets to ask for donations.

The first mental hospitals didn’t come to the United States until the 19th century.

Bound and isolated, sometimes left alone for hours at a time to sit in their own filth, patients could suffer electric shocks to their body as treatment. For patients with severe schizophrenia, an an instrument was inserted through their eye socket to perform a frontal lobotomy, leaving them in catatonic states.

In World War II, those who refused to fight in the war were put to work in these state hospitals. One of these conscientious objectors, was Charlie Lord, a Quaker, who was sent to work  in the Philadelphia State Hospital in 1945. He took photographs exposing some of the horrors, including the “incontinence ward,”  where patients were left naked to urinate and defecate  on themselves until someone would hose them down the room at the end of the day.

State hospitals continued to abuse mentally ill patients well past WWII, right here in Pennsylvania.

In 1977, Pennhurst State School in Spring City, Pennsylvania underwent a lawsuit, which exposed the horrific treatment  that it inflicted upon its patients.

At Pennhurst and other facilities like it , patients were believed to be subjected to long periods of isolation and other forms of abuse that were disguised as “effective treatment.” Because of the horrendous conditions of these hospitals, patients’ health and overall well-being were actually worse off than before they were admitted to the hospital.

Around Halloween, Pennhurst opens up a haunted house, complete with actors depicting patients that might have once been at the hospital.

What if they opened up a haunted house around Auschwitz? People would protest until they were blue in the face.

Of course Pennhurst was horrifying, but the haunted house is much more about being terrified of the mentally ill rather than the treatment they received. When a person visits Pennhurst, they aren’t screaming because the conditions were horrifying, they’re screaming because they don’t want the “crazy” people to attack them.

Our society stereotypes the mentally ill as violent and unpredictable. In reality, mentally ill people typically aren’t violent. In fact, they’re usually more frightened by other people.

Supporters of haunted asylum attractions, like Pennhurst, say, “Asylums are a thing of the past!” and claim that people who protest are being “too sensitive.”

Asylums might be a thing of the past, but the stigmas attached to mental illness certainly aren’t. Every time a person dresses up as a “crazy asylum” patient or goes to an asylum themed haunted house for fun, they are perpetuating the idea that mental illness is terrifying. They are making a mockery of all the patients who have suffered in isolation at places like Pennhurst.

When I’m driving and I pass Pennhurst I can’t help but wonder what these people would think of me if they knew that I had a mental illness. A year ago I might have been thrown in Pennhurst myself.

I think of my own personal battle to overcome mental illness, and it fills me with anger. Why in the world would someone want to go to an attraction based off of human suffering?

When I was admitted to a psych ward back in 2012, I felt like I had become one of the “monsters” at Pennhurst. I was suddenly at my lowest place, and even the nurses in the hospital looked at me like I was “crazy.”

The nurses used to tell us things like, “You’re never going to make anything of your life” or “You’ll be in and out of places like this your whole life.”

Even if it isn’t as horrible as it was years ago, people with mental illness still face abuse and neglect when they are admitted into hospitals.

People are afraid of mental illness because it could happen to anyone. They don’t want to lose control of their own mind. The mentally ill are thought to be other. But are they really?

Think of your friends. Think of your family. How many of those people suffer from some form of mental illness? Now let’s go back over 400 years to Bedlam. Those family and friends might very well have been in some form of asylum or state hospital. Now think of all the people who had a relative living in a place like Pennhurst less than fifty years ago.

How would you feel if the torture site of your relative was turned into a Halloween attraction?

So how about instead of making Pennhurst a haunted house, they create a memorial for all those who suffered? Why not make a museum that highlights some of the horrors and focuses on education?

Because really, stigma is the most terrifying thing this Halloween.

How’s that for an American horror story?

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