In a devastating blow to fans of Halloween horror, the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt has closed their virtual-reality attraction, FearVR. Knott’s parent company, Cedar Fair is also closing the attraction at two other parks, California’s Great America in Santa Clara and Canada’s Wonderland near Toronto. According to an article in the OC Register, the theme park draw negative reactions from the mental health community and advocates, including pastor Rick Warren and his wife, whose son committed suicide after a struggle with chronic depression. Covering similar territory, Steve Lopez in the L.A Times cites the objections of Ron Thomas, whose schizophrenic son was infamously beaten to death on camera by Fullerton police.
The controversy started before the attraction opened, because of its original name, FearVR 5150. “5150” is a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code that allows mentally ill people to be involuntarily confined. This reference rubbed the Orange County Chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness the wrong way – perhaps understandably so, since it draws a connection to the real plight of mentally ill people. In response, Knotts Scary Farm dropped the “5150” from the name on opening night.
Apparently, that was not enough for the Warrens and Thomas, neither of whom, as far as we can tell, actually experienced FearVR (though not for want of trying – it was sold out on the night Thomas went). Their objections were based on the concept of the virtual ride, which uses goggles and earphones to simulate being pushed through a mental institution under attack by a patient with supernatural powers.
Believe me, I understand objections to negative portrayals of mentally ill people, who are frequently portrayed as dangerous, when in fact they are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. However, FearVR was not a realistic depiction of mental illness; in fact, it was not clear that its central character was mentally ill at all.
In their unsigned statement regarding the closing, Knotts Berry Farm wrote: “Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness.” The Times’ Steve Lopez thinks this is a dodge, a way to avoid responsibility for a mistake, but I think it’s reasonably accurate.
The back story of the haunt, seen in a video screened in the entry room, presents the antagonist as a mute enigma, an anonymous person (dubbed “Katie” by hospital staff) who showed up one day, without explanation, and has been in the institution ever since, mostly because there are no known family or friends to take her.
Katie is not psychotic but psychic; it is her telekinetic abilities, not mental illness, that makes her dangerous. Her visual depiction suggests a hybrid of possessed zombie and a Japanese ghost girl (she looks not too dissimilar from some of the characters in Knott’s Shadowlands maze).
When guests are strapped into their virtual-reality “wheelchairs” and taken for a wild ride through the mental hospital, the imagery is pure fantasy, mixing the living dead and psychic phenomena. There is little if anything specific to mental illness, except the setting; Katie simply does not conform to the stereotype of a psycho-with-a-knife.
In retrospect, Knotts Scary Farm might have been better off if they had set the story in a fictional psychic research institute. That might have made it more difficult to justify the attraction’s central conceit (strapping guests into a wheelchair and pushing them through the action), but I’m sure the writers could have figured out a way.
In fact, even now we wonder whether it would be possible to preserve the virtual-reality aspect of FearVR simply by altering the set-up provided before guests are put into their wheelchairs. Re-shoot the opening video to depict Katie as a ghost of someone killed in the building before it was converted into an institution or perhaps recast her as a human guinea pig whose psychic powers are the result of experiments by evil doctors (thus shifting the onus away from the patients to the staff).
Yes, we are daydreaming. It just hurts so much to know that many of you will not be able to experience an attraction that should have been the highlight of Halloween 2016.
Update: There is an online petition you can sign, asking Knotts Scary Farm to bring back FearVR.