(That photo is my and my cat Turtle Bird heading into Bat Country…don’t worry it was taken safely)
Knotts Scary Farm and Great America decided to close their attraction FearVR, which features a supernatural character inside a mental institution, after complaints that it was insensitive. I haven’t experienced FearVR, but neither had those calling it offensive. It is this point– the immediate condemnation without experience, that I hold issue with. As a sociologist who works in the industry and studies fear, I’m all too aware of the critical social issues regarding exploitation of marginalized groups in media and entertainment. The “crazy mental patient,” “insane prisoner,” and “helpless female victim” are often mainstay characters in many attractions and unfortunately some do depict characters in scenes that reinforce negative stereotypes. I do not personally support these depictions; I don’t see the value and do not think they leave people feeling better (this is entertainment after all). However, I strongly caution against the immediate claim that an attraction featuring elements connected to a marginalized population is inherently offensive. It is not only possible to create non-offensive experiences, but through thoughtful, purposeful, and intentional design create experiences with these elements that challenge and subvert negative stereotypes, all while offering a thrilling, rewarding experience. Here’s how, and why.
Some places are scarier than others. When I ask my students to name scary places, they rattle off a predictable list: prisons, mental institutions, old places, abandoned places, places with a history of crime and murder, e.g. places where people are confined, or what what sociologist Erving Goffman, named “total institutions.” Though they are not inherently evil, these places are the sites of many of history’s most tragic and horrendous crimes against humanity where abuse of power and neglect proliferate. It is obvious, then, why horror movies and attractions would choose these settings: terror is inherent in the institution. They tap into our biggest fears: loss of control, and loss of identity. Not only do their employees have the ability to kill you, sometimes without even breaking the law, they also by definition take away your freedom, and strip away your identity. Whether you enter as a patient, a prisoner, or an employee, you go through a rigid re-socialization process, which can leave you demoralized, pathologized and lacking any sense of self. (See Foucault) Any form of long-term association with an involuntary total institution can leave you feeling less than human, which is, for many, a fate worse than death.
Why, than, do we want to voluntarily engage with material that plays on these narratives? There are lots of reasons (I wrote a book all about it). First, total institutions, particularly those that hold people against their will, are frightening yet intriguing—creating a kind of attraction/repulsion dynamic. We don’t want to watch the car wreck, yet we can’t seem to help but peek through our fingers. This isn’t strange, or abnormal; we’ve evolved to be drawn to the novel. We also have a bias towards negative or threatening images, being able to spot threats quickly keeps us alive. But there are other reasons. We want to know about the things that can hurt us, and these experiences which are safe, voluntary, and in which we maintain control allow us to get close to something that is truly terrifying, without being in real danger. We learn about ourselves, we maybe even feel stronger and resilient in the face of the unknown.
There are good ways and bad ways of achieving this. The bad way, in my opinion, is through depictions that reinforce negative stereotypes and further the narrative of “us” verse “other.” The good way is through creating an environment where people can get close to these fears in a safe way that also challenges existing stereotypes. Flipping the power dynamics in these settings can do this, e.g. the patient is not the “monster” but the hero; the woman is not the helpless victim, but the warrior; it’s a mental institution, or prison, but over-run with supernatural creatures. We still confront the fear of confinement, the horror of loss of control, but through a hero’s journey.
When we suspend our disbelief and enter a different fantasy world we have an incredible opportunity to expand our perspective, to imagine what it would feel like to truly be confined, to be on the other side of the bars. In doing so, we can experience a deeper empathy for those who do not have a choice, and be thankful for, and not take for granted our own freedom, agency and autonomy in this world. Just as we can become desensitized through exposure, so can we become more sensitive to the importance of compassion and civility.
Two things can be true at the same time, very very little in this life is black and white, good or bad, one thing or the other. We must be able to think thoughtfully and critically, to approach things from all perspectives, to maintain a decent degree of cognitive flexibility, and by god trust that we are strong enough to handle the discomfort that comes from simply being a human living in society.
Now lets go have a fun creepy time.