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Arts and Entertainment

Knott's Scary Farm Removes 'Insensitive' Virtual Reality Attraction

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Knott's Scary Farm has removed one of its horror attractions after opponents criticized the experience for being insensitive to those with mental illness and their families. The virtual reality horror experience, known as Fear VR, has also been scrapped from other venues owned by Knott's Ohio-based parent company, Cedar Fair, according to the OC Register.Horror has never been much of a sensitive genre, and the idea of a scary "asylum" is a long-time trope of horror. There are more movies set in mental institutions than one can reasonably count. There's an entire season of American Horror Story called "Asylum" in which a pesky reporter is locked up to keep her quiet, only to encounter serial killers, zombies, a possessed nun and all sorts of other terrors while confined. There are escape rooms and haunted house mazes set in mental hospitals. There are even haunted houses set in actual former hospitals, such as Pennhurst Haunted Asylum at the Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Pennsylvania. Many of these play on one of two basic terror plots: the fear of being confined against your will, and the idea that people in mental institutions are unpredictable and scary. It's those stigmas that mental health advocates are fighting against.

Fear VR was originally titled "Fear VR:5150." Marketing materials said guests would be strapped into a wheelchair and then given a tour of the Meadowbrook Institute, where one patient—a young woman named Katie who has telekinetic powers—has gone missing. Guests would then be "bombarded while the facility walls unravel with horrific evil." The experience would last about four minutes, during which guests would be outfitted with a Samsung Gear VR headset.

After pushback from the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), Cedar Fair agreed to drop the "5150" portion of the name. 5150 is a code used by police. It is used when a person is suspected of being a danger to either themselves or others due to a possible mental illness, and it gives authorities the right to involuntarily confine that person.

Two opponents to the attraction, Rick and Kay Warren, said their son killed himself in 2013, but prior to that, he had been detained on a 5150 multiple times. They argued that a horror attraction would not create an experience revolving around an illness such as cancer or a heart attack. Fear VR "glorifies stigma and exacerbates people's pain," Ray Warren said.

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Cedar Fair issued a statement saying they did not intend to be disrespectful, and that the scares were rooted in the supernatural. In the experience, Katie is not fearsome because she is mentally ill. She is dangerous because she has been possessed by a malevolent demon. Promotional photos depicted a girl that looked remarkably similar to Regan MacNeil, the young girl who is possessed by the demon Pazuzu in horror classic The Exorcist.

Cedar Fair first dropped the "5150" portion of the name and then, only a few days after opening their haunts for the season, Cedar Fair decided to drop the experience in its entirely. According to horror site HorrorBuzz, Fear VR had been available at Knott's, Canada's Wonderland in Ontario, and California's Great America in Santa Clara.

Ron Thomas, the father of Kelly Thomas, went to Knott's to see the Fear VR. Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by police in 2011. Kelly suffered from mental illness and police, in what they said was an attempt to restrain an uncooperative Kelly, struck him numerous times. He died in the hospital 5 days after his encounter with officers.

Thomas told the Times that the attraction was sold out when he arrived. This mirrors my own experience with Knott's Scary Farm. When we attended on opening night, the line for the VR experience was so long, we didn't even contemplate checking it out and instead opted to wind through the park's several mazes instead. Thomas said that while he did not experience Fear VR for himself, he did ask people coming out of the attraction to describe it to him. He said that based on their descriptions, he found Fear VR to be "insensitive."

Opponents seemed to take the most offense to the idea that the guest would be strapped into a wheelchair and pushed into a mental hospital, as though they were being confined against their will. Photos of people in the attraction show their wrists strapped to the chair. Guests who wished to stop the experience had access to a panic button they could push with a finger.

The wheelchair component is not an entirely new one in VR, as it provides a way to cheat movement without having guests move around while entangled in various cords. For instance, there is also a Walking Dead experience that utilizes a wheelchair. In that story, the viewer is in a wheelchair because his or her leg has been removed. The wheelchair itself is on a platform that rotates and gives you the impression that you are being pushed, even though you actually remain in the same place. In this experience, however, you are in a medical hospital, and you are not strapped into the chair.

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