Backlash Forces Knott's VR Show To Change Name

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Backlash Forces Knott's VR Show To Change Name
Knott's Halloween attraction gets a name change after backlash from mental health community.

Knott’s Berry Farm has changed the name of a virtual reality attraction built around the psychiatric ward of a hospital after an uproar from mental health advocates who say it propagates the stigma of mental illness.
 
The immersive Halloween attraction, which opened Thursday, is built around a girl named Katie who shows up at a medical facility. It was originally titled and marketed as “FearVR: 5150.” The number “5150” refers to a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which authorizes a peace officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected to have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves or others.
 
After emails, letters and phone calls from the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ Orange County Chapter and several mental health advocates across the country, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, the parent company of Knott’s, announced Thursday that it would remove the “5150” from the attraction’s title. Concern rose after descriptions of the attraction were revealed after a media preview earlier this month.
 
“It is never our intent to be disrespectful to any individual or group,” a statement issued Thursday by the company said. “The virtual reality experience is actually built around paranormal, zombie-like activity in a medical hospital setting. ... Part of the confusion stems from the use of the code 5150 in the experience’s original name. For that reason, the name has been changed to FearVR.”
 
The name change is “a step in the right direction,” said John Leyerle, president of NAMI OC. “But the next step is to see what the attraction actually presents to the patrons,” he said. “Is it just zombies and ghosts trying to give you a Halloween fright or is there a plausible connection to a psychiatric institution with a mentally ill patient who is demonically possessed? If that’s the case, all they would’ve done is change the label without changing the content.”
 
The fact that there are Hollywood movies that stereotype or stigmatize patients does not make it OK, Leyerle said. “Every topic is not fair game,” he said. “... Would you want to watch an AIDS patient with an open wound walking around infecting people? That would be offensive, and so is this.”
 
One out of four Americans suffer from a mental illness, according to NAMI. That means about 800,000 Orange County residents are mentally ill, Leyerle said. It is appalling that a ride would be based on someone being committed to the hospital or a psychiatric ward, said David Pilon, president and CEO of Mental Health America Los Angeles. “It links being mentally ill with a potential for violence, and that is a huge problem,” he said. “This is an incredible propagation of stigma.” 
 
Most people in line waiting for FearVR on Thursday night were unaware of the controversy. Luke Berger, 18, said he didn’t think the 5150 title was a big deal. “They are just telling a story,” Berger said. “They are not glorifying the (mental) issues.”
 
After experiencing the attraction, Bert Kaufman, 59, said he absolutely loved it. “This is the future of scaring and a great way to complement live action,” Kaufman said. When asked about the 5150 title controversy, he shook his head. “I’m aware of what 5150 is and this is not that kind of scenario,” he said. “Honestly, they don’t even need the title. FearVR is perfect.”

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