As Knott’s Berry Farm transformed into its annual Halloween-themed Knott’s Scary Farm, it was met with outcries from mental health advocates over one of its
“Fear VR: 5150” is a virtual-reality, haunted house set up as a psychiatric hospital. The original red flag for advocates was the title of the ride. The term 5150 refers to a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code that permits involuntary psychiatric hold.
Critics said the circumstances of the plot and characters in the virtual world stigmatized mental health. The ride follows a woman wandering around a mental hospital where depictions of people strapped to chairs and acting strange are frequent.
Many advocates and members of the public raised concerns over the insensitivity of the attraction.
Kay Warren, wife of Pastor Rick Warren, California Baptist University alumnus and pastor of Saddleback Church, was among those who spoke out against the ride. The Warrens’ son suffered from mental-health problems and committed suicide in 2013. Kay Warren told The OC Register their son had been held on a 5150 several times.
“I get that someone wouldn’t know what that’s like unless they have a family member or themselves going through this pain,“ Kay Warren said in a statement to The OC Register. “We wouldn’t use a person suffering from cancer or heart attack and leverage it to create a thrill ride. It glorifies stigma and exacerbates people’s pain.”
Jeffrey Biddle, director of the Counseling Center at CBU, said he believes Knott’s Scary Farm reverted to an antiquated mindset of mental health.
“When you go back 10, 15, 20 years there was such a mindset exactly like Knott’s Scary Farm was depicting, that people were out of control and dangerous and radical and they should be put away, kind of like this prison mentality,” Biddle said.
While there are some who believe the public was being too sensitive about the theme-park attraction, Julie Greenwalt, CBU’s Counseling Center office manager, noted the seriousness of the issue at hand.
“If you have someone close to you who has either committed suicide or struggles with mental illness, it’s not ever funny,” Greenwalt said.
In response to the outcries, Knott’s Scary Farm released a statement that said contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness. The ride has since been shut down.
Biddle was encouraged by the reaction.
“So many people reacted so strongly and so quickly, and people of great reputation,” Biddle said of the situation. “It really told the world that we’re developing a mentality that reaching out for mental health is a good thing.”