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The problem with people who write about haunted asylums

A writing professor has a Psychology Today blog, and she’s using it in her practice of bringing psychology into literature. Okay. I don’t suppose there’s a lot wrong with that endeavor in and of itself, but my view is that its better have your fiction grounded in historical fact rather than getting lost in the bog of material you have absolutely no knowledge about. This is the problem with Carolyn Kaufman’s The Problem With Haunted Asylums blog post.

She is reacting to NAMI campaigning against such exploitation.

“Haunted” places are popular Halloween attractions, but seasonal haunted asylums in particular draw fire from mental health advocacy groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI argues that such attractions “contribute to the stigma by encouraging false stereotypes and barricading the path toward an educated society” and asks the sites to remove the displays.

The reasons why a person wouldn’t exploit an abandoned asylum for crass commercial purposes have been boiled down to a couple of lame platitudes. She throws out those overused clichés, stereotype and stigma. These clichés have become ways of not seeing what’s right before your own eyes.

Let’s look at both sides.

On the one hand, asking a highly popular, entertainment-oriented, money-making attraction that’s already in full swing to tear it all down in hopes that people will realize that the depictions were unrealistic may be overly optimistic, at least for this year.

On the other hand, haunted asylums do play up scary stereotypes: that the clinical staff uses patients for ugly experiments; and that people who need to be hospitalized are radically different from everyone else, completely out of control, and savagely dangerous.

Dr. Kaufman apparently needs a lesson straight from the horse’s mouth.

One of the worst periods of times when it came to mental health treatment in this nation was in the early part of the twentieth century. The practices of shock treatment and lobotomy, in fact, came out of this dismal period in our mental institutes. People labeled “mentally ill” were being sterilized as people who were deemed unfit to breed. It was feared that having “mentally defective” peoples breed would have an unfavorable effect on the survival capacity of the species. This practice, begun in the USA, was readily adopted by the Nazi Reich in Germany. Sterilizing gave way to exterminating, and the German Reich had found the population to practice on in preparation for going after the Jews. This process of deleting certain targeted segments of the population from the gene pool in a misguided attempt to “improve” the species, with all its pseudo-scientific pretensions, was referred to as Eugenics.

The facts shouldn’t be glossed over. The Victorian monstrosity of the mental hospital was and remains a place where many bad things took place. The community treatment that comes of deinstitutionalization is a vast improvement over those bad things. The mental hospital is, after all, the rug that certain people get swept under when other people don’t want to deal with them. You need go no further than the state hospital cemetery to see how this is the case. What will you find there? If there is any marker, it’s going to bear a number rather than a name and dates. Why? Because it would reflect poorly on the family for folks to find out that one of their members was out of his or her head, and that he or she had died in an institution. I certainly don’t think that the fact that a person had a corporeal existence should become a matter requiring utmost confidentiality. The patient is not being protected by having led an existence only as a hidden and secret record.

Mental asylums should be remembered the way concentration camps are remembered. Nobody would dare make Halloween entertainment out of Auschwitz. For people who have been there, for people who have done time in a state hospital against their will and wishes, for psychiatric survivors like myself, the state hospital system is to be remembered as our holocaust. We want the mental hospital to become a relic of the past. It would be better to make museums out of them, so that people would never forget, than it would to make a child’s diversion of them. Horrible things went on in these institutions. Some of these things are still going on. Let’s do things differently in the future. We need to show people the absurd kind of therapeutic treatments being used in the past. We need to show people that we are above resorting to these tortures today. We don’t want people to ever forget, for if they do, it could happen again.