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31 October 2012

Halloween's Ableism Problem: The Commercialization of Disability Oppression and Mental Health Stigma

Trigger Warning: Direct quotes of ableist hate speech.

Halloween's Ableism Problem
The Commercialization of Disability Oppression and Mental Health Stigma

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak for Professor Sylvia Wing Önder's medical anthropology class on disability, neurodiversity, and stigma. During my presentation, I asked the students in the class to raise their hands if they had ever watched a crime drama or police serial on TV that portrayed a character explicitly identified as having a mental health or psychiatric disability, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, in a negative light. Nearly all of the students (if not all of them) raised their hands. When I reversed the question and asked if anyone could think of a neutral or positive TV or film portrayal of a character explicitly known to have a mental health or psychiatric disability, one student tentatively raised her hand.

I asked the students to raise their hands if they had read news coverage of a shooting incident, mass murder, or other violent crime during which a reputable journalistic publication used language like "psychopathic," "insane," "mentally ill," or other derogatory descriptions referring to mental health and psychiatric disabilities as a way of discussing the perpetrator's known or suspected neurology. Most, if not all, hands shot into the air.

The common practice of conflating violence--or indeed, any other ill in society or personal flaw of an individual--with mental health and psychiatric disabilities occurs not only in the popular and news media but in everyday conversations. This myth is perpetuated by TV shows that depict rapists, murderers, and terrorists as "mentally ill," and by supposedly objective and unbiased news reports that use the same dehumanizing language to construct horrifying and appalling visions of what mental health and psychiatric disabilities look like. The rhetorical and discursive constructions of mental health would leave the average individual convinced that anyone with a mental health or psychiatric disability is a raging monster incapable of normal emotions or empathizing with others, ready at any trigger to spring vicious, murderous violence upon anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way or say the wrong thing at the wrong time. These people, we are told, are menaces to society and ought to be locked away in secure facilities for their own good and for the good of everyone else.

And always, they are others. The process of othering is not new to disability, whether in general or around mental health and psychiatric disabilities in particular. Given that the ability to empathize with other human beings--the ability to understand another's emotions not only intellectually but emotionally--is frequently upheld as an innate characteristic of humanity that separates us from less sapient creatures, the message that certain groups of disabled people inherently lack empathy underscores the deeply troubling trend of dehumanizing those people. Whether it's the Autistic like me or those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities, the stigma we face is staggering. Unlike those believed to be non-disabled, we are forced to prove our humanity, to prove our worthiness to be included as having equal value and worth as everyone else. Because we are other, it is possible for the mainstay of society to make light of our marginalization. And, as you may well know or have suspected yourself, the commercial exploitation of disability enfreakment is a lucrative business.

Fright at the Museum: Dead Men Walking is this year's haunted house experience at the Museum of Crime and Punishment here in Washington, DC. I heard about the haunted house experience when reading a list of Halloween-themed activities in the District. The language used on the brief advertisement described the haunted house as "featuring the criminally insane." Appalled at the blatant ableism, I searched for the attraction on the internet and found this language on the official website--"This Halloween the Crime Museum will transform into a hunting ground for the criminally insane." Yet despite my horror and disappointment, I was not surprised.

Every year at Halloween, haunted house attractions pop up across the United States, in people's basements, in stores, in hotels, in museums, in frat houses, in amusement parks, and just about anywhere else one can imagine decorating with skeletons and spiderwebs and coffins and fake corpses with fake blood and weapons nearby. I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the commonplace use of "the insane" or "the criminally insane" as features in these attractions. Firstly, it's dehumanizing of actual people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities. Secondly, it's usually grossly inaccurate. Thirdly, it contributes to the already massive stigma against people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities in potentially extremely dangerous and harmful ways.

The attitude that leads otherwise decent people to believe that there is nothing wrong or problematic with featuring "the criminally insane" in a haunted house attraction is one deeply rooted in and perpetuated by an ableism so pervasive in society that it even taints disability rights movements. Ableism against those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities is not only widespread in society writ large, but it is a particularly vile  and virile thorn embedded deeply into the disability community in general, including the autism and Autistic communities. This ableism gives rise to the attitude that sees those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities as legitimate material for twisted humor, freak exhibits, and fright experiences. (After all, if it is legitimate to fear an entire group of people based on dangerously misconceived prejudices against them, then it makes sense that that group of people would be used in a fright experience like a haunted house.)

Let's deconstruct this. To use actors or exhibits portraying people belonging to a marginalized group--in this case, people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities--as a form of entertainment is not only belittling, but dehumanizing. Why? Because it says that they are fodder for entertainment. This process of enfreakment has a long history that includes the freak show sideshows accompanying circuses that put people with visible disabilities and deformities on display for public amusement and pity. When it comes to these types of portrayals, it contributes to the message that says that these are not people worthy of respect or dignity for no reason other than their disabilities.

The suggestion that all or many people with mental health or psychiatric disabilities are now or will in the future become violent murderers or rapists is not only ableist and stigmatizing, but grossly inaccurate. Not only are those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities not any more likely to commit violent crime than the general population, they are at significantly higher likelihood of being targeted as victims of both nonviolent and violent crime. The ableism that perpetuates this harmful myth does a disservice to people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities twice over. It wrongfully insinuates that they are more likely to commit violent crimes--thereby allowing for the disturbing proposition of pre-emptive confinement and containment of these people that sounds suspiciously like Minority Report--and it allows society to ignore their needs when they are victimized by crime.

This is not merely Halloween's ableism problem, but the consequence of ableist attitudes embedded across all levels of society. The commercialization of disability oppression poses a unique problem in that it is doubly exploitative. It harms the disabled and it allows the rest of society to become complicit in its perpetuation. It is morally abhorrent, but rarely questioned. Those in positions of power and privilege can remain unchallenged because they have the social capital and financial resources to maintain their power and privilege. It is no object to oppress people who are already marginalized in society.

In order to combat the frequency of these appallingly ableist depictions of disabled people, we must begin by combating the attitudes that justify and excuse them as harmless and valid. That begins with changing the portrayals we see on TV and in film, in literature, and in the news media. It begins with changing the way we talk about mental health and people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities, whether that be in public speeches or debates, university classrooms or compulsory education, or everyday conversations. It begins with challenging enfreakment as the norm. In the absence of widespread public outcry, both individually and at the organizational level, President Obama will be able to continue to pontificate about keeping guns away from "the mentally ill," reputable newspapers will be able to continue to speculate about how "insane" suspected perpetrators of mass killings must be, and professors will continue to be able to make tasteless, ableist jokes about involuntary restraint and seclusion. The understanding that these rhetorical constructions and public enfreaking depictions of disability contribute to a society in which those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities are unwelcome, unaccommodated, and in perpetual danger of victimization of hate speech and hate crimes is necessary in order to deconstruct them and work toward ending them.

Note: The idea that mental health and psychiatric disabilities, among other temporary or permanent conditions, can render one legally "insane," for purposes of the popularly-called "insanity defense" (in legal terms, "not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect"), deserves another critique in its own essay.

Addendum: The language used in the DC Museum of Crime and Punishment advertisement--"hunting ground for the criminally insane"--actually has two possible interpretations. I intended to include a bit about this in the original essay, but it seems to have slipped my mind. This phrase might be interpreted as furthering the dangerous misconception that people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities are murderers waiting to happen, and that the "hunting ground" is those people hunting down the "normal" people. Its other interpretation, however, is far more sinister and haunting. The second possible interpretation is that the event planners are implicitly condoning the "hunting" of people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities--i.e. that the "hunting ground" is a place for the "normal" people to hunt and kill the "criminally insane." This carries many problematic consequences, not the least of which is the direct condoning of violence against those with mental health and psychiatric disabilities as acceptable. 


  1. I'm surprised you didn't spend more time focusing on the "hunting ground" terminology. It seems to be directly promote murdering those with psychiatric conditions.

    1. Hi Max! I had intended to include commentary on that part of the advertisement, but it apparently slipped my mind. I've added an addendum addressing it in brief.

  2. Thank you for defending our humanity, it's so rare.

  3. thanks for this, you make the point really well.

    this is basically why i can't read batman comics. 'arkham asylum' should have been left behind about thirty years ago. it should be one of those embarrassing things comic book people look back on and cringe, like reed richards' 'wives should be kissed and not heard' or frank miller's entire existence. but every single other comic book fan I have ever met has pretty much called for pistols at dawn if you say that maybe it's a little bit gross and exploitative. like you've suggested that alfred kills and eats puppies in the batcave.

  4. Very impressive. I admire your work. You are awesome.

  5. That's another reason why mental health hasn't really made any major advances in recent years. People have a skewed view of mental disorders merely because of what popular media tells them so. We have to eliminate this misconception if we want to make any significant development.

  6. What is really lacking here is professional opinion. Medical professionals should have a say to counter this cultural misinformation, and to eliminate the discriminatory atmosphere around people with psychiatric disabilities.

  7. @Maui La Salle, Most medical professionals I have met have looked at their own patients as incomprehensible Others who don't want to be part of society.

    @Lydia Brown, I agree 100% with the horrible stereotyping in most popular media. Interestingly, I can think of two female science fiction authors who have a much more sympathetic view of people with mental illness. They are clearly bucking a trend and I'm not trying to dispute what you say about TV/movies/comics.

    Several of Elizabeth Moon's characters have to overcome PTSD from combat or rape, and Esmay Suiza in particular has to overcome being gaslighted her whole life about a violent assault when she was a small child. The editorial POV is "We can help you with this and you don't have to be ashamed."

    Lois McMaster Bujold has several characters with different mental illnesses who are written very compassionately. (However, her one Aspie character was almost mocked. Bad Lois!) She also explores ableism in many stories. (However, some people look at Miles Vorkosigan as an inspiration porn supercrip. Miles is just unrealistically badass for any character, even if he is short with brittle bones and leg braces. He sort of has to prove he's not a waste of oxygen in his macho militaristic culture, similar to how Dr. Grandin had to prove she's not stupid.)

    I have a related question: A potential client contacted me about some graphic design work for his movie project. I don't want to spill any beans here, but it seems like a steampunk riff on Throne of Swords. The protagonist suffered deforming/disabling injuries at the hands of his enemies, and I'm not sure if this is going to lead into the Disney stereotype or not. Should I try to find out more about this before proceeding, and if so, how?


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