Why Are “Psychos” So Scary?

Last week, on my way to a lunch meeting, I drove by a billboard advertising a Halloween attraction called Statesville Haunted Prison. I suspected it somehow capitalized on mental illness, so I looked it up. Sure enough, Chicagoland’s “greatest haunted house” is a celebration of popular cliches about mental illness–among other stupidities. The prisoners have rioted, apparently, and the prison is currently haunted and open for visitors. Not sure why anyone would want to visit the prison in this scenario, but that’s the idea.

When they do visit, visitors are treated to the opportunity to gawk at “criminals that were too evil to die.” They are “paranoid” and “crazed.” One is called Mad Dog; another is an East German doctor of psychology. (I wonder where they found an East German in 2012.) One has “slipped into madness.” And another is described this way: “To say that he has an obsessive compulsive disorder, would be a massive understatement.” Then there’s the Maniac Ward, where children born in the prison are kept. These children, predictably, have dementia which drives them to horrific violence.

If you’re not in the Chicago area and you’re looking to be entertained by stereotypes of mental illness this Halloween, don’t worry. There are plenty of opportunities elsewhere. Depending on where you live, you can visit places like the Psycho Ward Haunted House, Psycho Path Haunted Attraction, or Doomsday Asylum. You can even take a trip down the Psycho Trail or go on Psycho Safari.

How ironic that Halloween and Mental Illness Awareness Week happen in the same month.

Apparently people with mental illness are among the most frightening–and entertaining–subjects we can imagine.


Well, for starters, humans themselves are the scariest creatures on the planet. We have an incredibly capacity for violence, cruelty, and destruction. Unchecked, human strength can be a powerful force for evil. And in our popular imagination, mental illness means unchecked human strength. Insatiable appetite for evil. Uncontrolled destructive impulses. Mysterious. Unpredictable. Terrifying.

Of course, in reality people with mental illness are far more likely to be scared than scary. People plagued by anxiety disorders and depression are often overwhelmed with unnamed fears. People who are delusional, hallucinating, or paranoid are often terrified for their own safety and others’. But the real tragedy is that when people are not symptomatic, they’re still afraid. They keep their suffering secret because they’re scared of how others will treat them. Because people who find mental illness entertaining on weekends in October might find it entertaining all year long.

People with mental illness have the same capacity to harm themselves and others that we all have. And isn’t that what we’re really scared of–that capacity? That someday we might lose the ability to harness our own worst impulses? that we also have the potential to live with that kind of fear for real?

Culturally, one reason we fear people with mental illness is because we see our own potential in them. It seems a lot easier to deal with our own issues if we caricature, punish, and ridicule those who externally exhibit those same issues. We can distance ourselves from them. Show how different they are from the rest of us. Assure ourselves that we’ll never be wounded and needy like them.

And in the process, we ridicule people at their most vulnerable. We alienate and shame them and discourage them from getting the help they need. We reinforce their fears.

Stereotyping, ridiculing, and dehumanizing people with mental illness is not a good solution to our own issues. Instead, how about a little compassion this Halloween? How about we choose not to get a thrill at the expense of vulnerable and frightened people? How about we be a little less scary ourselves?

  1. leanne says:

    well said! thanks for the good perspective!

  2. Monika L. says:

    Thank you for this, Amy. I fight to bring awareness every day and I appreciate the addition of your voice.

  3. Laurie says:

    Very good article Amy! Such a great perspective, and you always present things so well. Yes we all need to be so much more sensitive to mental illness. Those who are affected are very scared- a little bit of love and compassion can go a long way.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.