Halloween (with a side of ableism)

Full disclosure: I have never liked Halloween. When I was in second grade, I went through a “haunted house” at my elementary school and, while I don’t remember the specifics, I definitely came out crying. The same year, I went trick-or-treating with my family and was extremely frightened by the “big boys” from the back of the bus who wore what I thought were realistic, gory, frightening masks. I hated it all so much I decided not to celebrate Halloween the following year. I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with Halloween for a while, but what it comes down to is that I just hate being scared. I cannot understand the enjoyment most people seem to derive from that experience.

That said, I have a problem with the way we celebrate and sensationalize Halloween. If people want to be scared, I see no problem with monsters and ghosts, skeletons, spiders, and even a little gore. I don’t have an issue with scary stories, coffins, mummies, or costumes. If you’re into freaking yourself and others out, you go for it. I’ll be home with a cup of tea watching something that makes me laugh.

My concern is that Halloween has a distinctly, powerfully ableist side. Halloween is not, at its core, an ableist holiday, of course, but there are many, many issues with Halloween that are ableist.

Let’s break this down.

Ableism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the discrimination and marginalization of people with disabilities. This includes physical disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis), developmental disabilities (e.g. autism, Down Syndrome, intellectual disabilities), and also mental illness and psychiatric disabilities (e.g. bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction). Our language is riddled with words that are or were once pejorative and hurtful. For example: idiot, imbecile, and moron were once the categorization levels for intellectual disability (what we now know as mild, moderate, and severe intellectual disabilities). Similarly, retard (or anything ending in -tard), stupid, derp, and cretin all refer to people with intellectual disabilities. Lame, spaz, crippled/crip are referencing people with physical disabilities. Crazy, insane, loony, maniac, mad, mental, and psycho wacko all stem from words or phrases used to refer to people with mental illness or psychiatric disabilities.

We don’t hear about violence against people with disabilities much in the news…but it happens. A lot. According to the WHO, children with disabilities are 4 times more likely to experience violence. Adults with disabilities are overall 1.5 times more likely to experience violence, but 4 times more likely if they have a mental health condition. According to one study, as many as half of people killed by police have a disability. According to data from the Disability Day of Mourning website, approximately one person with a disability is killed by their caregiver per week.

Asylum 1How does this happen? Well – Halloween (and many, many television shows) instill fear around disability, and particularly surrounding mental illness and psychiatric disabilities. For example, if you think about any given crime show, the murderer/rapist/”bad guy” almost always gets thrown a label: psychopath, insane, schizophrenic, lunatic. In the news, when something bad happens, diagnoses are thrown about until one sticks: crazy, mentally ill, autistic, bipolar. Now think about this: have you ever seen a positive story about someone with mental illness? Can you think of a time when a psychiatric disability was presented positively in the news? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 25 experience a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder…and these numbers don’t include the 1 in 5 youth aged 13-18 year olds who will experience mental illness at some point in their lifetime.

Halloween is a time for scary things. It’s a time for supernatural, paranormal creatures and, apparently, a time for ableism to run rampant. Think about it: how many costumes for “crazy” or “insane” or “mad” people/things do you see? Let’s think about costumes of straightjackets. Mental patients. Mad scientists. Psychos.

The thing that really gets me, though, is the “haunted asylums.”Asylum 2

Pennhurst Asylum in Pennsylvania (I will not link to the website, because I find the video that plays both infuriating and upsetting) is touted as one of “America’s scariest attractions.” There are many of these “haunted asylums” across the U.S. In fact, I think the “asylum” idea can probably be found in multiple haunted houses/haunted attractions: one need only Google “Halloween asylum” to find a link to a website selling products entirely for creating your own haunted asylum, Halloween asylum party ideas on Pinterest, and an entire page of items to purchase from Party City.

Here’s the thing, though. When we talk about skeletons, and coffins, and zombies and monsters and ghosts, no matter how gorey and gross and bloody and violent they get, they are pretend. They aren’t real. There are not real people behind those stories. Behind the monsters and ghosts, there are not real faces and real lives we are exploiting for “entertainment.”

Party city asylum 2
Available from Partycity.com

When we talk about asylums, we’re talking about institutions that housed people with disabilities and in which real people – with real stories and real faces – often suffered horrific neglect and abuse. We’re talking about eugenics. We’re talking about people with disabilities of varying degrees being locked up for their entire lives, never receiving any education or real stimulation, and never being given the opportunity to move out into the world. We’re talking about the fact that this didn’t even really begin to change until the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1972 that people with disabilities were granted the right to live in the least restrictive environment, deeming confinement in institutions unnecessary for the majority of the institutions’ inhabitants. It wasn’t until the 1970s that people with disabilities were given the constitutional right to due process, and protected from things like involuntary servitude and involuntary sterilization. The 1970s.

For those who live near me, “Pennhurst Asylum” in Pennsylvania is not so very far from home. Per its website, Pennhurst was a “state school” that was closed in 1986 due to repeated allegations of abuse. Apparently, upon release from the institution, a former resident filed a complaint that the conditions were unsanitary, inhumane, dangerous, and that the staff used cruel and unusual punishments. After investigation, the site was deemed dangerous due to the physical and mental abuse, inadequate care, and the fact that the patients’ wellbeing deteriorated while in the care of staff at Pennhurst.

This shit was happening all across the country. In my lifetime, this sort of shit was happening. We’re talking about electric shock therapy. Surgery without anesthesia. Restraints. Isolation. And now, in 2017, we’re sensationalizing this history and suffering with things like this (from the Pennhurst Asylum website):

“…you will bare (sic) witness to patients being experimented on in the most inhumane ways possible.”

“While Pennhurst Asylum was in full operation, over 10,000 patients called it home. Many are still lurking the corridors screaming of the injustices that were forced upon them. Overcrowding and understaffing resulted in patients being restrained for days upon end, patient’s dying at one another’s hands and by the hands of those who were entrusted with their care.

Children with physical and mental disabilities were abandoned. Meager funding left patients trapped in metal cribs and horrid conditions. Cruel punishments enacted upon the patients – if one patient bit another, the second offense resulted in every tooth being extracted. With all the mistreatment of residents, no wonder there is a darkness still hovering over Pennhurst.”

Party city asylum
Also available from Party City

Can I remind you that we are talking about real people, real lives, and real pain that is now being sensationalized and marketed as an attraction? Can I remind you that the people who lived at places like Pennhurst may still be alive and working to live in the community after living for 5, or 25, or 40 years in this environment? What must it be like for them – or for their families – to see their lives, their histories exploited in this way?

I get really worked up about this issue. This topic can make me angry to the point of tears and here’s why: I have worked with people who lived in these institutions. In graduate school, I had a side job conducting assessments for each resident’s yearly habilitation plan at one of the remaining “institutions.” I have read their stories. I have seen their faces. I have seen the neglect they withstood, and I have seen the incredible loss and burden they carry with them. I have seen what people look like after receiving no intervention, too much medication, no socialization, and little engagement for decades. If you haven’t seen what this looks like, if you haven’t heard these stories, there is no way you can possibly imagine it.

What a privilege it is to be able to erase and sensationalize an entire population’s recent history. What privilege is afforded to us that we are able to ignore the very real and very human pain behind this entertainment, and believe that we can enjoy it as an evening of innocent fun. What privilege we must have to be able to bypass this dark chapter of our past without a thought as to who we may be hurting.

And yet…people say, “it’s harmless.” People say it’s no big deal. People say it’s just scary fun, and all in the name of Halloween. But it’s not. This is violence. Dressing up in a straightjacket, sexy or not, is colluding with history in a way that perpetuates the fear of disability. Making asylum decorations from Pinterest may seem fun and harmless, but it is perpetuating the stigma of disability and/or mental illness as something scary, or “freaky,” or dangerous, and that stigma is what lands us here.

So here’s what I ask of you this Halloween: just pay attention. How many times do you see the word crazy or insane? Ask yourself if the activity you are participating in could potentially be shaming, or othering, or aggressive towards another group.

People with disabilities deserve to be heard and seen and respected as whole beings with inherent worth and dignity. By using stereotypes as costume fodder and by twisting some of their history into frightening holiday entertainment, we are denying people their wholeness, worth, and humanity.

Quite frankly, we just have to do better.

For further reading: Autistic Hoya’s analysis on this topic is far better than I could hope to write – http://www.autistichoya.com/2012/10/halloweens-ableism-problem.html

happy halloween


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