Press Releases

NAMI Lists Nation's Worst "Halloween Horrors"

President Bush, Surgeon General Quoted To Condemn Stigma, Stereotypes Of People With Mental Illnesses

Pepsi Withdraws Support Of Haunted House In Atlanta: But Was It Simply Just A "Prank" On Archrival Coca-Cola?

Oct 28 2002

Arlington, VA - Unfortunately, it's the time of year when Halloween haunted houses and costumes often adopt mental illnesses as a theme-portraying people with mental illnesses as monsters, ghouls, or whatever else may go bump in the night.

It is a recurring problem that has to stop," said Rick Birkel, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), which earlier this month launched a "Campaign for the Mind of America" to eliminate stigma and seek broad reforms in the nation's mental health system.

NAMI released a list of some of the nation's worst "Halloween Horrors" produced or sponsored by companies that have ignored appeals by both President Bush and the U.S. Surgeon General to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness for the public good.

The List Includes:

  1. Disguise, Inc. which produces a "Straight Jacket" costume previously marketed as "Mental Patient." 
  2. Spencer Gifts, a key distributor of the costume, along with another labeled "Psycho Rodeo Clown." 
  3. Six Flags Amusement Park in Dallas, Texas, host of a "Fright Fest" featuring Dr. Malice, initially promoted as an insane asylum escapee, whose demented experiments include "Electro-Shock Trivia." (In response to initial complaints, the park tried to tone down the references to mental illness and gave free tickets to NAMI Dallas for distribution to consumers). 
  4. The Netherworld Haunted House "Inner Sanctum" in Atlanta "dedicated to aggressively treating the most severe forms of mental illness," which included Pepsi and Subway among its "friends and sponsors." Following an initial complaint by NAMI, Pepsi pulled its logo from the Netherworld Website on October 25. 

"Perhaps Pepsi intended only to pull a Halloween prank on the Atlanta community, which is home to its archrival, Coca-Cola," Birkel said.

But the incident raises deeper questions about corporate attitudes. They flow from the corporate boardroom and executive suites right on down to every bottling plant and local distributor. Production, sponsorship, advertising, or sale of merchandise or images of this kind may create legal liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-as part of a hostile work environment or pattern of insensitivity that affects employees or customers. Every company on our list is now on notice to take a close, careful look at its corporate culture and policies."

"Subway, Inc., for example, may want to revise its advertising campaigns to show not only that Jared and his friends have lost weight by eating their sandwiches," Birkel said, "but also that the company and its franchises are committed to helping eliminating stigma."

Stigma is based on ignorance, prejudice or unfair discrimination. Halloween costumes portraying hospital patients in straitjackets, or haunted houses presented as insane asylums, are no different than the blackface minstrel shows in an earlier era, when African Americans were cruelly caricatured, segregated and marginalized in our society."

It is not simply a matter of Halloween fun. For many, it's a matter of life and death," Birkel noted.

One out of every five Americans experiences a mental illness during the course of a lifetime. With treatment, people with mental illness are no more prone to violence (the theme of Halloween costumes and haunted houses) than the general population. Every year, however, approximately 30,000 people commit suicide, almost always as a result of mental illness. Suicide also is the third leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults.

These Halloween images are more than offensive and insensitive," Birkel said. "They help create a cultural environment in which people with mental illnesses are dehumanized and discouraged or prevented from getting help when they need it. It reflects a moral issue with tremendous economic and social cost."

NAMI quoted President Bush and the Surgeon General in support of its campaign.

  1. On April 29, 2002 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, President Bush declared: "Our country must make a commitment: Americans with mental illness deserve our understanding and they deserve excellent care…To meet this goal, we've got to overcome obstacles…The first obstacle is the stigma that often surrounds mental illness-a stigma caused by a history of misunderstanding, fear, and embarrassment. Stigma leads to isolation and discourages people from seeking the treatment they need."
  2. The U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health similarly declared in 1999 that stigma is "the most formidable obstacle to future progress in the arena of mental illness and mental health ... manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment and/or avoidance." Stigma leads people "to avoid living, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders, especially severe disorders such as schizophrenia ... It reduces patients' access to resources and opportunities (e.g., housing, jobs) and leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking, and wanting to pay for, care. In its most overt and egregious form, stigma results in outright discrimination and abuse. More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society."

NAMI'S Worst in the Nation List of Halloween Horrors

Disguise Inc.

One of the world's largest costume makers, Disguise, Inc. has changed last year's "Mental Patient" costume to "Straight Jacket." Otherwise, it's the same costume, and they have been insensitive to the connection that still exists to mental illness and the human suffering that the image of a straitjacket represents. One spokesperson has claimed that NAMI is trying to "censor" its product, but that's not the case. Instead, we're exercising our own freedom of speech; condemning the company's gross insensitivity and lack of social responsibility---and trying to appeal to individual and corporate consciences.


Spencer Gifts, Inc.

Spencer Gifts is a large retail outlet for Disguise costumes as well as t-shirts or gadgets with discriminatory messages. It has characterized the "Straight Jacket" as a "teen" costume and features a "Psycho Rodeo Clown" in its Website sales catalogue. A company representative responded to initial NAMI concerns with the following statement:

"Naturally not all our products are for everyone. We are a company that has through merchandise illustrated who and what we are as a society for 50 years. At times, I agree, it can hit a nerve with some people. Our merchandise often causes disagreement among people with different tastes and views, but that is natural, healthy, not a bad thing and is a key part of why our customers enjoy our stores. What we don't do with our merchandise is attempt to impose any particular view or agenda. Spencer Gifts is a store about fun. What we do, and will continue to do, is poke fun at life situations whenever and wherever we find them. Please don't read anything more than that into what you see in our stores."

NAMI considers Spencer Gifts' response to be unacceptable. We pose the question for reporters and editorial writers whether the company would respond the same way about racial and ethnic slurs? Or to appeals from President Bush, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the families of 30,000 suicide victims per year?

Web site:

Six Flags Over Texas (Dallas)

One of many Six Flags theme parks around the country, the Dallas park features a "Fright Fest" hosted by "Dr. Malice," who in flyers circulated in early October in the Dallas Morning News was described as an insane asylum escapee. In response to complaints by NAMI Dallas, the park tried tone down references to mental illness-and provided free tickets for distribution to consumers. The park's Website now refers to Dr. Malice only as a good doctor gone bad, but nonetheless, promotes his "demented" experiments, such as "Electro-Shock Trivia" and "Fearanoia" where "fear meets paranoia in an ultimate contest of 'mind survival.'"


Netherworld Haunted House (Atlanta)

The "Inner Sanctum" is one of two commercial haunted house attractions located in Norcross, Georgia, outside Atlanta.

Until October 25, 2002, Pepsi and Subway both were listed among its "friends and sponsors," but in response to an initial complaint by NAMI, Pepsi removed its logo from the Website. The "Inner Sanctum" is billed as "dedicated to aggressively treating the most severe forms of mental illness" in a research facility located near the site of "several unexplained gruesome murders." On the Website page, click on the picture of the "inmates" for individual stories.