N.J. mental health advocates say Halloween ‘zombie’ hunt still contributes to stigma

Zombies

(Vadimborkin/Bigstock)

Mental health advocates again are criticizing a New Jersey Halloween attraction they say stigmatizes people with mental illness.

C. Casola Farms in Marlboro first generated controversy last year with a game allowing patrons to shoot paintballs at “zombies” that were imagined to be former patients at a state psychiatric hospital. The Monmouth County farm ditched the back story after getting complaints from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) New Jersey.

But Phil Lubitz, an associate director of the organization, said this year’s version of the “Marlboro Zombie Breakout” still contains troubling traces of the original concept.

The website description for the zombie-shooting ride begins, “We need your help to exterminate these psychotic zombies.” Lubitz objected to the description of the zombies as “psychotic,” saying it feeds the stereotype that people mental illness are prone to violent behavior.

“It creates an unreal association that just perpetuates stigma and discrimination,” Lubitz said.

He also said that the name of the event still seems to refer to the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, which was located near C. Casola Farms. The state hospital closed in 1998 and was demolished in 2015.

C. Casola Farms created a video promoting the attraction last year that told a horror tale of psychiatric patients who were turned into zombies after being subject to experimental treatments. The farm pulled the video and made other changes after NAMI New Jersey complained.

“It’s much, much better than last year, but I think there’s still some things that are clearly over the line and need to be modified,” Lubitz said, adding that NAMI New Jersey would be contacting the owners to request that they change the language his organization finds problematic.

C. Casola Farms did not respond to requests for comment.

Lubitz said that activities exploiting fears of psychiatric institutions, such as “haunted asylums,” are quite common this time of year.

“Halloween seems to bring out the worst in stigmatizing references to people with mental illness,” he said.

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