Stigma Free UWT? Ethics, Ableism, and Halloween

Haunted houses are basically synonymous with Halloween, full of zombies, killer clowns, cheerleaders from beyond the grave and…mentally ill people?


Pierce County Asylum (PCA), the self-proclaimed “premier and longest running haunted house” in Tacoma, operates on the theme of a psychiatric hospital in which mental patients, murdered by their keeper Dr. Dementia, have returned to haunt the asylum, also advertising a VIP package that stands for “Very Intense Psychotherapy.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “haunted asylum attractions…perpetuate stigmatizing, offensive stereotypes of people living with mental illness.”


In early October the PCA approached the Student Activity Board (SAB) for a partnership opportunity, literally showing up on their doorstep. Patrick Stiver, Student Program Specialist and advisor to SAB, said that the circumstances which led to partnership were out of the ordinary for how the organization normally selects and vets community partnerships, which may explain why the possibility of offensive content was overlooked. Stiver says, “that was a mistake on our part. We own up to that and apologize for that.”


After seeing an Instagram photo from @SABUWT of the poster promoting the UWT/PCA partnership, a group of students posted comments alerting SAB that it felt “pretty insensitive of a public school to endorse an event that demonizes and makes a mockery of mental health care systems and their patients.” SAB responded in kind, thanking students for speaking out, explaining the SAB standpoint and “[apologizing] for the impact this flier has caused.” Shortly after, the group, who adopted the name Stigma Free UWT (SFUWT), began protesting and created an online petition which called for a formal apology and hoped for the university to break ties with the haunted house.


SAB’s mission statement says, “The Student Activities Board is committed to empowering students through diverse programming that focuses on building a positive and inclusive community, while encouraging student development through involvement” but six students of SFUWT felt they were not upholding that statement by taking part in the PCA partnership. Nathan Pelland, reached out to the media, hoping to portray the vast impact on the student body and all people with a history of/experience with mental illness, not just the group as individuals.


Equally concerning to SFUWT is how the partnership with PCA works. SAB is allocated a budget by the Services and Activities Fee Committee (SAFC), a student committee which is assigned the task of allocating money from Services and Activities Fees to fund student activities and programs. Within that budget, the seven members of SAB brainstorm to schedule a number of events which encourage students to take part in local events.


In order to monetarily incentivize students to participate, UWT subsidizes ticket prices charging only $5 from students for the regularly $15 tickets. Portions of proceeds are donated by PCA to the Pandamanda Foundation which collects funds for Cystic Fibrosis. That subsidy comes from the budget allocated to SAB from SAFC, but those funds are drawn from university wide student fees. SFUWT feels that an eight member team is too narrow a scope to reflect the needs and opinions of the entire student body.


On October 17, SAB hosted an open forum which opened the subject up for constructive dialogue between community members, PAC, and the university.  The main defense of the partnership was that people don’t come into the haunted house thinking of stigma, they’re just looking to have fun. School Spirit & Traditions coordinator Nicole Kim voiced the opinion that, “it’s just for entertainment, just for fun.” But NAMI asks, “would anyone sponsor an attraction based on a cancer ward?”

Click HERE to view more pictures from the protest

UWT Students Nathan Pelland, Zak Pelland, Sam Ranslem, and Miku Jia protest SAB's partnership with Pierce County Asylum photo courtesy of Chelsea Vitone

UWT Students Nathan Pelland, Zak Pelland, Sam Ranslem, and Miku Jia protest SAB’s partnership with Pierce County Asylum
photo courtesy of Chelsea Vitone

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