Why I’m Unsettled By The Surge of Interest in the Anoka State Mental Hospital

There has been a fair amount of talk recently in my neck of the woods about the Anoka State Mental Hospital. This place is touted as the most haunted place in the state, and for some reason it’s become a bit of a fad recently to want to explore the tunnels beneath the hospital, spend the night, or go urban exploring in some other fashion.

I’ve heard people giggling on the radio about how fun and scary it would be, or how they’d like to freak out their friends by going there. And to be honest it makes me feel deeply uncomfortable and a little afraid.

You see the reason that this mental hospital is considered haunted is because of the treatment of the patients. Treatments for mental illness in the 60s and 70s were fairly harsh, and there’s good evidence that excess medication was used on most patients, along with restraints and electrotherapy (today’s electrotherapy is much different from the very painful electrotherapy of the past). There is a reputation of poor treatment and restraint in this particular institution. Even today some diagnoses still come with “treatments” like restraints, sedating medications, or being committed against your will.

So with that in mind, it concerns me that this very recent and in some cases still ongoing history is seen as some kind of fun sideshow. A recent Washington Post article commented on this same trend in many haunted houses and Halloween attractions, pointing out that making “insane asylum” attractions positions mentally ill people as dangerous and scary. It minimizes the actual struggle of being mentally ill by making it into entertainment, and in many cases can scare people away from treatment by portraying mental hospitals or other treatment facilities as scary and dangerous.

I see many of the same problems with visiting actual mental hospitals as a form of entertainment.

Whether you are visiting because you think the ghosts of patients are scary or because you want to be titillated by the barbaric treatment devices that are supposedly still littered around the grounds, you are actively contributing to stigma and turning pain into entertainment. If you’re visiting because mental patients make scary ghosts, congrats, you are contributing to the impression that mental patients are scary, violent, and dangerous. If it’s the place itself, then you are part of the reason individuals with mental illness are afraid to get treatment: it’s perceived as scary or abusive. We cannot ignore or forget that past treatments were abusive, but the solution is not to go look at them for fun. It’s to advocate for change and high standards today.

It is dehumanizing to mentally ill people to treat the actual site of their abuse as a fun place to visit. Of course there are people who want to visit with different intentions, but most of the talk I’ve heard has been that it would be enjoyable. Perhaps the hospital did not include the barbaric tortures that some people want to imagine, but there is no doubt that many people suffered and were abused in this location, in the name of treatment. That is not a fun story.

In this case it deeply concerns me because we still live in a society where treatment can be abusive to mentally ill people, where mentally ill people are incarcerated at incredibly high rates, where violence is blamed on mentally ill people…all of these problems are diminished or in some ways excused by the kinds of narratives that come out of “scary haunted insane asylum”. They all tie back to the stigma that says mental illness is dangerous and violent, that people with mental illnesses are not fully human but are a spectacle, that we must do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe from these people and to keep them safe from themselves. Further, it contributes to the stigma against getting help.

My mind is not a Halloween sideshow. People who want to go enjoy the spectacle of a scary insane asylum: stop. Please.

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