Image from petition on Fear virtual reality experience at Knott's Berry Farm.
Image from petition on Fear virtual reality experience at Knott’s Berry Farm.

A psychology student who has worked in the Halloween attractions at Knott’s Berry Farm for several years is leading an online petition to bring back a virtual reality experience at the theme park that was shut down following protests from the father of a transient killed during a struggle with police in Fullerton.

Jen Ailey, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Phoenix and is working on a doctorate, said Friday that her petition to bring back the FEAR VR attraction has drawn about 4,375 supporters.

The attraction was shut down following objections from Ron Thomas, the father of Kelly Thomas, who died during a struggle with Fullerton police, which led to a high-profile trial of two officers, who were ultimately acquitted, and a multimillion-dollar settlement of a civil suit with the city in Thomas’ favor.

Messages left with Knott’s officials were not immediately returned.

Thomas said the attraction stigmatizes the mentally ill. Thomas, who serves on the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Orange County board, was not able to experience the attraction personally, but he has spoken with those who saw it before it was shut down.

Thomas “had plans to go last night, but it got resolved before then,” he said.

“I went there last week and I couldn’t get on it because it was so crowded, but I interviewed people as they got off,” he said.

Thomas said “you go in, you’re strapped into a wheelchair and given an injection and a nurse explains to you that there’s a missing patient and there’s a security guard warning you about things… When you look around you feel like you’re in a hospital or an asylum type of place and you know (the monster) is coming for you next.”

The virtual reality experience “completely portrays that a mentally ill person in any capacity is going to kill you,” Thomas said.

Mental illness is a sensitive topic to Thomas because he said his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“Demonizing any group of people is absolutely wrong, but if there was some type of attraction that ridiculed gays” it would prompt an uproar, Thomas said. “But the mentally ill are game because they don’t have a voice for themselves. I’m that voice for those who don’t have one.”

Ailey, however, argued that the attraction does not stigmatize the mentally ill because the main character is supposed to be possessed by a demon.

“This particular attraction focuses on someone who is demonically possessed and has telekinetic powers,” Ailey said. “For people to judge this on mental illness, especially when they haven’t even gone through it, is just absurd. It’s not going to change how people look at mental illness. It’s not going to bring any more awareness… It’s a haunted house. You’re going to a haunted attraction with the intent to be scared or even disturbed if you have a phobia. It’s artistic expression.”

Thomas said some of the insensitivity about the mentally ill stems from not having a personal connection to someone afflicted with a behavioral disorder.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the people who want to bring it back do not have a loved one with a mental illness,” Thomas said. “You wouldn’t think that way if you did. A lot of the issues with the mentally ill people is because it hasn’t affected them.”

Ailey said she has volunteered with the Salvation Army during her studies and that one of her best friends has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, so she does understand what the mentally ill go through. After eight years of studying psychology, Ailey said she intends to go into the field of clinical psychology and start a private practice helping people with personality disorders.

Ailey also noted that Knott’s has had similar attractions in the past, including “asylum mazes.” The psychology student also noted that the Halloween attraction at the Queen Mary, “Dark Harbor,” includes, ‘B340,” which is described on its website as a “Descent into insanity,” that promises a “schizophrenic sojourn into the psychotic mind of Samuel the Savage.”

— City News Service

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