Monday, October 24, 2011

Tell Six Flags that Bigotry Is Too Scary for Fright Fest

On Saturday, October 15, I went to Fright Fest at Six Flags St. Louis. The bigotry I found there was more frightening than any of the Halloween attractions.

Rotten Heterosexism

For starters, there was the sexism and homophobia at P.T. Barnum's Side Show. Presented by the Rotten Brothers, the show began with a voice-over straight from the chauvinistic days of yore: "Gentlemen, please heed to your lady friends if one of them shall faint by the ghastly acts." Just a little something to give the show (in the Rotten Brothers' words) "an authentic feel." Too bad little kids won't understand the intention. All that kids are going to pick up from that line is that boys are brave and girls are weak.

The show continued in that manner, and they asked for "a brave little boy" to volunteer. Why not a brave little girl? One of the Brothers later told me on Facebook, it was because little girls "are more brave and can and have upstaged" him. He also said that his wife is one of the bravest people he knows.

Later in the show, they asked for "a married couple" to volunteer, "preferably a man and a woman." That was when I walked out. My partner later confirmed to me that they never did ask for a girl to volunteer.

Again on Facebook, one of the Rotten Brothers claimed that both of them support same-sex marriage. He said that the joke was simply "pointing out the issue." He also said that his gay friends think the joke is funny.

Someone pointed out that the joke was merely pandering to their conservative audience. We continued to dialogue for a while, and I was impressed that the Rotten Brothers weren't deleting comments.

The next morning, however, the thread was gone, replaced by the following status update:

This is a family friendly website. I have been forced by my wife to delete an interesting thread. I knew I shouldn't have left my pants out for her to put on.

So much for all of that feminist talk he had engaged in earlier.

Stigma for Sale

The other bigotry I found at Six Flags was in the form of one of their haunted houses. Dubbed "Insanity Alley," the description in the flyer is as follows:

Welcomed by our very own Nurse Luna Tick, terror awaits those who dare to take a stroll through our Insanity Alley. Come on in, stay awhile, and see how the truly insane live! Did we mention new patients are always welcome???

This description -- and the accompanying imagery -- perpetuate the damaging myth that people with mental illnesses are creepy, violent and dangerous. In truth, most people with mental illnesses are not to be feared, and are far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else.

When I complained to Guest Relations about both of these attractions, the response I received from Terese Bargman, entertainment manager at Six Flags St. Louis, included the claim that the shows at Fright Fest are "over the top," "not reality," and "not meant to be insulting." From her email to me:

The product here at the park is in no way real, we do not harm individuals in the productions or the haunted attractions. There is no entity of the shows and talent in the park that is meant to be taken as realistic, it is all designed to be a fun time in the spirit of Halloween. All of the attractions and street shows are very over the top, that again is in the nature and fun of the Halloween spirit. [...] People come to the park to get scared, they know it is not real but simply engage in the drama for the shear [sic] fun.

Sound reasonable to you? How about if I tweak the description of Insanity Alley just a bit?

"Terror awaits those who dare to take a stroll through our Ghetto Alley. Come on in, stay awhile, and see how the truly impoverished live! Did we mention new gang members are always welcome???"

If that were one of the haunted houses at Fright Fest, the news would be all over it, and there would be mass protesting of Six Flags. The excuse that the attractions are not real just doesn't cut it. All of the other haunted houses feature spooky themes that are entirely fictional -- zombies, trolls, sinister clowns, classic horror films -- except for "The Slaughter House," which is scary by definition. It is unacceptable to exploit a real, highly stigmatized and disadvantaged group of people in order to make money scaring people. (Did I mention that it costs an extra $7 to get into Insanity Alley?)

Take Action!

Please contact Six Flags and tell them that bigotry in their shows and attractions is unacceptable. You can log a complaint by calling Guest Relations at 636-938-5300 x397, or you can do it online here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the email comment form.  Select "Comments/Concerns" as your reason for writing and "Six Flags St. Louis" as the park.)

In your complaint, please emphasize the following points:
  • The Rotten Brothers should be told to remove the bigotry from their act. If they refuse to comply, then Six Flags should not hire them again.
  • Six Flags should take care in the future to avoid hiring performers who make bigoted comments or jokes in their shows.
  • "Insanity Alley" is stigmatizing and should be removed from Fright Fest.
  • Six Flags should take care in the future not to feature attractions that unfairly portray disadvantaged groups of people.


  1. as someone with mental ailments calling something insanity ally is not offensive. there have been a ton of horror movies that take place in insane asylums. what's wrong with that? nothing. it's just something that is kind of creepy. and little kids won't think "oh they're saying hold onto your ladies because ladies are week". honestly if you do you are deeply underestimating the intelligence of a child. they can understand that it's meant to feel like old times. i know 5 y.o me could tell the difference and i know i wasn't the smartest little kid in the world. you're making huge mountains out of tiny ant hills. as a liberal, a lgbtq ally and a human... chill the hell out.

  2. Thank you Luella for writing a well thought out plan for action. We all must stop supporting places like this.

  3. Speaking as someone who worked in Insanity Alley, there is no harm in this. The description of the alley from Six Flag's official website includes a lobotomy gone wrong, 20 something murders, and a fire. No one is supposed to take the pace seriously. If you believe those in asylums are vicious people just from the visit to this haunted house, then next you'll be telling me that you think zombies and killer klowns are out to get you...

  4. The dissenting comments on this well-written and thoughtful post are nothing more than victim blaming in a couple different forms. While each of us is entitled to our own opinions, this writer has pointed out a very valid instance of bigotry and fear-mongering being disguised as entertainment. I find it interesting that, among the aspersions on her intelligence that are cast here and the shaming language used, neither comment actually speaks to the fact that this is in fact a stigmatizing show. How much easier to simply refuse to open one's eyes than to admit that culture needs to change.

    Well done, Luella. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    The dismissal of these issues by people who consider themselves liberal only illustrates the importance of speaking up about such things.

    I disagree that small children are able to discern that the chauvinism in the Rotten Brothers' act is "meant to feel like old times." Young children were not alive in those old times. Unless a child's parents have made a point to discuss the history of patriarchy and the women's rights movement with their five-year-old, the child is not going to understand the anachronism. I also think that a re-creation of an old-time freak show is an opportunity to re-envision the medium without the sexism.

    That said, I think that the stigmatizing Insanity Alley was worse than the Rotten Brothers' show. Six Flags at least spoke to the Rotten Brothers about their homophobic comment, and I do acknowledge that the appropriateness of the "authentic" sexism is debatable.

    Stigmatizing Halloween attractions and films are pervasive in our society, but that does not make them acceptable any more than the pervasiveness of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. makes them acceptable. Horror films that stigmatize people with mental illnesses are just as bad as amusement park attractions that do so.

    Think about it: Everyone knows that zombies and killer clowns are not real, but not everyone knows that people with mental illnesses are no more dangerous than the general population. Would you honestly argue that a haunted house featuring violent, stereotyped black and Latino gang members is okay because "no one is supposed to take the place seriously"?

    Please see the following article to educate yourselves further on Halloween stigma:

  6. I do apologize if I came off a bit strong with my comment. This article is well-written, and I did not mean to belittle your intelligence. I only meant to point out that most people can, in fact, make the distinction between reality and fantasy. Just because there are a couple of teens dressed up at an amusement park should certainly not influence someone's view on asylums in general. Yes, perhaps there should be a greater effort to educate the public on the pacifity of most patients in actual asylums, like the movie and shows mentioned in the article, but I believe Six Flag's fantasy house does not demean those with mental handicaps. The teens with bloodsplatters on their faces who talk to themselves should have been a clue that this is a fantasy, meant to amuse, nothing more.