Halloween used to be simple.
It was about kids, ghosts and goblins, pumpkin-carving contests and trying to trade the gumdrops someone put in your bag (gross!) to your little brother for a Hershey bar.
A reminder that times are more complex today has played out on the campus of the University of Washington Tacoma, where a student group partnered with a local haunted house to get discounted tickets for UWT students.
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The Student Activities Board used social media earlier this month to promote ticket sales for the Pierce County Haunted Asylum Hospital From Hell, a charity fundraiser held at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square.
On a website, the haunted house promises “deranged psychopathic patients” who would bring nightmares to life.
Nathan Pelland, a 21-year-old Tacoma student majoring in communications at UWT, was offended. He wasn’t alone.
“No one speaks up for anyone with a mental illness, but I felt I needed to stand up,” Pelland said. “The kind of ‘houses’ are condemned by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.”
Indeed, the national alliance says such haunted attractions portray mentally ill people in a demeaning way that nobody would ever consider portraying other types of sick or marginalized people.
“NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone else,” Bob Corolla, NAMI director of media relations, wrote in a blog post. “But would anyone sponsor a haunted attraction based on a cancer ward? How about a veterans hospital with ghosts who died from suicide while being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder? Or one based on racial or ethnic stereotypes?”
Pelland’s next move was to contact his friend and fellow UWT student Aaron Myracle, a 31-year-old social welfare major who had deployed to Iraq with the Washington National Guard.
“I’m aware of the stigma surrounding mental health. I’m a veteran, and I saw the fear of that stigma stop those in need from seeking help,” Myracle said. “If the SAB had run it by the right people, it wouldn’t have gotten involved.
“They didn’t see the potential harm.”
Eventually, however, they would.
Ed Mirecki, UWT’s director of student involvement, said it’s not unusual for the student board to obtain discounted tickets for students to attend a variety of events — from Tacoma Rainiers baseball games to Zoo Lights at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
But he said the word “asylum” had a “chilling effect” when the board started promoting haunted house ticket sales on Instagram.
Within days, there was an online petition protesting the board’s involvement, and people on social media waxed eloquently on the topic.
“The SAB acknowledged those concerns, and we see discussing these issues as a good thing,” Mirecki said. “We had an open forum on Oct. 17 and invited discussion.”
Patrick Stiver, UWT’s advisor to the student board, was in attendance.
“The forum absolutely changed minds, and the intent was to learn with and from each other,” Stiver said. “That’s the mission of any school, that’s why we hosted it — to engage in dialogue, hear different opinions.
“Students are often still working through what diversity means to them.”
Among those who attended the forum was the owner of Pierce County Asylum Hospital From Hell. He couldn’t be reached to comment for this column.
In the end, the SAB stopped promoting the ticket sales.
“It wanted to be responsive to the students,” Mirecki said. “It stopped circulating fliers on campus. If someone still wanted to buy tickets, they could.”
All told, only eight UWT students bought tickets.
Myracle said the whole process seemed to work well.
“The university, for their part, did due diligence. They provided an avenue to have that forum and encouraged that conversation,” Myracle said. “This university is a marketplace of ideas.
“Issues of diversity can be difficult, challenging, even downright messy. But there are a lot of positive outcomes from raising critical questions. I think it was educational for all of us.”
For Pelland, there’s satisfaction in having raised the diversity question at UWT.
“The university doesn’t always stand up for its commitment to diversity,” he said. “Halloween just happened to be a way to bring up diversity and have a conversation.”