"Psych Ward" Escape Room To Get New Theme After Backlash

The use of mental health patients in fear-based entertainment has been long debated. 

A “Psych Ward” themed escape room will get a new theme by the end of the year, after a local non-profit organization voiced concern over the stigmatizing stereotype that the room seemed to play on.

The escape room is a popular group activity that challenges small groups of players to solve puzzles in order to escape different scenarios. This one in particular, created by The Escape Room in West Des Moines and Ankeny, Iowa, players must race the clock to figure out where Dr. Shaston Gunter, a chemical engineer admitted to the psychiatric ward, will release a toxic chemical in the city.


This type of scenario stigmatizes people living with mental illness, says a local mental health organization.

“It’s because of the negativity and stereotypes related to mental illness they think this is okay,” said Peggy Huppert, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “It’s actually very hurtful.”

“It was the name and the description which we objected to, which plays on all the stigma and negative stereotypes that the psych ward is something to be scared of, it’s a scary place, the people in it are scary,” she added.

NAMI requested that The Escape Room end its “Psych Ward” room. Owner Nate Tvedt said they will replace it with a brand new theme by the end of the year.

While he acknowledged that the current theme may be offensive to some, he said that the room is more focused on the puzzles rather than the psych ward setting. “We’ve had thousands of people come in and go through this room,” said Tvedt. “It’s not a scary room on the inside. The room itself, once you get inside of it, it’s just harmless puzzles.”

While some have said that NAMI is being “too sensitive” about the game, it’s not hard to see why it would be offensive to people affected by mental illness. The psych ward or “asylum” is a pretty common theme in the escape room world. And they are often accompanied by stereotypical images of, for example, a dilapidated and filthy hospital room with eerie markings scrawled on the walls.

The use of mental health patients in fear-based entertainment has been long debated.

Is it harmless fun? Or should “asylum” themed horror attractions be shunned altogether?

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