Saturday, October 22, 2011
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Protesters say haunted house at Saint Albans Hospital disrespects mental illness [with poll]

One group is trying to raise money to save the hospital. The other objects to its method.

Hunter Burton of the Mountain Ridge Paranormal Research Society stands in a hallway in the old Saint Albans Hospital in Fairlawn. Burton is a safety and security volunteer at the haunted house being run in the former psychiatric hospital.

Photos by Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

Hunter Burton of the Mountain Ridge Paranormal Research Society stands in a hallway in the old Saint Albans Hospital in Fairlawn. Burton is a safety and security volunteer at the haunted house being run in the former psychiatric hospital.

Radford University students Sarah Hughs (right) and Laura Finlayson were among those protesting Friday outside the old Saint Albans Hospital in Fairlawn, where a haunted house at the site bills the event as: The Asylum, a haunting experience.

Radford University students Sarah Hughs (right) and Laura Finlayson were among those protesting Friday outside the old Saint Albans Hospital in Fairlawn, where a haunted house at the site bills the event as: The Asylum, a haunting experience.

A chilly October night brought out two groups that have differences of opinion but similar passion for their community causes.

The historic Saint Albans Hospital site, Radford University Corporate Park in Fairlawn, housed a thus-far successful haunted house that was protested Friday night.

The Mountain Ridge Paranormal Research Society sponsored the event to raise money to save the Saint Albans building from demolition, while the protesters organized and showed up to dispute the haunted house's portrayal of the mentally ill in its promotional materials.

The group's use of an "asylum" theme, tied in with the use of Saint Albans, a former psychiatric hospital, didn't sit well with the protesters, most of whom had ties to Radford University's doctorate of psychology program. They feel the theme and promotional materials are insensitive to former Saint Albans patients and people with mental illness.

"It's kind of based on probably the worst possible stereotypical sort of images that people have of people with mental illness," said Michael Love, a student in the doctorate program.

A promotional T-shirt for the event says "St. Albans Sanatorium. One crazy place!" while another has an image of a girl with cuts on her face, holding a ghastly doll.

Protesters rallied on Facebook and met for two hours during Friday's event. They plan to protest again tonight from 7:30 to 9:30.

By 8 p.m., some 15 protesters lined the Lee Highway sidewalk wielding signs with messages such as "Respect for the Mentally Ill," while passing out informational fliers on mental illness.

The group periodically received honks of approval from passing drivers.

Dominique Boone, also a student in the psychology department, said the mental illness stigma often shames people into not receiving the treatment they need.

"It perpetuates the stigma of crazy or that those with mental illness are people you should be afraid of," Boone said.

The portrayals hit home for protesters such as Corey White, a graduate English student and Lucious Cordial, a 10-year-old. Both said they have had mental illness in their families.

Lucious said his great-grandmother was a Saint Albans patient, and he doesn't appreciate patients being portrayed as "monsters."

White said he hopes the demonstration plants a seed to change the way people think.

Protesters made it clear that their concerns weren't personal and they had no problem with the fundraiser.

Promoters with the sponsoring paranormal group said the theme was designed to be over the top but not to offend. Group member Don Hanauer called protesters' efforts "a little misguided."

"People will find fault where they'll find fault," Hanauer said.

He said while the T-shirts and theme touch on insanity, the exhibits and props within the building fall within typical spooky fare to be found in any haunted house.

After a walk-through, it's apparent that the haunted house is heavy on gore and littered with creepy messages and the living dead, while the mental patient references are seemingly checked at the door. Hanauer said this was by design, and noted that he's spoken with former Saint Albans patients and staff who had no problem with it.

The turnout so far has been positive, he said, as three-hour waits have been routine and the haunted house saw about 2,000 visitors last weekend. The proceeds from the haunted house go toward maintenance costs of the Saint Albans building, which is in danger of being demolished if it continues to be a financial burden to the owner, Hanauer said.

Plans call for the former hospital to be demolished in January if an offer to buy is not made on the property, principal owner David Hagan said in August.

Volunteers with the paranormal group have worked with Hagan since July to bring the building up to code, Hanauer said. Numerous volunteers cleaned, patched leaks, fixed flooring and installed fixtures during this process, he said, and approximately $30,000 was spent between Hagan and volunteers for repairs.

The haunted house event has broken even at this point, and organizers hope that good turnout the next two weekends brings forth $40,000 that can go toward the building, Hanauer said.

Maintenance expenses for the property are about $60,000, he said, so the group hopes that presenting the owner with $40,000 to offset next year's expenses will show the building's usefulness and provide incentive not to demolish it. So far, money is being raised without establishing a nonprofit organization, Hanauer said.

A number of paranormal-investigation-related events are slated for the rest of the year, which will bring in more money for use of the facility, he said.

The haunted house event runs from 8 p.m. to midnight, with a $10 admission. Protesters also urge anyone interested in demonstrating tonight to stop by and join them.

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