October is the time of year when we look for ways to get scared silly.

Spook alleys and haunted houses spring up around the valley, offering a variety of holiday frights. Along with the traditional haunts such as HeeHaw's Haunted Farmyard in Pleasant Grove, the Haunted Forest in American Fork and Lehi's Haunted Hospital, Spanish Fork is getting into the act with "In the Dark in Spanish Fark" at the Spanish Fork Fairgrounds.

But for longtime residents, none of these compares with the spook alley that defined Halloween in Utah County: The Haunted Castle at the Utah State Hospital.

Every October for 26 years, the hospital's Castle Theater was transformed into a scene of classic horror, as ghosts, ghouls and other things that go bump in the night gave it their all to scare anyone brave enough to venture within the walls.

The spook alley was unique from other haunted houses in that many of the performers were patients at the hospital. Since 1971, the hospital ran the castle as a fund-raiser for its therapeutic recreation program.

"It really brought the whole hospital together," said recreation director Leland Slaughter. Staff and patients all looked forward to working at the castle during Halloween.

But after 1997, the castle has been dark and silent on October nights, its hobgoblins long gone. It wasn't a team of ghostbusters or exorcists that banished then, or peasants armed with torches and pitch forks that ran them off. A far more evil force cast the monsters out -- political correctness.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill objected to the activity because it was said to stereotype the patients by linking mental illness with monsters and violence in the public's mind.

Granted, part of the Haunted Castle's appeal in the public's mind was the fact that people with mental illness were performers. However, it was never about stigmatizing the mentally ill. It was all about your standard zombies, ghosts, chainsaw killers and other denizens of horror movies, moonlit nights and ... castles. The hospital actually has one of those.

It even used the Haunted Castle's popularity to teach the public that people with mental illness were not to be feared. Slaughter said the hospital used to do school programs talking about mental illness and demonstrating the makeup performers used.

The Haunted Castle provided an opportunity for the public and patients to interact. Many have viewed the hospital as a forbidding place, even though the swamps and garbage dump that once separated it from Provo's neighborhoods are long gone. The spook alley provided a way to tear down that psychological wall and let everyone celebrate Halloween as neighbors.

Thanks to NAMI, that connection with the community has been weakened.

In fact, the Haunted Castle was the idea of the patients themselves, which undermines NAMI's politically correct -- and paternalistic -- argument. The spook alley grew from an in-house Halloween celebration put on by the patients to a program so lively that members of the public were invited to see the show. It quickly became a Utah County tradition.

NAMI's actions were well intentioned, but they may do more harm than good for the patients it is trying to protect. It not only eliminates a positive community program but dries up a significant amount of needed money. The Haunted Castle, in its heyday, subsidized the hospital's therapeutic recreation program. The $100,000 the spook alley brought in represented half the recreation program's budget.

When NAMI forced it to close, the hospital staff feared making drastic cuts to the recreation program that would hamper efforts to rehabilitate patients. While the Legislature appropriated money to make up some of the difference, it is only two-thirds of what the Haunted Castle brought in.

And so the recreation program hobbles along. The spook alley, by contrast, created a significant share of self-sufficiency while giving the patients a sense of accomplishment and ownership. It should return from the grave.

Even though many still call the hospital asking about the Haunted Castle, the props have been given away and Slaughter said it would be hard to get it going again. But for those of us who went through it, the memories remain vivid. That's something politically correct zealots can't take away.

Makes you wonder who should really have their heads examined.

What do you thinkfi

Was closing the Utah State Hospital's Haunted Castle a good ideafi Send your comments to dhpolls@heraldextra.com or call 344-2942. Please leave your name, hometown and phone number with your comments. E-mail comments should not exceed 100 words; voice-mail comments should be no longer than 30 seconds. Anonymous and unverifiable responses will not be published.

The Daily Herald will publish comments on Oct. 15.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A6.

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