A recent instagram post on my feed about the importance of including trigger or content warnings in fiction – specifically calling out the horror genre – left me feeling annoyed for reasons I couldn’t explain at the moment I read it, but which I understand now.
You might even say I was triggered by it.
The post called into question the oft-used argument that horror fiction doesn’t need trigger warnings because, well, it’s horror after all. If you find yourself in a mentally fragile place in your life, which we all do sometimes, then horror fiction might not be the best choice.
However, as the post argued, the horror genre is varied: a gothic ghost story is different from, say, torture horror. The latter would likely include scenes that might trigger someone who had some past experience resembling similar scenarios, and a #triggerwarning placed at the beginning of the book would help that reader to avoid it. Thus, trigger warnings would also help to widen the audience for horror because readers – who might otherwise be apprehensive – can venture into the genre knowing what they're getting into.
Seems totally reasonable.
But then the post concluded by saying that horror authors and publishers have a moral duty to include trigger warnings, which is part of creating a kinder and more considerate literary world. This is where the author of the post lost me and where I have to respectfully disagree: the assertion that my resistance to including trigger warnings in my horror fiction is a moral failure on my part.
As I’ll explain, nothing could be further from the truth.
Do trigger warnings actually help?
A recent study about including trigger warnings for university courses, summarized nicely in this article, found that they may not help and could in fact make the experience worse, because the anticipation of a triggering event is an added negative experience. In other words, not only will you be triggered by what you’ll see/read/hear, you now need to worry about that moment when (and if) it arrives.
The article went on to conclude that – as to the efficacy of trigger warnings – we still don’t really know whether they help or not. Theoretically, further study could conclude that they do help, in which case I stand corrected.
Until then, I won't be using them.
The lie that someone else is responsible for your mental health
Even without the study I mentioned above, I believe that the culture of trigger warnings is based on a false premise: that I, the author, am responsible for the mental health of my reader.
I am not and never will be.
I see participating in trigger warnings as an act of participating in that lie. To my mind, it communicates to people who are struggling with past traumas or mental health concerns that the answer to recovering from and managing those issues is to not only avoid facing them, but expect others to help you avoid them.
This is disempowering.
If you are struggling to live with and overcome a hurdle in life or a trauma from the past – something I have the deepest empathy for because I've been through a few myself – other people can and will help you do that. And you absolutely should rely on the help of those who care about you.
But ultimately the power to transform and heal must come from inside you. Do not grant other people control over your mental health. This is a choice you have the power to make, not only in the context of trigger warnings, but life in general.
My moral duty is to my vision and mission
I say all of this with full awareness that I, myself, avoid certain scenes and subject matters in the content I consume. I don’t like horror where someone is being tortured. I have no interest in watching the Dahmer film, whatever it's called, because I find true crime of that sadistic nature disturbing. I still to this day haven’t watched Saving Private Ryan because I couldn’t get through that first scene on the beach. It horrified me because it really happened.
I also love and re-watch every once in a while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’ve read the book too. Lisbeth is such a cool character. But though I watched the movie in full the first time, I have to fast forward through one particular scene when I rewatch it (you know the scene I’m referring to). It’s too awful to watch.
Also note that three of the above examples, which “trigger” me, are not in the horror genre.
But again my feelings are not the moral responsibility of the creator of those stories. The only moral duty an author or creator or artist has, is to his or her vision for the artwork and mission as a creator.
As an author, my mission is writing novels that take you on a journey to a place where your inner monster is your greatest discovery. That journey will be scary, bloody and potentially disturbing, but that’s the journey I have to offer. I hope it’s one you want to go on, but as I’ve said to many people, my writing is not for everyone and that’s okay.
Hell, even my husband won’t read it and it just makes me love him and his gentle soul even more.
A potential alternative to trigger warnings I’d consider
Perhaps it may be the ideological language of “trigger warning” that triggers me. The idea of someone being “triggered” implies a sudden loss of control over oneself. “Content warning” is a little softer in that sense, though the word “warning” still carries the ideological undertones in it.
What about a rating system, like they use in movies, with more of a vague disclaimer? Something like: “The following novel is rated R for scenes of gruesome violence, coarse language and mature subject matter. Reader discretion is advised.” I find this disclaimer style "warning" to be more appropriate and sufficiently vague.
Because when I think of the trigger warnings my book Latcher would require, a long list begins to appear in my mind. In a review of it, one reader listed off some of the triggers – one of which was “death of animal.” But she didn’t list “death of several humans” as a trigger warning. Why not? I would think the latter is more triggering.
Point is, these potential triggers are subjective to the individual and none of us are psychics. Not all triggers are obvious either – some could be obscure. As such, including trigger warnings is an act of consent the author makes to accepting responsibility for the reader’s feelings. Suppose I miss a trigger and someone calls me out for it?
Nope. That’s not a responsibility I’m willing to take on.
That being said, if you really want to read my stuff (because how could you not?!) then literally send me an email and ask me about what to expect! Frankly, I’d be thrilled to send a new possible fan a personal email with all the details you need before stepping into my world. ;-)
Be brave, dear reader
“Be brave” is what the novelist Ian McEwan recently said when asked his thoughts on sensitivity readers and trigger warnings, along with “screw the lot of them.” Ha! But in terms of bravery, he was speaking about the need for novelists to be brave when they’re afraid to write things that might offend their readers.
I share this fear too.
And though his words might have sounded callous to some, to me they have compassion at their core, because I see kindness in any message that says you are strong enough to withstand the things you encounter in life.
So be brave, dear reader.
Be the strongest person you can be.
Know yourself, so that when you encounter things in the world that “trigger” you – because you will – you can take a step back and examine why you’re affected by them. The alternative is to let those things, over which you have no control, to have control over you.
Not on my watch.
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Thoughts on trigger warnings? Share them. I’m all ears.