A question was posed to me: Should there be trigger warnings for horror movies and books? Before I answer, I must state that I have been called out for my lack of trigger warnings on my novel Black Devil Spine. I figured if the book’s description and cover alone did not provide ample warning of what was inside, you weren’t paying attention.
And that’s how I feel not only about trigger warnings in horror, but trigger warnings for everything else.
Horror movies and books by their very nature are supposed to elicit fear, a sense of dread, terror, disgust, or any number of other often unpleasant feelings. If you read a horror book expecting to find joy and a sense of elation, you’re new to the game. Let’s play devil’s advocate, though. Let’s give the benefit of a doubt.
If you are a casual or even die-hard horror fan and you see Poltergeist, perhaps it doesn’t trigger anything in you. Maybe a few jump-scares. Maybe a sleepless night or two. You definitely turn off the TV before going to bed. Now let’s say you are one of those people, and they are legion, who makes false equivalency a lifestyle. You say that Poltergeist is a horror movie and the next movie you want to see, the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is a horror movie, they must be the same and have the same effect on you.
The former did not trigger anything in you, so neither will the latter. Now the normal thing to do here, even if you feel this way, is to examine the film’s title and description. If that still doesn’t give you pause before watching the antics of Leatherface, that’s on you. If you believe just because you have seen horror movies before and they haven’t caused an issue, no horror movies will trouble you … well, you are fooling yourself.
As a writer of horror, and this goes for all creators of all media and genres, I can say that it is impossible to know just what will trigger something in someone because everything and anything is capable of doing so. You may say that we know rape, violence against children, and other unsavory topics are safe bets that they will trigger people, and I would argue that it depends on how they are depicted. You can also argue that there is no way that making the main character a male Asian would trigger someone, and I’ll tell you I’ve seen it happen.
So what are horror creators (or any other creator, for that matter) to do? Nothing. Not a damn thing. If you are a creator who desires to create something trigger-free, good luck. Eventually you will fail because no amount of trigger warnings or awareness will save you. It’s impossible. There are too many consumers of art and entertainment with too many backgrounds to take everything into consideration. And if you think warnings are the answer, how do you warn against everything? How do you even know what to warn for? This is especially true when it comes to horror because from the outset you are creating a work that you think someone will want to consume because you believe they will want to be scared or terrified.
The onus for one’s mental stability is on the end consumer. If he or she is someone who knows they get triggered by certain things, they need to examine the content of a book or movie before delving into it. Reading reviews, descriptions, and the like is necessary. Then you have to make a decision whether or not you want to engage with it, understanding that if it gets to be too much you will walk out of the theater, turn off the TV, or put down the book. It’s that simple. If you think it is up to the creator to post the warnings, just how would you label Texas Chain Saw Massacre? The warning would end up being larger than the film’s description, and would ultimately be far less useful.
I opted out of putting trigger warnings on Black Devil Spine for those reasons. I was not being insensitive to people. In fact, I have advised many a person not to read it. I did not use them (and never will) because it is an unending task that is futile. With that in mind, I have a responsibility not to pull a bait-and-switch, as well. I feel that I should not write something that disguises itself as a romantic comedy about people who work in a cemetery and then it is only when the reader is partway through that they find that this book they thought was lighthearted was actually about ghoulish necrophiliacs with a taste for young flesh.
That seems irresponsible to me. Other creators may feel differently, and that’s okay, too. That is the rule I have set for myself. Honestly, I’d love if every reader felt the need to read my stuff, but I feel as if they are smart enough to know what is and isn’t for them. I do not want to assume I know what is best for their mental health. I merely create and put the end product out there for them to either enjoy or steer clear of, and I hope they do what is best for them. Nobody has been able to convince me of doing otherwise.
As for trigger warnings for horror? Come on! The entire genre is one big trigger warning, and I like it that way.
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