Columns > Published on May 14th, 2020

Let’s Talk About Trigger Warnings

Header image via Unsplash

I realize this seems like a bizarre time to bring up the trigger warning controversy that has plagued the small press internet horror community for thousands and thousands of years. There are clearly more significant and drastic events taking place in the world. However, I work the night shift at a hotel, and hotels are considered essential businesses, so how else do you expect me to distract myself at the front desk until my shift ends?

Plus, the other day I noticed several people on social media ridiculing trigger warnings, and my asshole has been clenched ever since. I can’t keep these cheeks shut forever, baby. Eventually the need to shit will arise.

So let’s shit, shall we?

First, let’s examine what a trigger warning is and what a trigger warning is not. Certain common misconceptions exist about the purpose of TWs. Rather than educate themselves, people tend to double-down on misinformed opinions. Often you will see comments categorizing trigger warnings as anything that might be considered remotely offensive. The “soccer mom upset about rap music” cliché springs to mind, right? But, when we discuss trigger warnings, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about.

Quite simply, a trigger is something that triggers a panic attack or episode of severe anxiety in those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It is not something to take lightly or abuse. Unlike parental advisory stickers on music albums, the trigger warning is not meant to caution against profanity or general adult themes. Instead the intention is to warn those who have experienced traumatic episodes in their lives of possible triggers.

The Oxford Dictionary describes post-traumatic stress disorder as:

a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.

Imagine the following scenario: You are lounging on the couch wanting nothing more than to chill out with a cool-ass horror book. You are enjoying everything going on in the story until—whoa wait what the absolute fuck suddenly—you’ve come across a random rape scene, and now instead of having a good time you are reliving a past traumatic experience from your own life. Your entire goddamn day is ruined. Replace “rape” with “suicide” and it’s the same outcome. All you can think about now is a lost loved one who took their own life or perhaps the long struggle you faced overcoming personal suicidal ideations. Or, to continue with one more example, imagine reading a book where a young child dies in a gruesome manner soon after losing your own child. No way are you in any mental state to possibly continue reading. Shit like that is very likely to wreck you.

Does this mean you shouldn’t read horror?

Some writers seem to think so.

Here is a statement you will often hear when discussing trigger warnings with those passionate about the genre: “Don’t read horror if you don’t want to be triggered.”

Which...seems like a weird thing to say, right? Unless we assume these statements are made by those simply misunderstanding what a trigger is. Because sure, I sorta get where they might be coming from: horror can be upsetting, definitely, it can be horrific—it’s the name of the goddamn genre, baby! Nobody creates or views horror expecting some kinda happily-ever-after Disney production.

Another thing you’ll hear a lot when this topic gets brought up is “readers are too sensitive nowadays,” which...again, the trigger warning conversation centers around PTSD, not general sensitivity. Although, something I always wonder when people make this specific complaint is why do so many people consider “sensitive” an insult? Perhaps the horror genre is dominated mostly by a slightly older generation, and the role of toxic masculinity still plays heavily into how they perceive the world. I am in no way smart enough to write an entire article about this idea, but I do believe it’s worth keeping in mind when we consider how blindly the concept of trigger warnings can be disregarded.

Oh, and we can’t ignore the fact that people love to use the word “triggered” to describe someone even mildly upset. How many times have you seen “lol triggered” written on the internet? Hell, I am positive you’ll eventually see it in the comments below this very article. In fact, here is an actual photograph of the person who will leave that comment:

Anyway, with that said, I do think there are different...levels of horror fiction, maybe? I feel it’s fair to state that, while certainly present in the genre, acts like rape and suicide are not as common as other more general forms of violence. When a reader opens a horror novel, certain expectations exist. It would not be surprising to find out someone is murdered or injured. Blood will probably be spilled. Bad things are going to happen. Something disturbing is around the corner, right? And that’s totally fine. We read horror to experience new ideas. We read horror to face the unthinkable. We read horror because it is dangerous and exciting and goddammit we read horror because it’s fun. Plus, it’s important to keep in mind, when we discuss topics that might be triggering, we aren’t saying even the mere mention of the word “rape” should earn a TW—or, for that matter, characters having deep conversations about the act. But if the book contains a very graphic rape scene within its pages? Well, yeah, maybe it’s a good idea to give the reader a heads-up. Every book is unique, and when it comes to trigger warnings, it’s essential to consider what’s actually happening in the scene itself. The more graphic the scene gets, the greater its chances of accidentally triggering past trauma and sending readers through emotional tsunamis. I am not claiming these scenes should not occur in fiction. I am simply suggesting maybe it’s not such a horrible idea to provide some sort of warning, a way to caution those suffering from PTSD that maybe they should avoid this particular book and find something else to quench their horror thirst.

One of the big arguments against the use of trigger warnings is the fear of possibly spoiling content for readers who do not wish to be cautioned ahead of time. I get this completely, and I want you to know there is a very simple solution.

First, a little context: I run a small press called Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. We’ve been publishing horror fiction since 2013. Only once have we added a trigger warning, and it wasn’t even my idea. It was the author’s. In 2018 we released Betty Rocksteady’s The Writhing Skies. At one point during the book production process, she reached out and said something like, “Hey, I think we should add a trigger warning to my book.”

I took one look at her and spit directly in her face, then told her never to return to our offices again, and promptly pissed on all printed copies of The Writhing Skies—and, since my urine is infamously flammable, it was not difficult to render the pages to ash after I was finished.

Okay, clearly the previous paragraph was a lie, except for the flammable urine part, which is a known fact, and if you don’t believe me there’s plenty of information floating around online about me to back up this claim. Obviously I told Rocksteady adding a trigger warning wouldn’t be an issue. Until she approached us about the topic, I’d never considered the idea, but I’d never not considered it, either. Trigger warnings were just not something I thought much about, either way. After she explained her stance, I thought, “Yeah, that sounds fine,” and we had a long discussion about the best way to approach something like this without also spoiling content for other readers who wouldn’t want the warning.

Also, for a little extra context, when it came to the sensitive material found in The Writhing Skies, it was almost impossible to reveal any of it in the back-cover market copy without spoiling the entire novella. We did not want to trick readers into thinking they were picking up a “light read” and instead giving them something a little heavier than expected. So I do think authors contemplating adding trigger warnings should keep that in mind: sometimes, if you can address or hint at the potentially triggering material within the market copy, these warnings no longer become necessary.

What we eventually settled on for The Writhing Skies was providing a vague disclaimer in one of the first pages before the novella begins and guiding concerned readers to visit a chapter-by-chapter listing of potential triggers toward the very end of the book.

And, for the eBook, we simply added a “CLICK HERE” and hyperlinked it to the spoiler page. We did not produce an audiobook of The Writhing Skies, but if one was made, I suppose an idea for how to approach the topic would involve moving the trigger warnings to a separate website and advising the listener to type in a special URL. Or maybe there’s a smarter technique for delivering trigger warnings in audiobooks. I admit I’m a little out of my element when it comes to those. I do like the idea of the narrator having to whisper the trigger warnings in a squeaky mouse voice, though, but I don’t know if that would be helpful to anyone besides myself.

Since the publication of Rocksteady’s novella, we have not received a single complaint about catering to “sensitive readers.” In fact, it’s had the opposite result. Many readers have expressed appreciation for someone actually giving a shit. I, of course, accept all responsibility during these showers of praise, despite having nothing to do with the initial idea. I just really love compliments, and Rocksteady lives all the way up in Canada, so what is she gonna do about it? Not a goddamn thing, that’s what!

Since the release of The Writhing Skies, you’d almost expect me to have utilized trigger warnings in everything else we’ve published, but think again, because you would be wrong. I am not personally against the idea of using trigger warnings in the material I publish, but I do think the author should get a final say in the matter. I don’t believe it’s something we should force onto books if the creator is firmly against it. 

Lacking empathy is probably the weirdest trait for a writer to boast, and that’s exactly what it sounds like writers are boasting when they state, “Don’t read horror if you don’t want to be triggered.”

Of course, if you venture over to the cesspool that forms Goodreads, you’ll notice many reviews already doing the lord’s work and adding their TWs. Some of these warnings are valuable without a doubt. However, spend enough time over there and you’ll quickly discover there are various...levels of trigger warnings. Two common trigger warnings I come across on Goodreads include “veganism” and “characters wear leather”. My gut instinct is to ridicule these kinds of reviews, as they don’t seem anywhere as serious as other potential TWs, which then forces me to speculate if these lower-level TWs are doing more harm than good. I can imagine writers seeing reviews warning potential readers that characters in the story wear leather jackets and thinking, “Good fucking god, what is this horseshit?”

Here is the difference between these lower-level trigger warnings and the trigger warnings I’ve been discussing throughout this entire article: it is fairly safe to assume characters might eat meat or wear leather or smoke cigarettes while reading a story. These are common acts people perform. I also accept it’s totally possible for things like meat and leather to be a real, actual trigger for certain people, and maybe I’m an asshole for not treating them more seriously, which is a possibility that seems likelier the more time I spend on this paragraph. But okay, now compare those lower-level warnings with the TWs for sexual violence and suicide ideation and the loss of a child and it suddenly feels like a whole different ballgame, right? These latter categories are not common acts like consuming meat or wearing leather. It is not fair to assume someone is going to get raped in the middle of a book. Trying to live off that kind of assumption would shatter any possible enjoyment one could gather from reading.

Another thing I’ve heard from people who do prefer trigger warnings in their fiction: just because a book contains something that acts as a trigger for them, it doesn’t mean they necessarily avoid the text. Sometimes all they need is the warning itself to act as a sort of sedative, a way to prepare for what’s ahead of them. I suspect certain audience members do something very similar with IMDB’s parental advisory category before going to the movies, too. You know, back when theaters existed.

Now, I think at this point it’s pretty clear I don’t mind trigger warnings being added to books, but on the other hand...I do want to touch upon some very valid concerns that I don’t think should be ignored.

When discussing trigger warnings, excluding the ignorant “ugh, people are so sensitive nowadays!” reactions, writers also fear possible censorship repercussions. What if a trigger warning is merely the start of something much worse? Will certain trigger warnings lead to a significantly darker timeline? Will it make it easier for bookstores to refuse to stock certain titles based on trigger warning descriptions? Will children lose out on opportunities the rest of us were lucky to have with experiencing fiction far beyond our expected levels of reading maturity?

I don’t know.

I realize that’s a lousy response, but it’s an honest one. I don’t know if that would happen. But I do think it’s a concern that should be considered when discussing the topic.

Do I think trigger warnings should be mandatory? No. But this article isn’t written as a response to someone attempting to make them mandatory. It’s a response to writers who automatically dismiss the idea without giving it any deeper thought. It’s a response to writers who make fun of readers for “being too sensitive.” Lacking empathy is probably the weirdest trait for a writer to boast, and that’s exactly what it sounds like writers are boasting when they state, “Don’t read horror if you don’t want to be triggered.”

Horror is art, and I can relate to the fear of making it look too much like a product. I understand the urge to dismiss trigger warnings. I really do, so please put down that 2 liter of Mountain Dew and hear me out.

Horror is supposed to be dangerous. I am not disagreeing. It should be dangerous.

But it doesn’t have to be damaging.

Buy The Writhing Skies from Bookshop.

Buy We Need to Do Something from Bookshop.

About the author

Max Booth III is the CEO of Ghoulish Books, the host of the GHOULISH and Dog Ears podcasts, the co-founder of the Ghoulish Book Festival, and the author of several spooky books, including Abnormal Statistics, Maggots Screaming!, Touch the Night, and others. He wrote both the novella and film versions of We Need to Do Something, which was released by IFC Midnight in 2021 and can currently be streamed on Hulu. He was raised in Northwest Indiana and now lives in San Antonio.

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