Trigger Warning: Zombies

And no, I’m not talking the Walking Dead type of zombie, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

I once did some writing on another blogging site as a hobby. I loved putting my words and ideas and thoughts out there for free, my only payment being the feedback I got from various readers and other writers.

Now, some of the writing I did was a little, let me say, violent. Rough. Not in any sort of prurient manner for violence’s own sake, but to move the story. And sometimes in that feedback I would get, I would also get complaints about elements of the writing being “triggering.”

For those unfamiliar, the concept of “triggering” is that there is something in the story or the writing that would, as it says, “trigger” another’s illness or high emotions. And it is expected that if a writer presents a “triggering” situation in his or her writing, that said writer would include in the header of the story a single or often a long series of “trigger warnings.” Trigger warnings can be such as “TW: suicide,” or “TW: blood” or “TW: fight scenes” or “TW: gore.”  As I wrote more and more on that other site, I accepted the criticism. In bits of work after that I happily included such warnings, as many as I could, as they were appropriate (or not appropriate).

And so I was thinking of these triggers and trigger warnings in the car last night. I don’t think I have ever, once seen a trigger warning posted on the front of a novel or a book in the library or at the book store. I have never seen such warnings on Amazon. Yes, some warnings are included for films via the rating systems, but these are not specific. You don’t go to The Hunger Games and expect to see “TW: gore” or  “TW: children murdering each other” splashed up on the big screen before the credits begin to roll.

I don’t ever remember being warned of the issue of suicide before I read “The Bell Jar,” or “Romeo and Juliet.” I don’t ever remember being warned about the question of gang warfare or murder in “Lord of the Flies” or rape in Diana Gabaldon’s novels, or the issues of teenage death in “A Separate Peace.” I know there are better examples out there of things that can be triggering to a person in mainstream works, but those are the ones that I can think of at the moment.

But those are things that bring out high emotion in me. They give me the oogies, sometimes to the extreme that I need to set the book down and do something else for a while. I can say, then, that I have read many things that have “triggered” me (using the term very loosely) in one way or the other. Sometimes to the point of anger. Sometimes to the point of curling up in a little ball on my bed and crying my eyes out. Sometimes to the point of not feeling safe within my own skin for a while.


Isn’t that the whole point of art?

Isn’t it the whole point of a piece of written work, or visual art, or music to make us FEEL?

My youngest son is autistic. He LOVES listening to what he calls “sad music.” Why? Because it makes him cry. It makes him feel SOMETHING. We don’t often let him do it, but sometimes he says “mom, I need some sad music.” Not because he’s sad, but because it triggers him. It brings about something inside of him that changes the humdrum, everyday, normative way he feels.

And that is a good thing.

So, now to the point of zombies.

I saw this film a while back, a Jim Jarmusch piece called Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s not heavy on plot, in fact, there’s really no plot at all. What it is heavy on is the commentary on this very issue.

In the film, Adam is a vampire. He’s old. Very old. He’s your typical or not-so-typical Byronic hero. Dark and brooding with a sense of self-entitlement. He is also, as one character puts it, a “suicidally romantic scoundrel.” Suicidal being the key word.

Why is he suicidal do you ask? Why does he ask his human friend to get him a bullet made out of the hardest wood he can find? Why does he load the bullet in the gun and consider shooting himself in the heart? What’s his explanation?

He’s tired of the zombies.

“Zombies” is Adam’s term for humans. And the problem Adam sees with the humans, the problem that drives him to no longer wish to live, is that the zombies are “afraid of their imaginations.” Zombies do eat brains, too, in a way. According to Adam, they consume and destroy imagination, creativity, scientific progress and beauty. They yell and scream and demand control over the art and imagination of others at the same time they decry the censorship of their own prized work. Adam laments how the zombies have ruined science and suppressed leaps forward in art, and how they have, in a figurative sense, eaten the brains of the men and women who dared to think and move science and art forward.

And is that, I wonder, the key here?

At the same time some are fighting the good fights for social justice online, are they, perhaps, also seeking to censor the work of others by demanding that every piece posted or offered carry warnings — warnings against simple things that make them feel (just feel, not necessarily react in a PTSD sense)? Warnings against bits of the writing that will throw them for an emotional loop for a time and carry them temporarily to a different headspace, a different place and a different time?

Some may ask, then: Why don’t we want to feel anymore? Why don’t we want to experience every aspect of life through the writing of others? Why do we complain when a work of art or a work of literature does for us exactly what it is designed to do? Why do we complain in a review on Amazon when an otherwise brilliant and craftily written piece has a few swear words, or a touch of graphic detail, or sex scenes, especially if those elements lend to the overall strong atmosphere or verisimilitude of the story?

Are we zombies? Do we not want to feel? Are we afraid of our own imaginations?

Others may ask, on the other hand: Are we over-preoccupied with our own feelings? Are we expecting others to constantly vet out our own emotions? Are we so paranoid and afraid of giving offense? Must we restrict and bubble wrap everything? Does our seeking to require the world to give notice to our frailties help us to overcome them?

Some may say: Are the trigger warnings themselves, perhaps, triggering? Do they truly deter someone from reading a piece, or do they present a prurient temptation to delve further into the dangerous territory?

I wonder.

I don’t criticize. I simply — wonder. I know the subject’s a touchy one.

With all this being said, I see both sides. I absolutely positively and completely understand and respect how a person, for example, who is struggling with illness such as PTSD or a violent past or a past event would not want it brought up again in what they read or see, and warnings may be vital for such things.

So don’t yell at me in the comments, okay?. 🙂 I’m here to neither bury Caesar nor to praise him. Just thinking, that’s all. Ruminating.

I understand, too, that if a piece has characters or dialogue or opinions that may be slurring to certain groups — that there should be some sort of warning against it. Warnings allow for mental preparation, and allow for a person to decide whether they want to continue reading a piece online, especially something new where there is no feedback or no discussion hinting at such things down the line.

But I was once criticized for not placing a trigger warning on a story where there was character death… a rather peaceful, non-violent death, actually, but a death nonetheless.

So. How does this work, then, really?

I know the need for these warnings in some communities, but where does the line get drawn? Is this practice restricted to online communities only, or are we going to start seeing authors include a list of potentially triggering things on the frontispiece of their books? What, exactly then, do we list as triggering? If someone in the story cuts their finger and sucks on the wound do we list “blood sucking” as a trigger? I know that’s a silly example, but really. I don’t know.

But again, I never see those warnings on published books or in film reviews, ever. I’m honestly not sure how to handle those situations and I am sure each individual person has a method to screen what they see and hear and read.

Again, I’m not critical. Warnings are a necessity. But to what extent? Is it enough to warn a person with PTSD against a violent plot? Or are we, as writers, going to be expected to warn against things that could be simply emotionally difficult for the average person, which again, is the whole point of our art?

I just don’t know.


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