Horror writers are a diverse bunch of people. We come tall and short, fat and thin, and all ages and races. Some live in cities, others in the countryside. Some are drinkers, and some teetotalers. Most certainly, we come in both liberal and conservative strains.
Since my first book was published in 2007, I’ve gotten to know the larger horror community as an incredibly dynamic, vibrant, and above all varied group of people. Indeed, it sometimes feels impossible to identify any unifying trait that we might share. . .other than a deep and abiding dedication to scaring the living hell out of people.
However, in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual. And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.
This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma. This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.
Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project. It is our project. We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night. Our goal is to horrify. To traumatize whenever possible. To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.
We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression. Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly. (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared. We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened. We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence. And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters.
Though they might agree about little else, horror writers uniformly (and acutely) understand the problematic aspects of protecting readers from discomfort. Encouragingly, there are signs that our community has had about enough. We are, finally, starting to push back.
This month sees the release of a new collection of stories from horror and fantasy titan Neil Gaiman called Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. No part of this title is a coincidence. Gaiman is—blessedly, gloriously—owning that horror writers have a sacred duty to “disturb.” And to challenge. And, yes, to horrify.
And earlier this year when the Horror Writers Association released its Preliminary Ballot for the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards (like the Pulitzer Prizes of horror), the Short Fiction category was revealed to contain a story also titled “Trigger Warning” by emerging author Patrick Freivald.
These are Lexington and Concord. If I know horror writers—which I do—this is only the beginning.
Horror serves an important function, and it’s time we found the temerity to point that out.
Anne Rice’s bloodthirsty vampires limn the terror of the 1990’s HIV epidemic in a way that gentle, cry-by-numbers documentaries do not. Max Brooks’s zombie hordes comport the threat of global pandemic with startling effectiveness. King’s Carrie makes the case against bullying better than any feelgood, granola documentarian ever could. Blatty’s The Exorcist and Legion cut right to the chase and ask us to wonder whether the world is fundamentally good or evil. The whole of Lovecraft wonders if it might not be something else entirely. . . with humans only a deluded, self-aggrandizing, and soon-to-be-extinct afterthought. (And innumerable works of contemporary horror are derided as “torture porn” when actual torture has lately been perpetrated under an American flag.)
It is possible, certainly, to consider these concepts through lenses other than horror fiction, but it is not, by any means, the same thing.
A few years ago at the Bram Stoker Awards ceremony, I watched Peter Straub present the Stoker for best Short Fiction collection to Stephen King for Full Dark, No Stars. King wasn’t able to make it that evening, but his son, the accomplished horror author Joe Hill, accepted on his behalf. In a short speech, Hill said: “[My dad] just wanted me to say thanks. . .and he thinks you’re all a pack of sick fucks. . . but that’s a quality he admires.”
This line has always stuck with me, because yes, there is something sick about doing this, but also something you might indeed find admirable. There is good evidence that people want or even need to be scared. Unsettling, harrowing, “fucked up” stories are as old as storytelling, and you can find them in every culture. There is a reason we desire to hear these things.
Contemporary university administrators who believe they are doing students a service by presenting “trigger warnings” before unpleasant texts to create “safe spaces” are delivering spoilers of the very worst kind. They spoil all that is good and special and salutary about coming into contact with difficult ideas. There is a tangible benefit to being challenged and scared and even horrified. It makes you grow as a person. It opens your mind to new and important ways of seeing the world. Gaiman and Freivald have lately affirmed this through the titles of their works, but it’s something the horror community has known for years.
We are here to tell you that the trigger is the point. We are here to tell you that no space is safe.
And we are never going to stop.
3 thoughts on “We ARE the triggers”
You make a good argument about unabashed horror, and the value of texts that cause discomfort. I agree wholeheartedly with your idea about what horror should be.
But I think you’ve misrepresented what trigger warnings should be for, to my mind. Trigger Warnings are about context. They’re meant to signpost upcoming moments for readers who might not be ready for them. Thus, I usually see trigger warnings on non-fiction pieces about controversial topics. I’d think a horror story written as a horror story ought to be its own trigger warning.
But even in the case of fiction (such as last week’s Scandal, a pretty violent show that this week included an extra “violent content” warning), trigger warnings shouldn’t be a way to coddle readers or help them avoid uncomfortable situations: they’re a recognition that for some readers, some topics invoke real life trauma. This isn’t to say those readers should avoid the texts, necessarily, but rather to give them the choice about how to handle it (even just being mentally prepared can make a difference).
By way of example, imagine a story including scenes of rape. Without a trigger warning, a rape survivor may be blind-sided by emotions from their own past because of the story. On one hand, blind-siding a reader with emotions is a great skill for the author. On the other hand, this is unearned reaction — you didn’t make that result as a writer, you happened upon a particular reader’s weakness. If your story’s good (and if you’ve written it, Scott, it would be), you don’t need the cheat of the reader’s previous trauma. Nor will your story’s effect be reduced for the reader whom the trigger doesn’t effect.
To me, a trigger warning isn’t about telling audiences to avoid texts, but rather about empathy, and about recognizing that different experiences urge different kinds of responses.
As always, thank you for the thoughtful comment and critique, Brendan!