Horror Twitter exploded into another debate about trigger/content warnings last week. My wife and I were visiting friends in South Carolina when it all went down, so I’m sure I only saw a small part of the discussion, some of which was, shall we say, less than civil? However, what I did see got me thinking again about the issue of content warnings (my preferred term) and whether I should apply them to my own work. As of now, I haven’t used content warnings for my horror fiction, and I’m still considering how I feel about them. So I hope you’ll view this post more as me thinking out loud about the matter rather than specific advice on whether you should include content warnings and how best to do it.
Just in case you’re unaware of what content warnings are, here are a few good articles about content warnings in horror – pro, con, and in between (with advice on how to use them):
Alan Baxter has created a content warning section for his work on his website. You can view it here: https://www.alanbaxteronline.com/content-warnings/
As I talk about my thoughts and feelings regarding content warnings, know this: I have no problem with any readers who prefer content warnings in horror fiction or with writers who wish to provide them. I do not think that readers who prefer content warnings are psychologically weak. I also have no problem with readers and writers who dislike content warnings and prefer not to use them. And when I talk about a cultural shift that’s occurred in America over the last few decades, I do not view that shift as a negative one. I also do not support denigrating or harassing anyone for any reason, including during debates about contentious issues such as content warnings. It’s one thing to discuss an issue online. It’s another to call people names, send them hateful DM’s, or resort to comparing content warnings to Nazi Germany (which happened).
I also don’t want to give the impression that I only saw vitriolic posts during the debate about content warnings. I saw many posts that were polite, reasonable, and respectful of different points of views.
I debated whether to write this post, partly because my thoughts on content warnings aren’t fully formed yet, partly because I wasn’t sure what I had to contribute to the conversation about them, and partly because who needs people attacking you online for your views on a controversial topic? But I find myself continually thinking about content warnings, so I decided to go ahead and write this post, if for no other reason than so I can get all this stuff out of my head and get back to writing the book I have due at the end of the month.
I see the debate over content warnings as part of a cultural shift in America that’s been taking place for a while now. As an English professor in a community college, I often teach young people – mid teens to early twenties – and I’ve done so for the last thirty years. This by no means makes me some kind of expert on how our culture has changed over the decades, but it’s given me a viewpoint that people who don’t work with young people may not have. The shift is a move toward viewing one’s self as a member of a group and thinking in terms of one’s duty to the group and what’s best for the group. One of the greatest – if not THE greatest – sin one can commit is not to consider someone else’s feelings and to intentionally or unintentionally cause them emotional harm of any sort. A big part of avoiding causing this sort of harm is knowing specific labels/terms/words to use or avoid when discussing emotional issues.
This duty to others, like so many beliefs in a culture, is absolute. If you do not do your utmost to avoid doing harm, you’re a self-centered jerk at best, and at worst you are evil. Some of the group will ignore you, some will ostracize you, some will try to educate you, and some will come down upon you like the wrath of God, and they will see whatever actions they take against you as justified because you have shown yourself to be Evil with a capital E. You are an Intentional Emotional-Harmer of Others and you deserve whatever happens to you. There is no room for nuance or opposing points of views regarding these matters. The thinking is very binary: Either you care about others or you don’t.
I’m 57. I started writing seriously with the goal of making it my life’s work when I was eighteen. When I began my career, the cultural attitude was that an adult should be respected as such. Adults were responsible for themselves and their choices, as well as how they dealt with the problems they faced, whether those problems were expected or unexpected. To treat them any other way was highly disrespectful. It was like treating them as a child and saying they didn’t have what it took to function in the adult world.
The older viewpoint didn’t view emotional harm as seriously as physical, economic, or professional harm. Emotional harm was still an important aspect to deal with, but it was more important to try to fix the main problem first: recover from the accident, bounce back from bankruptcy, find a better job. The emotional aspect would be taken care of when the practical aspect was.
In the older view, when a creator makes something, they do so to satisfy themselves first, and they then hope others are satisfied by their efforts. Individuals adapt to the work as they experience it.
The newer viewpoint – emotional harm is potentially devastating and must be avoided at all costs – may have arisen from a culture that primarily interacts online. Thoughts and feelings are what their world is made of. It’s a completely psychological landscape. You must learn to communicate within this environment with absolute precision in order to avoid causing harm, and if you still cause harm anyway, you must apologize as fast as possible, attempt to rectify the situation, and pledge to do better.
In addition, their technology quickly adapts to an individual’s needs, creating a similar cultural expectation, that content should be adapted to an individual. Therefore, a creator exists to provide work that will adapt to the individual as needed.
So what does all this have to do with content warnings?
If it’s a current cultural value that individuals must be protected from emotional harm in any communication, then the communicator must do everything possible to ensure that happens. One way is to provide a warning before a communication so that a reader/listener/viewer is prepared as they go ahead or can choose to opt out if they deem it more mentally healthy for them to do so. Hence, the application of content warnings.
Viewed through the older cultural lens, you give the individual the respect of not treating them as if they need extra protection. They are an adult, not a child, and they are fully capable of handling whatever they read/listen to/watch. If it’s too emotionally difficult for them, they will avoid certain content to begin with. If they start to engage with content and then find it too emotionally difficult for them, they will opt out at that point. And if they did experience negative emotions or had a traumatic reaction to certain content, they are an adult and know how to best to take care of themselves afterward. Hence, the addition of content warnings is viewed as disrespectful or as an insult to an adult audience member. So content warnings should not be used.
Both of these attitudes focus on respecting other humans, but both of them try to do so in very different ways, and proponents of either viewpoint seem incapable of understanding where the other is coming from. (Probably because social media is a lousy tool for effective communication on complex topics.)
To sum up: The older view is that you should take care of yourself, and I should respect you enough to let you do so. The newer view is that you should take care of me (or we all should take care of each other).
Other attitudes/statements regarding content warnings I’ve seen posted on Twitter recently:
· I don’t want to include content warnings because artists should have no restraints placed on them or their work, whether by others or by themselves.
· I don’t want to include content warnings because they could work as spoilers.
· I don’t want to include content warnings because they’re pandering to the audience.
· Content warnings allow consumers to make effective choices.
· Content warnings are like a list of ingredients on a product.
· Content warnings are a form of censorship.
· Content warnings are nothing like censorship.
· If you value empathy, you’ll use content warnings.
· If you don’t use content warnings, you don’t care about anyone but yourself.
· If you read/watch/listen to something, you are knowingly taking a risk that it might hurt you, and that’s your choice.
· If you don’t provide content warnings, you are choosing to (potentially) hurt me.
· I want to feel safe and protected when I read/watch/listen, and if a writer doesn’t provide content warnings, they don’t want me to feel safe and protected.
· Art – especially horror – isn’t about making people feel safe.
· Not providing content warnings is ableist.
· How do you decide what content any or all audience members will find emotionally harmful? Anyone can potentially have a negative emotional reaction to anything in a story, movie, etc. How could you possibly list them all?
· It doesn’t matter how long your list is: list every potential emotionally harmful element.
· List only the most traumatic of elements, such as sexual assault, child abuse, etc.
· Put content warnings at the front of a work.
· Put content warnings at the end of a work, with a note in the front saying where the audience can find them if they want.
· Horror is already a content warning in and of itself.
· Horror is about entertainment, not purposely traumatizing people.
· Content warnings could be used negatively against writers of color and LGBTQ+ authors. (The thinking is that since so many white cishet readers are already reluctant to try work by writers from other backgrounds, seeing content warnings could give them an additional excuse to pass on those works, an excuse that allows them to feel that they aren’t being racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.)
· Content warnings privilege white cishet triggers.
· No one is talking about mandating content warnings. (Although I did see a couple publishers state that all their books would have content warnings from now on, which sounds mandated to me.)
· There’s fear that the conflict over content warnings will lead to cyberbullying and canceling of writers who don’t use content warnings.
· Rating labels for movies, music, and TV have not worked for those media’s benefit, and something similar may happen with content warnings for books.
· If you don’t use content warnings, some readers may take their business elsewhere.
One of the most contentious issues I’ve seen regarding content warnings is the idea of whether they are or aren’t censorship. These arguments drive me crazy because people split hairs about the definition of censorship. Some say only governments can engage in censorship, while others use a broader definition. Some use the denotation of the word to bolster their arguments while others use the connotation. The American Civil Liberties Union defines censorship thusly: “Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.” Note that this definition is broader than what many people consider censorship to be.
Are content warnings in and of themselves censorship, regardless of your specific definition? No. Could they lead to censorship, including self-censorship on the part of artists? Sure. During the recent Twitter debate on trigger warnings, I read a post from a person who was a proponent of content warnings. After praising content warnings, he went on to say that writers should ask themselves why they include material that needs content warnings in the first place, and that they should reconsider including that content at all. There’s a logical progression when it comes to trying to protect people from potentially emotionally harmful content: This content hurts people. I should warn people about this content. I shouldn’t create such content. No one should create such content. We must stop people from creating this sort of content. Will content warnings lead to content policing and then to censorship? Who knows? But are people idiots or evil because they wonder if it will? Nope. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to consider. (But it’s not reasonable to play the “This is how Nazi Germany started!” card.)
So how do I feel about content warnings on my own work? I haven’t used them so far. I’m part of the respect the individual and allow them to make their own choices and deal with their own experiences culture. That’s what I grew up with. To me, the label Horror is already a content warning. When I read or watch a work of horror, I know there’s a possibility that I might encounter any type of content, and I find that exciting. Horror is about the unknown, right? But while certain kinds of content might be too much for me to read, I don’t have any traumatic experiences that have resulted in PTSD, so I don’t have to worry about that I might encounter material that would result in my having a painful flashback. My wife is 41 and experienced significant abuse when she was younger. I asked how she felt about content warnings, if she would appreciate them, especially in horror, and she laughed. She too felt that Horror is a warning in and of itself, and she doesn’t expect any creator to warn her of content she might find triggering. She believes in dealing with whatever reaction she has. And as she has significant PTSD, she has some really strong reactions to certain content.
For me, the presentation of a book or movie (the cover/poster, the ad copy, etc.) and reviews provide all the information I need to make a choice as a consumer, although I don’t think of myself as a consumer as much as an experiencer of art, even if that art is entertainment-focused. I also realized this weekend that when I see content warnings on a work, I’m less likely to read it. I feel the warnings are spoilery to a certain extent, and I also feel like the writer is someone who’s likely to pull their punches in their fiction in order to avoid possibly hurting anyone. I had no idea I thought these things, especially the latter, and I was surprised. But the horror culture I grew up in believed that adults should confront the darkness both in themselves and without, and while no one faulted you for avoiding certain books or movies (I couldn’t bring myself to read Jack Ketchum’s legendary The Girl Next Door for years because I thought it would so emotionally devastating), there was an expectation of confrontation, not avoidance. I think this is why some people react so strongly to the idea of content warnings. In older horror cultural terms, such warnings are anti-confrontational, and thus anti-horror.
On Twitter I mused about what sort of content warning I could put on my horror novels. I came up with a summary-type one, the kind of thing you see as a movie content warning on Netflix: “This book contains scenes of violence and sexual content, as well as nightmarish imagery some readers might find disturbing.” I’d be fine with that because it gives readers a feeling for what they might encounter without providing specifics of the story that might be spoilers. I suspect a statement like this doesn’t go far enough for most proponents of content warnings, though.
I’d rather lose readers than provide a long list of every possible element in one of my novels that could conceivably cause someone emotional harm. I don’t want anyone to be traumatized by my fiction. I’d prefer people who think they might be traumatized by my work to read something else. But if someone chooses to take a chance on my work, I feel I have to respect their choice. But it seems to me that providing a list of content warnings, wherever it appears in the book drains some of the book’s energy, undercutting its suspense and making the horror too known to a reader before starting.
I also don’t see how any work of art can be made all-inclusive. As soon as you write in a genre, you’re already excluding people who prefer not to read in that genre. Some people don’t like fiction at all, let alone don’t like horror fiction. Someone who readers only romance could very well hate my horror novel, so they’re already excluded because I’ve chosen to write horror. (Back in the early days of social networks, a romance writer was invited into a private horror writers’ topic on the old GEnie network. She could not understand why all horror novels didn’t have happy endings like romance novels did. What was the point of a story if it didn’t have a happy ending?) Plus, it’s not like my books are the only horror books available. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a chance on any of mine, there are zillions of others to choose from.
I’m going to keep paying attention to conversations about content warnings, and I hope to continue learning from them. Maybe I’ll start using content warnings with my horror fiction, maybe I won’t. I respect writers and readers who want to use content warnings, though, and I’ll work on overcoming whatever prejudices I have toward such warnings as a reader, some of which I’m probably unaware of yet.
What do I advise for you? Do what you think is best for yourself and your readers, naturally. And if you think content warnings are ridiculous, childish, or will bring about the downfall of civilization, I hope you’ll reconsider your attitude toward them, whether you use them or not. And if you think creators who don’t wish to provide content warnings are sociopathic monsters, I hope you’ll consider the notion that they may not want to hurt anyone and that they merely hold a different view about how their content should be presented and perceived.
And as for this particular piece of content, it’s over.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
My horror/fantasy novel Your Turn to Suffer is still available! Should it come with content warnings? Read it and decide for yourself. It’s available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online vendors, but you can also find it – and my other Flame Tree horror novels – on the Flame Tree Press site: https://www.flametreepress.com/authors/Tim-Waggoner.html
“Your Turn to Suffer is deliciously creepy, at times rather gory, always entertaining.” – From Belgium with Book Love
“It is a gory, wild, and unpredictable ride from beginning to end.” – Horror Oasis on Your Turn to Suffer
“A lot of people get to suffer in Your Turn to Suffer, and when it goes batshit off-the-rails crazy, that's where the story finds its dark, bloody, shadowy heart.” – Beauty in Ruins