Responsibility and Triggers

Responsibility and Triggers

By Mary SanGiovanni

Writers are often posed the question of responsibility in their writing, particularly if they are writers of horror.  Where are the lines in fiction which should not be crossed? When does fiction devolve into degeneracy? Do creatives have a responsibility for monitoring what they write and how they write it, and if they include events or even suggestions of events which may upset certain readers, does it fall on the writer to either self-censor or warn readers in advance?

First of all, horror is a genre of emotion; it is predicated on arousing in the reader a sense of unease, terror, dread, horror, shock, and/or the gross-out.  These elements are, I think, essentially subsets of fear, and different horror subgenres focus to greater or lesser degree on each. Quiet horror, for example, uses atmosphere to subtly build a sense of dread or unease toward, at times, terror.  Extreme horror and splatterpunk, on the other end of the spectrum, analyze and comment on the ills of society through more shocking subsets such as horror and the gross-out. Most horror fiction falls somewhere in between the two, often swelling toward one, then ebbing away to swell toward another element of the genre.  

Because of the nature of horror fiction, writing realistic portrayals of the evil side of human existence is important in order to connect to readers on an emotional level.  And that’s what writers want, isn’t it? Isn’t that essentially what readers want? An emotional connection? A challenge to our thought processes? Veracity, verisimilitude – realism, even when couched in the fantastic – is essential, and sometimes, that means tackling ideas which are outside our comfort zones as writers… and maybe the comfort zones of readers.  

I believe horror can be cathartic; we can process feelings of fear by finding parallels in fantastical substitutes in our entertainment and vicariously conquering them along with the characters we’re reading about.  I’ve always thought that at its heart, horror was a genre that showcased the best humanity has to offer alongside the worst. In times of crisis or tragedy, we can rise above our myopic or self-absorbed mundanity and become something grander and more heroic.  Horror can be self-affirming and even educational; it’s said that if you know and understand the nature of a monster, you can kill it. There is a sense of security and peace in knowing that in times of unexpected tragedy or crisis, we have at least observed the tools to handle and survive them.  And to achieve all this, sometimes we have to expose ourselves to the things we fear.

Now, none of this means that as writers or readers, we have to engage in fiction which makes us so uncomfortable that it ceases to be entertainment.  I don’t write about torture, certainly not in any detail. I don’t find the idea of the stronger scaring and hurting the weaker or more helpless over a steady, extended period of time to be entertaining.  I don’t find it cathartic. I don’t feel I could write about sexual torture and mutilation or extreme grotesque horror, with abundances of bodily fluids moving in and out of bodies, with any kind of dignity which would make me proud to reread my own work.  I don’t mean that to sound snobbish; some people write about these topics effectively and even beautifully. But they make me too uncomfortable to do them justice; my comfort limit falls several feet short, so to speak, and my pushing my own envelope in my writing is maybe reaching for that in-between space beyond my comfort level, but before my level of disgust.

As I see it, the only real responsibility that writers have is not to normalize, legitimize, or apologize for truly horrific things.  What I mean is, we should handle the most horrific and awful of human experiences with respect, dignity, and sensitivity. There is a way of constructing fiction so that we are not appealing to the prurient by making these experiences seem attractive in some lascivious way.  Rather, we’re framing them in our work as horrors to conquer, horrors to survive, horrors to observe and so recognize and prevent or put a stop to. In that context, within that framework, I do not think that writers should censor or hold back from writing what they genuinely feel is necessary to fully complete a story.

I’ve discussed elsewhere that as one who has experienced violence, sexual assault and harrassment, and prejudices in the past, it is of extreme importance to me that I’m not seen as a victim or even a survivor.  To me, these terms indicate that those negative experiences define me, that I am something specific because of those things. This is not the case. These are a part of the fabric of my past, and have, to some degree, influenced my way of thinking, decision-making, and processing of emotion, but they do not define who I am.  I never want people to characterize me by what has happened to me, but by what I have caused to happen in the world.  

I bring this up because of the notion of trigger warnings.  I have a good network of family and friends who tell me that, given what I don’t enjoy in my entertainment, I might not like certain movies and books.  I appreciate that. But I don’t need or want trigger warnings, and I don’t think they should carry any sort of connotation that the inclusion of such potential triggers should be removed.  To me, what that says is the issuer of said warning thinks of me as a victim, as someone too fragile or weak to handle unpleasant feelings or memories. I feel it takes away my agency and undermines all the hard work I’ve put in to growing stronger from these experiences and moving on from their negative effects.   By all means, avoid the things which drudge up any negative feelings you don’t want in your life anymore; that is a fair and legitimate, psychologically sound approach to life. But I don’t believe trigger warnings, per se, are the way to do it, at least not for me, personally. I want the option to clean out old wounds, to test the strength of my healing, and to meet head on the things that bother me – if and when I want to.

We are strong; we are resourceful and resilient.  We are so, so much more than the bad things that happen to us.  And the words that form those bad things are ours – we are masters over them, and their effects.  Here’s to using that mastery wisely.

Mary SanGiovanni is an award-winning American horror and thriller writer of almost 20 books, including The Hollower trilogy, Thrall, the Kathy Ryan series, and others, as well as numerous novellas, short stories and non-fiction.  Her work as been translated internationally.  She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh, and is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers.  She hosts her own podcast on cosmic horror, Cosmic Shenanigans, and is a co-host on the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene.  She has the distinction of being one of the first women to speak about writing at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA, and offers talks and workshops on writing around the country.  Born and raised in New Jersey, she currently resides in Pennsylvania.


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