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Is There A Place For Trigger Warnings in Horror Books?

The accessibility feature that divided a genre.

trigger warnings in horror books
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  • Photo Credit: Camila Quintero Franco/Unsplash

Trigger warnings are a hot-button issue in the horror genre. It seems like you can’t scroll on social media for more than two minutes without tripping over an argument over whether or not trigger warnings should be included in horror books. And while there are plenty of people championing making the genre more accessible, the voices yelling the loudest (and ranting with the longest paragraphs) seem to be those opposed to the idea.

But why does the concept of including trigger warnings incite such rage? It’s not a movement asking to make horror books less horrific. If the upset is over the potential of spoilers, there are plenty of practical approaches around that particular pitfall. Some think those who need trigger warnings are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to horror, and they should seek out something more pleasant if the content typical of the genre upsets them.

In fact, if you investigate the arguments on the subject, you’ll find, as I did, that many of the protesters object to trigger warnings on the basis of what it means from a societal standpoint. These people argue that including trigger warnings will result in a weaker generation of readers.

Apparently, the irony is lost on these naysayers that trigger warnings are included to prevent an unexpected heightened reaction. A heightened reaction, such as, perhaps, blowing up at strangers on social media for merely uttering the phrase “trigger warning.”

But I would like to think a lot of the controversy around the subject stems from misunderstanding the true purpose of trigger warnings, and a refusal to get to the point in the discussion to talk about how they would work in a novel.

So let’s get into it, shall we, and discuss what role trigger warnings play in horror.

Who are trigger warnings for?

This is a multifaceted answer, but let’s start with the issue everyone seems to be concerned with.

Trigger warnings, in their conception, were first and foremost devised to support people who have trauma. This can mean a vast array of things: war veterans, rape victims, those in recovery for eating disorders, anyone with a phobia—the list goes on and on.

There are a few things about this people don’t understand.

First and foremost, every living creature carries trauma—some just hold more than others. Second, most people who need (or even appreciate) trigger warnings don’t look at the list of warnings and put the book down if it’s something that bothers them. The warnings simply mentally prepare them for what they’re about to face, so that they can decide whether or not they’re in the right headspace to read it.

To make an even bigger point, trigger warnings do not exist to serve “picky” people. Instead, they serve to prevent someone from being re-traumatized.

But, honestly, if trigger warnings just make a reading experience more enjoyable for people who won’t have a traumatic episode, why is that a problem?

We as readers (and authors and critics) cannot pretend that horror doesn’t have a long history of exploiting marginalized groups and their suffering. There are plenty of books that have exploited the oppression of women, BIPOC, the queer community, disabled individuals, and beyond as a plot device. Or worse, these experiences have been flattened and reduced to shock value. Sometimes, as a person who has to face discrimination every day, you just don’t want to have to read about it in a book.

Trigger warnings can also help match a book with the tastes of a reader. With the rise of reviews on the back cover as opposed to plot summaries, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand just what you’re in for when you pick up a book. Some people prefer quiet horror, which means they’re not going to want to get 50 pages in to discover the book their reading has evolved into gruesome body horror. Alternatively, some people love a nasty read—the sicker the better—and trigger warnings will let them know just what demented goodies await them. Some people want the catharsis of reading about things that hurt them while others just aren’t in a space to think about it.

If your wife died a month ago, you’re probably not going to want to pick up a horror book—a book that’s supposed to be an escape from reality—and read about the death of a spouse. While it doesn’t produce an anxiety attack, books where dogs die really bum me out, and I don’t really enjoy feeling morose when all I want is a nice scare.

Alternatively, when I was five years old, I had a seizure. It was a doozy. I saw spiders everywhere—little black ones crawling over the carpet, so many I couldn’t see through to the floor. Fat tarantulas were falling out of the ceiling. I saw long-legged horrors crawling in my father’s hair and living in his mouth. Worse even, I could feel them. A million little legs danced over my skin. They were there when I closed my eyes. They were there when I flailed. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it felt like hours.

25 years later, spiders still make me break out into a cold sweat. I still can’t sit through Disney World’s It’s Tough to Be A Bug 4D attraction. Recently I read Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, and there’s a scene a good way through the book that heavily mirrors my exact brand of trauma. Did I put it down? No. It was an incredible book. But I was uneasy for days afterward, and a heads-up would have made a world of difference.

It’s funny, because you don’t really see people complaining about the MPAA rating system on movies. Typically, when you see a horror movie, you’re going to see an R rating. When you watch the trailer for a movie such as, say, Hereditary, you’re going to see additional warnings, such as “Disturbing Images, Brief Graphic Nudity, Drug Use, Horror Violence, and Language.” Are there a lot more specifics that could mess you up in that film? Absolutely. But no one is having a meltdown because the film prepares audiences ahead of time that they're going to witness drug use.

This movie rating system is primarily to aid parents in what is appropriate for their children to consume (and to avoid lawsuits). So why should trigger warnings be ignored as a way for horror books to be introduced to a younger and broader audience? There’s a big difference between Goosebumps and Stephen King, and a lot of content that falls somewhere in between. An easy way to parse the maturity of the themes of the book can be very meaningful for voracious teen readers.

Besides that, do we not fill all of our social media posts with hashtags? Hashtags help a lot of people find the content they’re interested in, but hashtags also help users blacklist topics they don’t want to see. Trigger warnings are simply the reverse—a wonderful tool for people who need accessible warnings, and a fantastic tool for people looking for something specific.

So, at the end of the day, trigger warnings are for everybody.

Do trigger warnings ruin horror books?

For the sake of being polite and professional, I’ll just open with a simple “no.”

In the case of “spoilers,” no one is forcing readers who don’t want trigger warnings to interact with them. Trigger warnings are, by nature, pretty clearly marked. In fact, if more people were willing to talk about the issue reasonably, we might devise an industry standard that worked for everyone.

Personally, as someone who engages with trigger warnings on and off, depending on my state of mind, I think the best practice is placing the trigger warnings at the end of the book, with a clear note at the front indicating that they live back there. This way everyone is happy: no one can complain about the risk of spoilers, and those who need or enjoy them know they’re there.

I’m a bit of a stickler about spoilers myself, but let’s be honest: do trigger warnings really spoil anything? Is it ruining a book to say, “Trigger warning: gun violence”? It’s not like a trigger warning declares. “Steve dies by gunshot wound on page 231!”

For those who are worried about trigger warnings softening the genre, I think they’re missing that for many writers it could have the opposite effect. A lot goes into writing a book, and a big part of that is considering your audience. Horror books are full of twists and surprises, and these 180 moments are often, well, horrific. While some authors go full speed ahead writing the most depraved masterpieces they could devise, some hesitate. Some stop to wonder, “How far is too far?”

It’s a different conversation entirely to say that, as long as something has a purpose (and you’re the right person to be saying it), nothing is really too far. But if we all accept this statement for the purpose of the trigger warnings argument, trigger warnings allow authors to push the boundaries that might otherwise hold them back. Instead of worrying if their work is alienating the very people they’re hoping to reach and connect to, authors can know that they’ve let readers know which nightmares they’re going to be stepping into—and to enter at their own risk. Trigger warnings let authors give themselves permission to write something dark and twisted, and then push even farther than they thought was okay.

The argument that people who need trigger warnings shouldn’t be reading horror is as ridiculous as it is offensive. The heart of the horror genre has always been to hold up a mirror to the anxieties and darkness of the real world around us. It seems to me that horror is a genre for those who need trigger warnings more than anybody. In fact, some of the most breathtaking—and transgressive—voices in horror that I know are people who engage with trigger warnings themselves.

Good horror comes from a place of darkness, and with darkness comes an emotional burden. There aren’t droves of people asking for the content of horror to change. Well, maybe there are, and there always has been, but those are agents of censorship—not horror fans in the trenches.

All people are asking for is to make the horror genre a place where they can healthily engage in the material. And, quite frankly, I don’t know why anyone would object to books being able to reach a broader audience.

Featured image: Camila Quintero Franco/Unsplash