Exploiting Victims of Trauma and Trigger Warnings In Horror

By Meg Zulch

Courtesy of FX

Courtesy of FX

This month, I was completely overcome with excitement about the premiere of the new season of American Horror Story. AHS is one of my favorite shows of all time, and I had been anticipating the “Hotel” season for months, and over the course of numerous teaser trailers. What better way is there to get yourself in that Halloween mood, and (for a limited time only) to get your Gaga fix? The idea of Mother Monster herself playing the spooky character she seemed born to play while serving up look after look every Wednesday night alone was enough to sell me on it, even if I had never seen the show before. However, when I excitedly settled into my couch that night, tuning in to FX at the appropriate time, I was sorely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the show delivered all the spooks and scares it promises every season. The first episode was terrifying, but not in a way that I or any survivor of sexual assault could appreciate.

By now, many people have been made aware of the graphic rape scene that occurred in the episode between Sarah Paulson’s minion and a heroin addict she randomly targets (played by Max Greenfield). The scene was detailed, loud, and long, leaving me so triggered that I couldn’t bear to finish the episode, let alone watch more of it in the following weeks. Sure, the unbelievably sexy scene of Lady Gaga and her fellow vampire partner having sex and fatally sucking the blood from another couple was super enjoyable to watch. But not at the expense of my mental health. I’m watching American Horror Story (and any spooky show or film) for fun, not to be put back into my trauma body or trauma memories. With such triggering content, the disclaimer at the beginning of every show, stating there will be violence and sexual content in the episode, is not sufficient enough. Sexual assault in TV and movies does not fall under the umbrella of “sexual content,” and absolutely needs a trigger warning.

Of course, this isn’t the first time horror (or even AHS) has exploited victims of trauma. Traditionally, horror movies like The Evil Dead and Rosemary’s Baby have portrayed sexual violence against women so often that it almost feels commonplace. And normalizing women being taken advantage of in film perpetuates rape culture in art and society. Rape and trauma are not fun little scary movie ploys, like masked serial killers or sexy vampires. They are intensely serious topics of discussion that affect a huge range of people. And throwing in sensitive scenes like these in movie after movie is not only terribly triggering, but also disrespectful to the actual survivors of abuse.

Watching the premiere episode of this season of AHS created even more bad blood between my former favorite pop star and I. A lady all about shock value and theatrics, I’ve respected and admired much of Lady Gaga’s work for years. But when I saw her music video for her latest single, “‘Til It Happens To You,” a song she wrote to raise awareness about sexual assault and to be featured in a documentary about rape on college campuses (called The Hunting Ground), I was disappointed. The video was terribly triggering and included scene after scene of different feminine people being sexually assaulted by multiple male aggressors. No trigger warning or anything. And now that she’s a part of AHS, a project that also seems to think exploiting trauma is a good idea and that trigger warnings are unnecessary, I cannot manage to muster up any more respect for her or the show.  When the trauma of thousands of people is used for shock value without even a warning to viewers of such triggering content, it becomes clear that media and filmmaking companies do not have the best interests at heart for victims of abuse.

Watching horror movies with my friends and family are one of my favorite past times. But in recent years, since having been assaulted when I was 19, being able to enjoy my favorite genre has been extremely difficult. And it’s messed up that much of the genre (or at least its mainstream counterpart) can’t end without a feminine character being sexually harassed, cornered, and/or violently raped, making it impossible to fully enjoy.

I’d love to check out a new scary flick without fear of getting triggered, at least once. I don’t want to sit there, enduring the tough scenes full of anxiety, in an attempt not to out myself to those around me as a survivor of abuse. I’m sometimes afraid to dampen the mood, or be “overdramatic,” especially if I see my friends enjoying the film and having a good time. Even if a friend does criticize the triggering scene, I often struggle with speaking up at this point, not able to force even a simple “Yeah you’re right, let’s change this.”

But lately, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of this. Because watching scary movies with my friends should feel just as fun for me, regardless of my experience with trauma. This annual group ritual should be full of uncontrollable screams, giggles, and candy-eating, not traumatizing flashbacks.

This Halloween, don’t be afraid to walk out of the room during a triggering scene, don’t feel embarrassed to ask if the film you are about to see has triggering material, and don’t be afraid to flat out say, “I’m not into this movie.” It can be hard, but it’s worth working toward getting to a place where you’re comfortable to speak up without having to disclose any of your personal history or reasoning. Taking part in the scary movie ritual with friends is not worth traumatizing yourself. So on this night try to take care of yourself, and speak up if you find the entertainment ya’ll are consuming (between the fistfuls of M&Ms you’re consuming) to be problematic. Because rape being utilized as a spooky ploy in the plots of horror movies is not okay, and odds are your friends will agree.