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.

Daughters Of Salem: The Burden of Spectacle

by Jaclyn Jermyn

I am a Salem Witch.

Not because I heeded a call from my Wiccan sisters. Not because I dabble in hexes or spell-casting. Not because I have a black cat or a rabbit or some wild looking bird that swoops down at night to settle on my window sill.

I am a Salem Witch because of what we yelled at pep rallies and sports games--shouts of “yeah witch!” to match the black silhouetted broom and pointy hat that found its way onto every club and class t-shirt.

I am a Salem Witch by default. I am a daughter of Salem because I was born there, and I got to see first hand the burdens that came with that.

In terms of obvious iconography, there was no shortage of it growing up. There was a witch emblem on the water tower. My brother and I played on streets named Witch Way and in parks called Gallows Hill. We lived in a neighborhood called Witchcraft Heights, and on summer nights, we didn't go to Dairy Queen for soft serve—we went to Dairy Witch.

In theorist Umberto Eco’s essay “Travels in Hyperreality,” he details and explores the fake and extra “real” of America, looking into Wild West Towns and Disney World and everything in between to try and find what captivates audiences about these recreations of the “real.”

Salem is in hyperreality all year long. It only takes one glance down the cobblestone alleyways to wonder if every tourist decked out in pointy hats are also wishing for the hangman’s noose.

The captivation with my hometown stems from the mystery of its greatest tragedy. What made those girls go mad and start pointing fingers at their neighbors? Was it really just a dangerous lust for religion? Was the stifling thumb of Puritanism just pressing down a little too hard?

Or was it Ergot fungus (a mold found in rye bread that is said to have LSD-like properties)?

Maybe it was just a fight over land ownership or the fact that glasses didn't exist and people needed a way to explain what they couldn't see. That's why religion exists anyways, right?

No one knows the spark that led to the hangings of 19 people, and for one man to be pressed to death with stones. Giles Corey would be posthumously excommunicated because his death would be ruled a suicide. His continuous cries of “more weight” must have rattled someone to the bone.

Mystery is the end all, be all allure. Those who flock to Salem every year are the equivalent of the people who stare at car crashes. The American people have a very obvious history of clinging to our past disasters and forgetting to seek ways to move on. Isn’t that just part of our nature at this point?

I am a Daughter of Salem by birth, and for that reason I was gifted the burden of spectacle Something you can never really get away from and something I'm not sure I would ever choose to give up. I am part of that spectacle. I am a Salem Witch.

The Halloween I Dressed As Myself

by Skylar Belt

Courtesy of Skylar Belt

Courtesy of Skylar Belt

“Oh damn, you look hot,” my best friend Wyatt said to me as I adjusted the toilet paper in my bra.

“Ya?”  

“Ya I think so… Charlotte! Come here!”

A pale teenager with a shaved head that I knew simply as “Wyatt’s older lesbian friend,” comes to look at me.

“Would you hit that?” Wyatt asks.

She looks me up and down.

“Eh, I don’t know she’s a bit young for me, but ya she’s cute,” Charlotte says to Wyatt.

I smile, a little taken aback at being sexualized as an 11 year old, but happy to be referred to as cute and feminine.

I was all dressed up for my middle school’s Halloween dance. This year I had chosen to be an 80’s punk girl, nothing too fancy. As a closeted AMAB trans* person at the time, this “costume” was a real treat for me. Something I had been looking forward too.

“Alright girl, put on your heels and let’s go. I don’t wanna be late to the dance,” Wyatt says to me, as he squirts a little more fake blood on on his shirt.

I nod to him as I put on my mother’s heels, straightening my fake boobs, and with a gentle spring in my step, I walk out the door.

“Now if anyone gives you shit Skylar,” Wyatt’s dad says to me in the car. “You know, about your costume. You tell me. Alright? And I’ll come in there and break his fuckin’ face,” he says slamming his hand on the steering wheel.

“Umm okay,” I squeak back to him.

“Ya know it will probably be fine. You go to a real hippy dippy school. Nothin’ like the one I used to be in. But just in case, you come and get me, okay? I got a 20 gauge in the back of the trunk. Ain’t nobody gonna give you any shit.”

“Cool… thanks,” I said back to him, as I buried my head into the back of the car seat.

My costumes not that weird. I mean ya, the neon blue wig is a bit of a crowd stopper. But besides that, it’s not too wacky. I thought to myself as we made our way there.

“Oh my god is that Skylar!?” I hear a couple kids in my class say as I walk through the entrance.

“Whoa you look so different! What are you supposed to be?”

“I’m a punk rock 80’s girl,” I say proudly, giving a little curtsey, hoping they’ll laugh approvingly.

They don’t. They stare back for a second in silence. Perhaps they had never heard of the 80’s. But finally, as if piecing it together for the first time...

“That’s so cool of you to do! Wow!” they say with forced enthusiasm.

“Thanks,” I say, trying to repress any excitement.

“Oh woah. Skylar. I didn’t recognize you,” a boy a grade above me says. He was known for his affectionate use of the word “faggot.”  

“What are you?”

“Umm… I’m just an 80’s punk girl,” I mumble to him, rubbing the sweat off my arms.

“It’s a pretty cool costume. ”

I smile, flustered and walk towards the punch table to refresh myself.

I reach to get one of the the dixie cups on the table until I hear a loud surly voice behind me say,

“EY! Nice ass!” he says as someone gives mine a hard slap.

Shocked, I turn around expecting an apology.

Something along the lines of,

  • “Oh shit you ain’t Lindsey!” Or

  • “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I just did that. I thought I was patting your back.”

 

But instead I hear,“HAHA. JUST Kiddin MAN! I know you ain’t a CHICK!” he shouts at me, as he gives my skirt a rough tug, nearly pulling it down.

There are a number of ways I could have reacted, a number of ways I wanted to react.

Most of which revolve around the idea of throwing my tiny fists at him or yelling at him till I was blue in the face.

But instead I did nothing.

I stood speechless, horrified.

but most of all confused.

Why can’t you just pretend? I thought. If only just tonight.


 

I imagined this night being fun. Magical even.

And a good amount of it was.

For the most part people played along and “pretended” that I was a girl. They used she/her pronouns and called me by a different name: “Skyla.”

Except for the one guy who thought sexually harassing me would be a funny joke.
But that’s okay, because I know he’ll end up living in some shitty, cock-roach infested trailer while I’m off flying around the moon (or something).

But for this one day, people would pretend that I was female. Pretend that I had a right to express my feminine identity. Because after all, this is Halloween. And on Halloween, it’s okay to dress up like the things we’re not supposed to be. Because we’re all just pretending.

But for me that costume was more real to me than any outfit I’d worn.

And my body felt more like my own than it ever had.

 

That night I could wear the clothes I had always wanted to wear,

act the way I had always wanted,

and be seen the way I had always wanted to be seen.  

without being constantly called out and ridiculed at the slightest hint of presenting feminine.

 

That night I was finally allowed to be me.

 

Learn to Accept Your Sadness This Fall

By Joe Longo

Photo by Robi Foli

Photo by Robi Foli

Fall is an inherently paradoxical time. Sadness fills the season with falling leaves, a constant chilly air, and the darkness of the ever prolonging night. Yet this same time of year acknowledges the beauty in the same vibrantly colored leaves, the comfort of bundling up toward a brisk air, and the peacefulness of a quiet night. Fall embraces complex emotion in a way other seasons do not. Whereas summer is a time of happiness, spring a time of renewal, and winter a time of depression, autumns elicits less simplistic emotions.

And it is in this complicated emotional field that we should make our stake this fall season.

Halloween, one of the major events and themes of Autumn, at its core elicits emotion. Children to grown adults dress up as vampires, ghouls, and--this year--Donald Trump. All in an effort to appear “scary.” These ubiquitous tropes are synonymous with feelings of terror and sadness. In fact, the fundamental purpose of the the contemporary festive celebration of Halloween is founded around the joy of extracting pretend fear.

Rather than promoting fake sentiment, how about we begin celebrating genuine emotion? This isn’t supposed to scare anyone, it is only meant to encourage people to acknowledge their emotional states. Instead of ghouls, we acknowledge our fear of being unsuccessful; no need for slasher villains when depression is creeping around the corner. In order for one to have an open and honest understanding of their mind and emotional well-being, they must learn to embrace melancholy.

Yet to fully embrace all emotions is akin to clearing one’s mind. Thus self-reflection is it’s own cathartic therapy. Tapping into the various sentiments one feels results in further happiness. We live in a society promoting physical wellness, yet mental wellness often goes untouched, specifically when that relates to sadness.

This past year saw a significant piece of mainstream media embrace sadness as essential to wellness. Pixar’s Inside Out tells the story of Riley, an adolescent girl’s emotional state, as she reacts to both an environmental and emotional transition. The film depicts the importance of emotion, specifically the role of sadness.

In an article for The New York Times, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley Dacher Keltner discussed the importance of sadness in relation to Inside Out. Keltner collaborated on the retaining a scientific accuracy to the film

“Scientific studies find that our current emotions shape what we remember of the past. This is a vital function of Sadness in the film: It guides Riley to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity,” Keltner said.

Growth of one’s mental health is dependent on sadness. Without sadness, one cannot know happiness. The two dominating emotions are interwoven and function together. Much like a physical wellbeing balances rest and activity, a robust emotional state is dependent on a similar bond.

So embrace the mood of fall. Embrace the sadness. Strap on your running shoes, stream Adele’s new song “Hello” through your earbuds, and take a walk on a path littered with fallen leaves. Be sad. Be emotive. Afterall, if a children’s movie can show us the beauty in sadness in just over two hours, why not let a whole season do the same?

 

Photo by Robi Foli

Photo by Robi Foli

Something Wicked

By Kat Freydl

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes...”
— William Shakespeare
Art by  Olivia Rogers

 

Here is what I know about Halloween: it began as an act of fear, please, spirits, leave us alone, please let the ghosts stay away from me tonight, the veil is thin and I feel the ache of it in my bones, please, take this offering and leave. Medieval Christians went from door to door begging for soul cakes in exchange for a prayer to the dead, and Celts left food offerings on their doorsteps to placate wandering spirits. In a desperate attempt to make sure the sun would return after winter, people lit bonfires, Druid priests tossing in bones of cattle to ensure that there would be both a successful harvest and a plentiful spring. There were no fake-fanged Draculas or bedsheet ghosts here. Instead, there was raw, guttural, fear, and the prickling feeling that maybe anything is a ghost if you are desperate enough.

I digress: Halloween--the commercialized, corporate-sponsored version of it--is something of a tradition in my family, and when you come from a family like mine, you take anything even faintly resembling a tradition and you hold onto it with both fists. You hold on so tightly you leave claw marks. You carve all the pumpkins and dip all the apples and wear all of the costumes and traumatize all of the siblings in haunted corn mazes and hayrides and  listen to “Monster Mash” 600 consecutive times. You spend twelve hours helping your father hang fake cobwebs and skeletons and spiders on your porch and two more setting up the fog machine and strobe lights. You do these things, and you learn to love them.

There is, of course, the costume to consider, then. Yeah. When you come from a family like mine, the costume is important.

I have never come face to face with a ghost in the traditional sense. I’ve only ever carved jack-o’-lanterns for fun, and I beg not for souls on Halloween but for candy, let’s go to North Green I hear they have full size candy bars, trade me your Junior Mints for this Snickers, come on, don’t be selfish, but I can say free of guilt that I have felt the bone-grinding fear, the sensation of being watched, the eerie manifestation of everything I’ve ever been scared is crawling in the dark. I felt it when I was seven and dressed up as Scooby Doo, eight dressed up as a ladybug, nine dressed up as a horribly appropriative Geisha that I would spend the rest of my life regretting, ten dressed up as ‘evil’ while my friend dressed as ‘good,’ eleven dressed as ‘black and white and red all over’--the list goes on, but the message remains. I’ve felt the fear in the leering of men who should be too old to look at me that way, boys leaping out of the shrubbery in Michael Myers masks and holding half-drunk Bud Lights, cackling as they hooked their fingers in the elastic of my tutu, in the murmuring and the side-eyeing, is she really wearing that? I was objectified before I knew what objectification was. (I was objectified before I realized that people could actually be viewed as objects.)

This is what I’m getting at, here: the costume is important, and for how many years did I put off being Cat Woman and all the pun potential it held for me because I was terrified of what people would say about my legs, my arms, my face? How long did I spend in the bathroom debating whether or not one sweater was enough to layer under my short-sleeved costume, or if maybe I should add a second one for protection from more than the cold? How many invitations to Halloween parties did I turn down, and how many years did I spend passing out candy on the porch rather than lingering in the streets with my friends because I was afraid?

Go find a Halloween catalogue. Go find any Halloween catalogue. You will find the costumes inexplicably gendered, and you will begin to see a pattern. If a woman wants to be Spiderman for Halloween, she will not be Spiderman. She will be Sexy Spidergirl With Only Faintly Recognizable Attributes of Spiderman. At least once that night, she will be hazed by a man. Maybe he’ll be dressed as Spiderman, too, except his legs will be fully covered and his costume will actually leave him with a full range of motion. At no point during the night will he be quietly called a slut, and at no point at that Halloween party will he be expected to put out because he’s wearing a costume.

For women, Halloween is frightening not because of the cheesy, the time-tested, the corn syrup blood and the prosthetic wounds. It is frightening--it is positively terrifying--because despite warnings to wear a jacket, to dress modestly so we don’t accidentally look like we’re “asking for it,” we are encouraged to dress sexily, to entertain. And if we dare embrace that--if we dare take advantage of the one night we can wear miniskirts and thigh highs, lipstick and fake eyelashes--we are sluts. We are asking for it. Like everything else about being a woman, it is contradictory and damaging. Most of all, it is impossible to adhere to.

So this is what I’ve learned about Halloween: we take the fear, a fear that’s been bred into us by years of burned witches and ghost stories and bumps in the night, and we celebrate it. As women, we put on miniskirts and thigh highs and we call it what it is: a risk. That is the world in which we live. We do not go around begging for souls on people’s doorsteps. We go around with mace in our pockets and we keep our heads down. Halloween is no longer penance, something done to keep us safe from ghouls. It is an acknowledgement of fear and the celebration of it. The ghouls exist, but we are not afraid to go out on the streets anymore.

This Halloween, I will be going to a haunted house. I will have mace in my pocket, and I will be with at least one other person at all times. The ghosts I’m trying to avoid won’t be scared off by jack-o’-lanterns. That’s not what they’re haunting me for. Elvis croons that I’m the devil in disguise, and he is not wrong. Call me the devil. Call me Lucifer, an angel who fell a rather long way down. Call me fearless. Call me jailbait. Call me something that could spit fire if I wanted.

Call me tired.

Art by  Olivia Rogers