Pulling the Trigger Warnings?

TRIGGER WARNING: Non-ideological discussion of every trigger warning I can think of.

Now that you’ve been cautioned, dark reader, I want to start off by admitting that I don’t have a problem with trigger warnings. I fully understand that some people have been traumatized by certain life experiences, and to read about them can make them feel anything from discomfort to extreme distress. And in my own writing, I’m completely willing to provide trigger warnings for any editors or publishers who ask for them.

But as a reader I don’t have much use for them, especially in horror, as dark fiction for me is about pushing through the shadow into the light. Personally, I’ve found that refusing to explore something that scares me only makes it loom larger in my life. Yet, mostly, I tend to skip them because I like to avoid anything remotely resembling a spoiler.

So, while I totally get the point of trigger warnings and honor those who advocate for them, the tricky question that no one wants to answer is: What subjects qualify?

Sexual violence is probably the most common warning, and for obvious reasons. And since sexual assault isn’t essential to horror fiction—the way, say, violence in general might be—adding a warning seems like a pretty easy compromise.

But what about violence itself? Obviously, survivors of non-sexual violence can also find reading about it to be very difficult. Which would suggest that dark fiction should carry warnings for murder, at least. And war.

But what about intentional physical harm that doesn’t take someone’s life (since that’s what survivors are dealing with)? Exposing viscera? Drawing blood? Or even punches, kicks, and slaps, particularly with domestic violence or child abuse? How about actions by police and/or criminals (i.e. abduction, mugging, burglary)?

Or does the violence even have to be done by someone else? Suicide is a deeply upsetting topic to survivors or those whose loved ones have taken their own lives.

A car crash? Drowning? Electrocution? Falling down a flight of stairs? These common, tragic accidents understandably unsettle many of us. Disease? Isn’t the trauma of HIV, cancer, or COVID worth recognizing? And why not death itself, if only from natural causes? After all, isn’t that everyone’s greatest fear?

So we see that as soon as we decide that any kind of physical violence warrants a trigger—and it might!—it’s kind of unfair to randomly leave others out of the mix.

And then there are fears that aren’t necessarily based on impending physical harm at all, phobias such as heights, confined spaces, darkness, open spaces, clowns, the color yellow, beards, the number seventeen, babies, books.

While our instinct may be to shrug off some of these fears as “irrational” or even downright silly, to the person suffering from them they feel real. And if the point of trigger warnings is compassion, what excuse do we have for ignoring these people’s anxieties?

And what about triggers that might not qualify as a phobia but are still emotionally disturbing, such as bigotry or profanity? Or even harmless objects that remind people of a tragic event in their lives, such as a child’s drawing to a bereaved parent? Just because most of us don’t feel that way does that mean those people’s feelings don’t count?

Or even warnings that TV shows and movies use these days regarding swearing, smoking, and adult situations? Shouldn’t children be protected, too?

The argument could be made that trigger warnings should only be included for topics that a certain number of people find to be a problem. But isn’t the whole POINT to not let the majority of cavalier readers dictate the experience of the more sensitive minority?

And if we’re talking about a “majority of the minority” kind of thing, what is that number, exactly? And who’s doing the counting?

Once again, I’m not saying any of this to argue against trigger warnings, which I believe can have merit. However, if we’re being honest about protecting as many readers as possible from psychological harm, we have only two choices:

  1. Include dozens of trigger warnings in every book.
  2. Acknowledge that we’re being arbitrary about who we want to protect and who we’re okay with ignoring.

4 thoughts on “Pulling the Trigger Warnings?

  1. Harvard School of Public Health did that study that concluded that trigger warnings actually reinforce trauma by making the survivor define themselves by the traumatic event, over and over: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/what-if-trigger-warnings-dont-work/amp
    On the other hand, I get it: I appreciate when people tell me if an animal is going to be killed/harmed or if a scene of sexual assault occurs in a movie or book; somehow, it makes me feel like I have a choice in exposing myself to something I find upsetting. However, I don’t expect those warnings. I absolutely agree that the determination about what content deserves a warning seems arbitrary.


    • Right now, as long as one’s trigger is a popular one, it might have a chance of being included. For those with less popular triggers, they’re pretty much out of luck. Not sure why that conversation isn’t being had.


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