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What obligation do creators have not to traumatize the audience?

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

I have already written an essay about this larger concept… I am trying not to write another one. But I was watching the first part of Stranger Things Season Four the other day, and it happened again: the human who devolved into demon (I won’t say who) was punished by fire, slaps of lightning stripping away his flesh, until he was grotesque. Why even do this? The special effects in that part of the episode are laughingly bad—maybe on purpose, maybe an homage to the relatively primitive effects of the Eighties, meant to be simultaneously literal and figurative and we know now that you can’t have both. Still, our expectation is that an undead demon is ugly—why explain his ugliness in a way that shames burn survivors, equating singed flesh with ultimate evil? The simplicity of this proffered explanation seems particularly hurtful. Yes, fire in literature is supposed to hold duality: both purification and punishment. It is an ancient force, permeating our stories.

But my husband and I wonder aloud about a trigger warning. The episode already said, “gore, violence, smoking”—smoking, really? (I know our culture has shifted away from smoking being a generally accepted practice, but it seems out of place in its specificity.) I suppose the “gore, violence” part covers the demon’s-flesh-being-burned-off scene. Plus the series’ genre is horror, which we know usually involves some element of revulsion. But what about people who have survived that particular torment? Are they retraumatized to see their experiences coded as evil, as justified? It seems to come up startingly often in pop culture these days. The entire season had a warning about the Uvalde murders before the opening of the first episode, but this part did not. (Chris and I decided that the Uvalde thing is definitely more current, more top-of-mind for people, and perhaps, for more people, than those who have been through fires.)

When I was listening to NPR last week, one of their guests mentioned how a lot of our grief around school shooting is focused on those who’ve died. And yes, rightly so (I do not mean to take away from that in the least)—but this guest also mentioned that we should be thinking of the survivors. The disturbing statistic they threw out was that 370,000 people in this country would currently qualify as “mass shooting survivors.” That is a horrific number, and I admit, I felt it race through my body when I heard it. Although the disaster I survived at school was not gun-related, there’s a certain kinship that I feel for people who have had to endure something so life-altering in a place that was previously coded as “safe.” And yet, as an artist, I know that we cannot always anticipate what will trigger someone.

In my World Literature class, I used to assign Jean Rhys’ book Wide Sargasso Sea. I assigned the introduction too, appended by celebrated Haitian writer Edwidge Dandicat. In it, she highlights the symbolic nature of the parrot’s death in Antoinette’s step-father’s house: his last flight, christened by fire. A young man who barely spoke during class came to me after everyone else had departed, nearly in tears. Between stifled sobs he explained that he had always had birds as pets, that he had two parrots at home who were over a decade old, and he did not think he could bring himself to read this part of the book. I have always loved animals, but I admit this moment caught me off-guard. We settled that, now that he knew it was part of the book—it is, after all, significant, as it is a bad omen and the last moment of relative happiness for the main character—I would find out exactly what pages the bird died on and allow him to skip those. I admired his bravery, but the moment has also stuck with me as a lesson on how you cannot always anticipate what will haunt some people.

Still, I think of creation as an act of empathy. Is it possible to create great art without drawing from the well of one’s own trauma or casually, perhaps callously, encountering another person’s? I don’t know.

[image credit: "Fire and Light" by howardignatius is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

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