Maintaining Our Sensitivity

One of my favorite things people say to me about my fiction is, “you’re so sweet, how did you write something so dark?”

While I tease with other authors that perhaps my brain is not as well wired to distinguish between the sacred and the profane–so it all just blends together without conscience–in reality I consider myself to be a rather sensitive person. I’m picky about the movies and TV shows I watch. I tend to hold my laughter at suggestive remarks and innuendos–though there are different kinds, and I don’t believe that all sex-and-bodily-fucntion-related humor is rude and marginalizing. I avoid R-rated movies, even when they’re edited. I’m not a fan of gore. I’ve grown more squeamish about violence as I’ve progressed in life. And I don’t like to watch more than one thriller-action-packed movie or show in a day. Sitting still for more than a few hours to watch intense shows can impact my mood, and the mood of others around me. I’ve observed that this often influences us to become grouchy with one another over small things if we don’t give ourselves enough space to digest that background tension.

At the same time, I’m a normal human being who is fascinated by the dark side of humanity and nature at large. When I was in junior high school, a couple of my friends, Nabby and Robyn, did a joint History Fair project on the history of torture, complete with a presentation board they made themselves from chicken wire and paper mache to look like an iron maiden. Clever, right? I thought these girls had one of the best presentations boards at the History Fair that year, and I was a little jealous. My project, of course, was a fantastically creepy homemade documentary on the spread of bubonic plague through Medieval Europe. My little sister even played the part of a plague-afflicted peasant moaning and writhing in pain while my voice narrated the gruesome symptoms of the disease.

Documentaries, movies, and discussions about the Holocaust, warfare, slavery, disease and human response to disease, natural disasters, tyrant leaders, violent crimes, wild animals doing what wild animals do, people practicing what they claim is “science” or “medicine” without the ethics of real science or medicine, extreme survival stories, and the unfortunate ways people have met their demise at family theme parks still haunt and intrigue me. Not because the horror of these things are “cool,” but because these horrors exist. A part of me wants to know how and why terrible things happen, and what people have done and can do about evil, and about coping with the perils of being mortal, breakable, corruptible creatures that we are. I also have a sense of humor, which is sometimes sweet, and sometimes macabre, sarcastic, inappropriate, or a little sacrilegious. And I have my share of both positive and negative life experiences to process and reflect on from day to day as well.

The topic of “how far is too far in horror fiction?” comes up often on horror writing panels, particularly if there are a number of LDS authors on the panel. People in my local Utah community are curious as to where an LDS author draws the line on various things in the art and literature we consume and produce. Members of the LDS faith have been counseled by General Authorities to be very careful with what they watch, read, and listen to because the various media we use to communicate and express ourselves have great power to influence our attitudes, behavior, and spiritual well being. My general answer on where individuals should draw lines is usually that the “line” we draw depends on one’s personal sensitivities and values–which in some ways is not the most concrete or satisfying answer. While I want my stories to be entertaining, and even disturbing or visceral sometimes, and I also enjoy being entertained with similar emotional experiences to what I like to evoke. What’s important to me is that the things I produce and consume ultimately lead me and my audiences to greater sensitivity about what’s right and wrong in the world, even when I challenge what that means, and to feel greater compassion.

What’s interesting about this goal is that I can’t constrain anyone to interact with my stories in one particular way or another. People will engage with a story however they would like to, have the experiences they have, take away what they want to take away, and feel how they feel regardless of what I meant to convey. And I think that’s a good thing. Art is fundamentally interactive. We create art to inspire and inform others, and every one of us creators is in the dark about precisely what we’ve created until we observe the reactions of others to our media. Neither am I perfect at balancing the entertainment aspects of writing about dark, scary, disturbing things with sensitivity. Sometimes I do fist-pumps when someone tells me that one of my stories gave them nightmares and caused them to lose sleep at night. Then I feel bad that something I wrote had this deep of an effect on their psyches for a short period of time…

This is a long introduction, but I think the topic of how to choose our media consumption wisely so that we maintain our sensitivity and avoid negative and degrading content is an important conversation to have. Today I’d like to discuss some tools I use to understand my own attitudes and preferences, to cope with media content I don’t like, and to identify and decide when to abandon entertainment that isn’t worthwhile to me.

1. Don’t protect art you’ve shared publicly from scrutiny and rejection
I love the freedom I have in the US to express myself in art and writing, within meaningful parameters, without fear of censorship. I also value the rights and responsibilities of individuals to engage with what I create in ways that are comfortable for them, and to self-censor. It’s always been important to me to let friends and people I meet who express interest in what I write know that they are welcome to close my books and walk away from them anytime the content or presentation goes somewhere too dark or unsavory, or when it triggers something too deep and disturbing for their liking or personal sense of decency. My goal in writing horror is not to actually bring greater darkness, confusion, despair, or a desensitization to what is shocking into other people’s lives for the sake of entertainment–or even for the sake of having a conversation about something that bothers me or other people. It is my writing motto not to take it personally if someone doesn’t like what I write–but to continue creating content that is meaningful and entertaining to myself and my audience anyway.

2. Have a plan when a story presents characters who live or promote values that differ from your own
When I was four years old, my mother gave me a Barbie doll wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse. She taught me a valuable lesson that day when she told me she would let me play with the doll, wearing this outfit, as long as I understood that this outfit did not meet my family’s standards for modest dress in real life. I had to ask her to explain to me what modesty was, but this moment sticks out to me because it set some boundaries between what was okay in make-believe, and how this should differ from real-world applications and expectations.

Everyone varies in terms of what they’re comfortable seeing fictional characters do and not do relative to their own sensitivities and values. If there is a villain in a play, someone gets to play that role. And characters often philosophize about life, love, sex, killing, loyalty, charity, genes, the environment, family responsibilities, and a whole host of things in ways the story creators themselves may or may not actually believe or agree with. Some of these ideas may make for interesting conversation or thought, and can lend insight into the motives of how some people tick in real life.

The key, of course, is when considering to what extent we agree or disagree with the premise of these principles. Is it really all right to leave your spouse if your “soul mate,” or someone you like better, shows up later in life? Is it really okay to rob the rich to give to the poor? Do I really want to think about shooting my best friend if they turn into a zombie–because that’s not even real? Discussing and engaging with value-based ideas we encounter in fiction, or history and elsewhere, can be interesting and stimulating, and doesn’t have to pose a threat to our personal values and integrity. But we should remember also that fiction is the art of telling lies. There will be times where we each must decide where we stand on the values and behavior of characters in fiction relative to our own beliefs, and to what extent we wish to explore or emulate what these characters think or do in various contexts. Not all characters are designed to be role models.

3. Pay attention to how different media makes you feel
Horror fiction is not really positive or uplifting in a straightforward sense. It’s about the things that scare us. The things that get under our skin and won’t leave us alone for days or weeks at a time, that gross us out, that rub us the wrong way, that leave knots in our stomachs, that trigger us in some way as to make us angry, sad, or unsettled. This can be cathartic, but there are certainly elements of horror, as in other fiction and non-fiction media, that can have a lasting negative impact on our mood and attitudes that is neither fun nor healthy.

My advice is to consume intense fiction in small bites, so that we have the opportunity to consider things outside our comfort zones without the emotions raised by the fictional dialogue and scenarios getting in the way of real life more than a little. Have post-reading or post-movie chats with friends and family to discuss and process content that intrigued or bothered you. Put some distance between yourself and the kinds of entertainment that bother you more than you want to experience again.

Walk away from anything that feels wrong to watch. You’ll know when you see or hear it. Going off my own values, I would put pornography, “torture porn” (movies that primarily feature graphic, dramatized depictions of torture), and some particularly intense reality TV shows in this hard category of things to avoid because they value and promote emotional or primal stimulation, power, drama, stereotyping, debasement, and self-gratification over the dignity and humanity of other people. In the case of porn and certain reality TV shows (assuming no one is actually getting tortured in torture-heavy horror movies), sometimes people are doing or going through real things that aren’t any of my business to see, judge, mock, respond to, or engage with in the way they’ve been presented. The simulation of any of the above through “acting” or animation to elicit similar attitudes toward these subjects without commenting on what makes these situations or attitudes part of the human condition and valuable to think about can also be desensitizing. That is my opinion and my standard.

4. Be sensitive to what others are comfortable with
You don’t have to adjust your standards or change what you enjoy watching to suit others. But we all engage with the same things in different ways to some extent, and it is good to be sensitive to the media preferences of others. We shouldn’t pressure others to engage with media they are not comfortable engaging with, and neither should we feel pressured to engage with media that makes us uncomfortable. We should have regular, ongoing conversations with our friends, family, and communities about our preferences, values, and sensitivities so that we can all help each other have good experiences with the media we produce and consume for fun. We should be able to enjoy what we watch and read because we know we have safe places to retreat to in the real world away from the entertaining lies we tell each other.

Isn’t that backwards, though? Don’t we tell stories to escape from the horrors and frustrations of real life, and to explore what’s possible in a hopeful sense as well as the cautionary? That we do!

Be sensitive, my friends, and enjoy all the creepy stories and haunting fantasies you like this Halloween season in the best company and with the sweetest intentions.

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Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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