At a recent high-spirited local production of Head Over Heels, which is what they call a “jukebox musical,” combining the hits of The Go-Gos with a book written in blank verse by local playwright James Magruder, the program contained several Announcements. First was “A Note on Gender.” It began, “As the city’s queer theater company, Iron Crow Theatre is thrilled to produce Head over Heels, one of the first Broadway musicals with multiple non-binary or gender non-conforming roles.” 

Hooray for that. Jim’s play is exuberant and even loopy about the various possibilities of what the program goes on to call “the intersectionality of gender, gender identity, gender expression, sex, and sexual orientation.” You really have to see it to believe it.

Hooray, too, for the “Note on Production Safety” which followed, explaining that cast members received anti-harassment training and that a Fight and Intimacy Director was involved in staging all scenes where appropriate.

Then came the content warnings. “The production includes sexual themes, jokes and undertones, kissing, simulated intercourse, violence and death. The production design includes the use of loud sound effects, haze, bright, strobing, reflective lighting, and the use of props that sound similar to that of a gunshot.”

Wow, that was a lotta content warning, I commented to another guest at a post-performance reception at Magruder’s apartment that included so many Baltimore literati that one could not help imagining what would happen to the regional writing scene if a bomb went off.  (Now this article needs a content warning.) 

He agreed with me that the sexual content seemed rather tame. “Though perhaps I’m just sort of… louche,” he added.

“I don’t think so,” said I. “I mean, no hanging weiners, no flying boobs, how much warning do you really need for double-entendre and hip-swiveling?”

This led us to a more general discussion of trigger warnings. Like me, my new friend is a creative writing professor at a local university. He remarked that for his students, it’s the done thing to include trigger warnings at the beginning of a piece even if not required in the syllabus, and only in one case has someone chosen to leave the room rather than be exposed to whatever was coming.

I agreed that trigger warnings are popular among my students at the University of Baltimore, and commented that the attitude towards such warnings seems fairly neatly divided along generational lines, with baby boomers often feeling that the young are a bit snowflake-y about depictions of sex, violence and bad behavior, while the young firmly believe in the importance of not springing possibly disturbing material on people with heaven knows what traumatic experiences in their past.

“But maybe it’s partly an age thing,” I ventured. “They’re just not used to it.” I remembered that once upon a time, I was not used to it at all. In 1976, eighteen-year-old me was deeply shocked by the depiction of gun violence of Taxi Driver, the first time I’d seen things like brain splatter. According to the IMDB Parents’ Guide, “This film really isn’t that violent until the end where it becomes unexpectedly and realistically graphic. A man shoots another man in the stomach. We see a bloody wall, bloody footprints, another wall that is particularly gore-covered, and a few gory corpses. This is very graphic.”

Oh, it was. I was reeling for days. But it was nothing compared to my reaction three years later to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s hard to describe how affected I was by the movie, or it would be, if there were not an artifact of my reaction. I was so upset that I wrote a poem about the film dedicated to Martin Sheen. Then I designed a bright red poster with stylized white explosions running its length with my poem printed over them. I paid big money to have these printed and did everything in my power to get one to Mr. Sheen. Failing at that, I gave away a couple hundred. Such were the lengths to which I went to process my trauma. 

Remembering this, I decided to dig up the poem (no more posters, sadly, but it was included in my first book, published two years later) and re-watch Apocalypse Now. “There Are No Gentle Machines” appears below. Clearly, I was completely freaked out.

From Nonstop, by Marion Winik, Cedar Rock, 1981

I think Apocalypse Now was the first war movie I ever watched, and watching it again with my daughter last night, I found the battle scenes assaultive, disgusting and sad but nowhere near as traumatizing as what I experienced in 1979. I think that is largely due to exposure. As the poem predicts, I eventually did watch enough television. In the years to come I would be able to watch and even enjoy, say, Quentin Tarantino films, without feeling the need to write poetry or contact the actors involved. Basically, I no longer interpret brain splatter as brain splatter. 

My daughter Jane had thought she wanted to watch Apocalypse Now with me, but she got up after the fairly early scene where a regiment of surfing fans commanded by Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) takes out a South Vietnamese village by dropping bombs and shooting from helicopters. The explosions, the gore, and the terrible sounds are possibly as intense as any ever recorded on film. She said it was not her kind of movie.

Jane and I recently visited Vietnam, including a boat trip on the Mekong River and a tour of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. Though the production notes provided with the streaming version of Apocalypse Now call attention to various technical errors, it looked to us as real as can be. In fact, between this movie, The DeerhunterPlatoon, and Full Metal Jacket — and having grown up during the war itself — I was surprised to find the Vietnamese people so welcoming and friendly towards Americans. And yet they are.

Speaking of the production notes, I watched the movie partly on a 55″ TV and partly on a laptop, and I stopped frequently to read commentary and look up actors. This makes for a completely different experience than one has in a darkened cinema facing a wall-sized screen. On the other hand, I learned all kinds of interesting things, like Marlon Brando got so fat before arriving on set that Coppola — who had to mortgage his winery to finish production — was compelled to shoot around his gargantuan belly. Laurence Fishburne, who is amazing as the young soldier they call “Clean,” was only 14 years old when shooting began. The famous opening scene with Sheen going mental in his hotel room was completely unscripted and was filmed when Sheen was blackout drunk. He actually did punch the mirror and split open his hand, began sobbing and tried to attack Coppola. (Where was the Fight and Intimacy Director?) Eventually, Sheen had a heart attack during the filming and some scenes had to be shot using his brother, Joe Estevez, as a body double.

This brings us to the interesting realization that the movie is essentially about post-traumatic stress disorder: their war experiences have driven both Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz insane. 

Well, draft cards don’t come with trigger warnings, as my daughter pointed out. Nothing protects us from real life. But should we be protected from art? Jane also reminded me that in 2013, well into my current jaded and toughened incarnation, I had to briefly walk out of Dallas Buyers Club because I was crying so hard that I felt I might be disturbing other people in the theater. At the end, I had to be physically supported to get out of the building. The depiction of Jared Leto’s death, and his persona in the movie, brought up intense memories of my late husband Tony, stored recollections and feelings I hadn’t been close to in a long time. 

Indeed it seems I have had the experience that trigger warnings are warning us about, more than once. Some people would prefer to avoid these experiences, or at least to be prepared for them. Personally, I prefer to absorb them, not evade them, and would rather be taken unawares, so as to avoid putting buffers and hackles in place. That’s why I often don’t read reviews before taking in books and movies. I’m still worried about the encroaching emotional deadness I imagined in my old poem. Being triggered makes me feel more human. I can handle it.

Nonetheless, having thought about all this, I feel less inclined to be dismissive of the idea of trigger warnings — even if it’s a long way from Head Over Heels to Apocalypse Now.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

5 replies on “Trigger”

  1. What a thoughtful piece, Marion. I, too, roll my eyes at trigger warnings. Good art is supposed to trigger us. But I am reminded of my catatonic reaction to The Deer Hunter. I had to be helped out of the theater. But would I give that experience back? No way

  2. I remember watching a documentary about Anne Frank when I was very young. It was the first time I heard of the holocaust , maybe even what hate truly was. I hid behind the door of the TV room, peeking and then not looking at all. I couldn’t believe this was real. In many ways I still can’t but do I wish I was warned off? Sometimes I wonder if I needed to learn this lesson. Sometimes the answer is yes.
    I ignore trigger warnings anyway, who has the time?

  3. This happened to me in a theater seeing “Blue Velvet” my introduction to David Lynch. At the end I walked outside and promptly threw up. I couldn’t sleep that night. Would I have been better off being warned? Not sure. Thank you Marion for this piece. It gives me much to ponder and much to think about ( and discuss!) with my 20 something kids over the holidays.

  4. Ben is back. Saw it Christmas Day several years ago with my husband while my son was becoming an alcoholic. I would have left the theatre but there were only a few people there. Then I made my son go see it with me a few weeks later. Still haunts me.

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