Early in January 2023, I had the pleasure of tuning into a one-day Zoom conference organized by the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS): “Learning to Scream: A Horror Studies Screen Pedagogy Symposium.” A topic that frequently emerged during the many fine presentations and responses was the relatively recent matter of “content warnings” for students. The collective message that emerged was crystal clear: such warnings are a good thing, and don’t necessarily lead either to the reputed “infantilization” of students, or the watering-down of challenging, probing conversation.
It is easy to automatically fall into a reactionary rant about content warnings and the supposedly censorious and moralistic culture they imply. I should know: exactly 40 years ago, when I was a 23-year-old teacher in Australia, I literally – and without issuing any warning whatsoever – locked the back door of a screening room so that my students couldn’t escape the goriest scenes of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981). I would not even dream of attempting such a sadistic thing today. I am, by now, a convert to somewhat more humane pedagogical practices.
A specific detail from the BAFTSS seminar, however, stuck in my mind. One teacher faced an intriguing dilemma: did he need to offer a warning to his film students before the classic, gruesome, eye-slitting effect at the beginning of Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929) – when we are not far from its 100th anniversary? This incident resonated in my mind with comments offered during the day by scholar Ashley R. Smith, who began by reminding us that it’s a necessary part of the horror genre (and neighboring genres that use horror elements) to disturb and shock us, to make us uncomfortable and even upset. While fully agreeing with the political need for “radical openness” in the classroom, she also felt it necessary to convey the message to her students that “a piece of media is not necessarily going to haunt or traumatize you.”
Her words certainly triggered something in me. Back on that Evil Dead day in ’83, I invited Philip Brophy – later maker of the film Body Melt (1993), and already, then, author of the widely influential essay “Horrality” (reprinted in Screen’s famous “Body Horror” dossier of 1986) – to speak with my students after the grueling screening ended (and the back door at last unlocked). He insisted on the artifice of horror cinema – and the complexity of our individual responses to that artifice as spectators, negotiated on the run between moments or layers of shock, surprise, admiration, enjoyment, awareness, critique, and disgust. Indeed, I came to believe then – and still believe today – that screen pedagogy is (at least in part) an attempt to equip viewers with as full a knowledge as possible of the ways and means of audiovisual artifice. A knowledge that might well obviate the need to warn students, in this day and age, that Buñuel and Dalí sacrificed not the eye of a live human but a dead calf.
OK, I know that the beginning of Un chien andalou can still elicit screams from unsuspecting (“unprepared”) viewers, in or out of classrooms. I realize that the montage effect wielded – the transition from an actor to the special-effect eyeball in close-up – is fiendishly effective (“transgressive”), as was intended. But have we let ourselves collectively fall into a cultural ambience where that initial split-second of shock is granted too much, too heavy, too determining a significance? This has been, I dare suggest, one result of the phenomenal rise of “affect studies” across the humanities: the reigning assumption that if we feel something as a result of interacting with a film (or anything unfolding on any screen), then the item of representation that has triggered our rush (positive or negative) is, in some screwy sense, real, not an artifice at all.
Content warnings depend, at one level, on the absolute naïveté of this (resolutely anti-modern) working assumption: screen violence and death, screen sex and ecstasy (or pain), screen sadism and masochism, are immediate and unmediated in the powerful (even, it is insisted, traumatic) affects they can generate in us. But hasn’t Screen Studies, in all its forms and manifestations, long been about offering an apprenticeship in, precisely, the ways and means of mediation? The current eclipsing of artifice and mediation as the pillars of screen analysis is also, in my view, a sorry neglect of the important need for theory.
The contemporary log-jam of affect approaches and political oversensitivity to potential traumatization has reached much further than the cloistered university academy. A popular book among “cult movie” lovers worldwide is Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women, an “autobiographical topography of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films” first published in 2012. Its most crucial element is Janisse’s back-and-forth between the films (including The Entity, 1982) described and moments in her own life, the recollection and narration of which is “triggered” by screen events.
House of Psychotic Women is a fully symptomatic success story. It offers a psychological, imaginary form of acting out that is clearly appealing to many readers: the experience of horror films is a matter of emotion, of identification, and of self-projection into the vivid immediacy of screen fiction. But this account of neurosis is itself ultimately neurotic, turning in an endless circle, unable to break through into any mode of liberating analysis. For that, a good dose of theory is urgently required.