What Cronenberg's Movie The Fly Can Teach Us About Trigger Warnings

There's this scene in David Cronenberg's movie The Fly that's pretty hard to watch. Actually, there are a lot of scenes in that movie that are pretty hard to watch. That's kind of the point of the movie, which is also kind of the point of this essay, but first, let's describe the scene in question in order to get to the essay in question.

Before we get started, I should mention that I teach an undergraduate class focusing on the psychological, cultural and neurobiological aspects of horror films. The scene I want to talk about triggered a discussion among some of my students about whether there ought to be a "trigger warning" before we discuss the movie in class.

In the scene that is the subject of this essay and also the subject of the discussion I had with my students, the unfortunate scientist (played by Jeff Goldblum) is well on his way to becoming a fly-human hybrid and engages in about fifteen straight hours of sexual activity with his increasingly uncomfortable love interest (played by Gina Davis.) He is writhing throughout the scene, literally sprouting coarse, insect-like hairs from his back as the sweat builds on his brow. His face is a mess, with little bits of skin falling off to reveal insect-like wrinkles. Worse, at some point during those 15 hours, Gina Davis' character becomes tired and wants him to stop. Jeff Goldblum, being more fly than human, doesn't really listen to her and continues to buzz along with what he is doing.

I think it makes sense not to mince words. What starts in the movie as an intimate love scene turns into what is essentially a forced sexual impropriety committed by an emerging monster.

If ever there were a place to consider a "trigger warning", the academic discussion of this film would be it.

Then again, horror films are by definition off-putting. To many, horror films are also by definition "triggers." "Triggers", in this sense, is the term given to topics that signal to students the presence of an imminent "microagression" that could be upsetting, off-putting, and possibly even traumatic. To be fair, triggers can also refer to cues that promote genuine and debilitating trauma in multiple settings and are certainly not limited to college course material. However, it seems that the very real possibilities of triggers for conditions such as PTSD have been co-opted by the culture wars that some would argue are rampant on university campuses.

In other words, there is merit to the concern that certain subjects that find their way into the classroom can make some students upset, overwhelmed, and psychologically less stable. We also know that when people are upset, overwhelmed, or psychologically less stable, it is that much harder to learn.

Hence, the conundrum over trigger warnings.

And, ironically, the conundrum has blossomed into such a cacophony of protests from both sides of the issue that it is now both ludicrous and imaginable that a course discussing the efficacy of trigger warnings might itself be a trigger. Talk about a tautological mess.

Let's take a deep breath. When I say this, I mean it literally. I am not trying to be glib or patronizing. These discussions require a deep breath.

After I took a deep breath when I was teaching my course, I found that my students were amused, slightly bewildered, but also earnest and eager to discuss the unsettled and unsettling question of whether a warning needed to be issued before they were asked to watch The Fly. Many of the students were quite put off by the scene I described. They also mentioned that the whole point of the scene was to be off-putting. Others mentioned that a class focusing on horror was going to have an awful lot of triggers. If you sign up to take class that focuses on horror films, she explained, there are bound to be triggers. Either that, or the entire syllabus is peppered with Disney films.

(Except that Disney has some pretty traumatic moments. Dumbo is taken from his mother. Bambi's mother is shot and killed. The witch in Snow White? Don't even get me started.)

Because we are a wonderfully varied and complicated species, what triggers us is hugely variable. Some issues might be universally upsetting. Some issues might be uniquely upsetting. Make no mistake. Some issues "trigger" those on the political left. Some issues "trigger" those on the political right. Some issues trigger people regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. Deciding if and when to issue a trigger warning is no easy task.

Perhaps more important, it is not as if warning students that they are about to discuss possibly objectionable material is new. Good teachers have been doing that since good teachers have been teaching. Those teachers might not have used the term "trigger warning," but I distinctly remember these kinds of caveats throughout college.

Good teachers know that it isn't so much what you say in class. It's the emotional music with which you say it.

Please don't misunderstand that statement. I am well aware that no matter how some subjects are presented, we teachers run the risk of doing real harm. Talking about difficult and awful things is extremely difficult. A pedagogic bull in a classroom of china isn't going to end well for the bull or the china.

Maybe today's students are more coddled. That's the premise of the somewhat extreme, and to my reading also exaggerated essay that appeared in The Atlantic last fall. And maybe today's students are also more sensitive. That's the premise in the somewhat tempered and more balanced approach, at least to my reading, that appeared in a follow-up essay in The New Republic. Heck, there's been no shortage of essays on this subject. Even the venerable Judy Blum has weighed in on the issue. No stranger to censorship, Ms. Blum voiced her strong disapproval of the trigger warning system in an interview printed a few months ago in Time Magazine.

But all this teeth gnashing and tongue wagging is really not getting us anywhere in what is in fact a very important debate. We NEED to be able to discuss sensitive subjects. We also NEED to be respectful of the possibility that some of those who participate in the discussion will be bothered, perhaps even significantly and clinically, by the discussion.

It is, after all, college. We are expected to disagree. We NEED to disagree.

But if you take this line of reasoning about college (as I do), then you'd better also be prepared to argue that we NEED to disagree respectfully and with dignity and civility. That sentiment might seem obvious, but it is shocking to me how much rancor this debate has engendered. Pouring some cold water on all this heated rhetoric was the premise of the now famous letter that the University of Chicago sent the incoming freshman class this year.

You're going to hear some upsetting stuff, the letter said. And we're going to help you to talk about this upsetting stuff. That's among the primary goals of higher education. Higher education aims to make upsetting stuff "talk-about-able."

So does every good teacher.

This is why I'm not particularly bothered by trigger warnings. I wish we had a term other than trigger warning, but I can live with it.

But I'm also not too bothered by those who object to trigger warnings.

What bothers me is the way the whole discussion has increasingly lost the necessary civility to have the discussion in the first place. What bothers me is the way the discussion lends itself to the larger culture wars that often have nothing to do with what is being discussed in the classroom.

What bothers me is that we've gotten so entrenched in our positions that we've forgotten that we're mostly arguing for the same thing. Those of us who teach want freedom of speech. Those of us who teach want freedom of inquiry. We want our students to be as comfortable as possible while at the same time feeling slightly or even more than slightly uncomfortable. In other words, we all want our students to move forward with their intellectual and emotional development.

As I said earlier, these are no easy tasks. Nevertheless, these tasks are incredibly and vitally important. Teaching with these simultaneous concerns in mind requires conscious and mindful practice. That's the case even if you're talking about a fly-human hybrid.


A version of this essay appeared at the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. Steve Schlozman is the author of two novels: The Zombie Autopsies and Smoke Above Treeline.