Stepping Away from the Hangings

Content warning for issues of mental health and suicide.

Spoiler warning for Kindred by Octavia Butler.

Creators, please take a beat before you use hanging as a plot device. I once had a plan for my own hanging, which was fortunately thwarted. That was nearly ten years ago. And still today whenever a hanging scene commences on screen, I look away. My husband narrates any important non-hanging story points and tells me when it’s safe to look. I am terrified that viewing any part of the scene will put me right back in my worst timeline.

For a long time I became physically ill when I glimpsed a hanging. And I thought, shouldn’t everyone? I still think that.

The subject has been on my mind lately due to news that maybe shouldn’t even be news. Due to shows that feature hanging and then revisit it with splashy visuals again and again. And due to a book I read last night.

I began Kindred by Octavia Butler three nights ago. The book captured me and drew me in to a different kind of family saga. I invested in the characters. Despite all reason, I wanted Rufus to be redeemed. And while abuse is not pleasant to read, abuse doesn’t come home for me in a physically ill way. Last night I read the graphic rendering of finding a hanged person. I hadn’t expected it. It sadly fit the narrative, so I can’t even be mad it was there.

And yet. I weary of the image. In books, movies, tv shows, news. Its ubiquity was all but unknown to me until it became the thing I feared and dreaded. You may not notice hangings in your media. They are there. Opening shots. Expected occurrences. Atmospheric set pieces. Shocking assaults. They are everywhere. Sometimes in service of the story. Sometimes not.

That’s the thing. Trigger warnings or content warnings are for people like me who need to know when danger is imminent. You as creator may not see the danger. You as casual viewer may not.

Which goes back to an old saying in my corporate law practice: nothing’s a problem until it’s a problem for you. So that car wreck I can watch or that whipping I can cringe through or that assault I can let unfold on the screen without hiding myself–others cannot.

There are good reasons to show conflict and pain on the page or the screen. And there are good reasons to give content warnings. And there are good reasons to turn aside from news, social media, shows, movies, books, or any other thing that tips the scales to the negative.

Have grace with yourself. And with others. Everyone suffers somehow. The least we can do is acknowledge the pain in others.

What say you?

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