A couple of weeks ago I sent a letter out to some of the biggest names in horror journalism including Fangoria and Rue Morgue hoping to get statements about the ongoing #horror controversy as it is. At the time of publishing this article, I have only received a response from Andrea Subissati of Rue Morgue. I am in no way attempting to disrespect or cause any form of schism or hard feelings towards anyone in the horror community, especially with the outlets I have reached out to. As a fan of Rue Morgue specifically, I was overjoyed to receive the response and was glad to see a difference of opinion from my own.
For those of you interested, you can read that brief correspondence here.
The first thing we have to address in this ongoing issue is defining what, exactly, is happening.
Is it Censorship?
This is the biggest hurdle I’ve encountered since this fight started back in February. Are the actions of Instagram against content labeled #horror censorship or not? Ask three different people and you’ll get three different answers ranging from “Hell Yes!” to “Absolutely Not.” Rue Morgue executive editor Andrea Subissati had this to say:
“There are a variety of reasons why a platform might refuse content – oftentimes, I suspect that it boils down to the advertising that keeps these platforms afloat. Censorship refers to the negation of one’s constitutional right to the freedom of expression – these rights do not apply to social media, so it’s not the appropriate term to use here.“
While I appreciate her point of view, I disagree.
The first step in this fight seems to be defining what, exactly, censorship is. If it isn’t censorship in this context then we have to decide what it is that we’re facing? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is almost infuriatingly vague as for a definition of Censorship:
cen·sor·ship | \ ˈsen(t)-sər-ˌship \
1a : the institution, system, or practice of censoring
1b : the actions or practices of censors
especially : censorial control exercised repressively
Meanwhile, Wikipedia isn’t a terribly reliable source for, well, anything, but they offer a bit broader of a view:
“Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information, on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or "inconvenient". Censorship can be conducted by a government, private institutions, and corporations.”
So let’s check with people who know about civil rights over at the ACLU:
“Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive," happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.”
The ACLU goes on to say:
“There is, in fact, virtually no evidence that fictional violence causes otherwise stable people to become violent. And if we suppressed material based on the actions of unstable people, no work of fiction or art would be safe from censorship.”
With all that said, is the #horror hashtag being censored by Instagram?
Before we answer that, we need to answer another question.
Is Horror Healthy?
There is a second issue at hand with these restrictions being imposed on #horror tagged content. The wording of the restrictions and the overall block that follows the pursuit suggests that there is a need to seek professional psychological help because you are searching for images and material under the hashtag. Social media as it is has opened up the floodgates for a series of psychological and sociological problems.
Andrea with Rue Morgue raised a valid point about the social media giant and its recent attempts to clean house:
“I feel as though Instagram does make some effort at sensitivity in their messaging, encouraging people to seek help if the content of their feed might be causing them harm. Instagram has also recently hidden the ‘like’ count for many accounts in an effort to curb the adverse effects of the platform on youth self-esteem. Their efforts may not be perfect, but I do appreciate that they’re trying. I imagine it’s more difficult to target racial/sexual/political violence on social media unless they’re using particular hashtags that Instagram can monitor.”
My teenager recently started using social media and it’s important to me that he’s not viewing or being exposed to anything he isn’t ready to handle. That said, I spend a fair amount of time going through his search histories and other data just to make sure of that and talking to him about what he sees. At the same time, my son has been exposed to the horror genre his entire life. He attended his first zombie walk at the age of 18 months and has watched more B grade creature features and slashers with his old man than I can count. He’s currently an A/B student, a member of the drama club, and all around a pretty good kid.
But that’s anecdotal. Just because my son isn’t a budding serial killer doesn’t mean someone else’s kid hasn't been twisted by the genre. Right?
There are a number of scholarly papers and reports on the topic of horror and mental health. From studying the why and wherefore of genre fans to the implications of imagined violence in threat assessment studies and even the impact of death acceptance. In the paper Horror, Personality, and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media, researchers discuss why it is that so many people seek out scary movies and what effects this has on their overall psychological state.
"The horror genre is paradoxically popular: Why do people willingly seek out negative emotional stimulation from such entertainment? One way to get a handle on this question is to ask what type of person seeks out horror media, so we conduct a survey of personality traits, paranormal beliefs, and horror preference and usage patterns. Our findings support the hypothesis that horror can function as adaptive threat simulation, which may be particularly attractive to individuals who desire emotional and intellectual stimulation."
That doesn’t sound like a description of someone in need of professional help.
Meanwhile, in the Journal of Loss and Trauma from 2015, we find the article A Dialogue with (Un)Death: Horror Films as a Discursive Attempt to Construct a Relationship with the Dead. In the piece, authors Christine Davis and Jonathan Crane discuss horror as a means of understanding and connecting not only with our own inevitable mortality but the daily horrors broadcast to us by streaming media.
“And so it goes. Irrevocable images of loss, violence, and death haunt our news channels, everyday life, and those places where we seek refuge from true accounts of a world that is too, too brutal. In print and byte, news accounts detail a world rife with appalling acts of inhumanity, indifference, and random death, legions of tormented innocents plagued by cruel misery. But death is also a commonplace when we seek to lose ourselves in story. Even as we welcome escape from a hard world, death is not banished from the Cineplex, the home entertainment center, library shelves, and e-book downloads.”
The article goes on to say:
“We do not argue that all works of horrific fiction have as their primary cause co-construction of ideas about death, dying, and suffering. On the contrary, we readily admit that the foremost claims for many of these works are related to political, social, and economic anxiety; claims of genetic triumphalism, anti-science motifs, gender identity, power, masculine privilege, rebellion, transgression, forbidden desire; and a struggle for control, among many other themes. Clearly, horror is an expansive reservoir in which all sorts of thematic work and cultural contests are articulated.”
Horror is beamed into our lives every night. The real, gruesome, barbaric, inescapably human terror that we inflict upon each other. And in order to cope with it safely, effectively, many of us seek it out in fiction as a way to better understand this dark part of the human condition. There are a number of great books on the topic of the philosophy of horror with pages filled by artists, experts, and scholars all intimately familiar with the genre and its fanbase. I’ll link some of my favorites at the end of this piece with my citation.
So, we now have a pretty good picture forming up on the true nature of horror and the situation happening on social media. Let’s answer those questions now.
Is horror healthy?
The ACLU sees no correlation between violence in entertainment and real world violence and several scholars and philosophers have found exceedingly positive connections to the genre as a coping mechanism. I'd say that's a "yes."
Is horror being censored on social media?
What Can We Do?
It starts with awareness. Most of the people in the horror community I’ve spoken to have been unaware that this was even an issue. Meanwhile, the people tasked with keeping horror fans informed and up to date on what’s going on have been eerily silent on the matter. Few outlets are reporting on this with many finding it to be a non-issue altogether. Molly Henery at Nightmarish Conjurings is one of those few who isn’t being quiet. In her recent article How Censorship Impacts #Horror on Instagram, she writes:
“...Instagram is perpetuating a negative stereotype of the genre. It’s a stereotype I am constantly trying to subvert. I’ve even been making more of an effort to not hide my horror background, even during job interviews. It’s the same kind of stereotype often associated with metal music and violent video games. You would think with horror entering more of the mainstream (2018 Oscars, anyone?) that this negative view of horror would be on the way out.”
Horror is moving into the mainstream and between this social media embargo and virtual new black out by the bigger outlets, it’s hard not to feel like this is an attack on the genre itself. There are also very few mainstream and big name creators in the industry making any noise about this at all. Sure, Lloyd Kaufman and Troma are always fighting censorship but, other than them, I haven’t seen a single comment by any of the major players in this arena about it.
No one’s naive enough to think that CNN or Fox give a damn about horror entertainment and we’re all equally aware that horror legends like John Carpenter or Robert Englund are going to be either unaware (at best) or unsympathetic (at worst) to the issue as a whole. So where does that leave us?
The only people talking about the horror industry are going to be those of us working in it or enjoying it. And so we are going to need to be as loud and as out front as we can be. That means getting bigger outlets with bigger audiences on board for the fight. It means getting creators to start speaking out about the censorship. Unless Instagram feels pressure from celebrities and journalists with large numbers of followers, they aren’t even going to come out and acknowledge this.
“But it’s just #horror, right? We can just use a different tag.”
For how long? Censorship doesn’t just go away on its own. It never has and it never will. Now it’s just #horror. Soon it could be anything with the word horror attached to it. #Scary goes next, maybe? Instagram has clearly stated they have no responsibility to censor content and do so at their own discretion. They’ve already taken a specific group of people, creators and fans alike, and singled out their most prevalent means of sharing their work and passion with each other. You really think this cultural blackout is going to stop there?
Whether you’re a horror fan or a creator in the genre, it’s time to get educated. Start reading up on the benefits of the genre in entertainment and society. Get to the roots of what it is that brings us to the scary, the strange, and the macabre. Take a moment to understand why it is you love a quick fright and then explain it to the people around you.
We’ve made several attempts to contact the press office at Instagram for comment. We’ve tried creating a dialogue and getting some kind of response. Despite efforts by all of us at 52 Weeks of Horror as well as Nightmarish Conjuring, DecayMag, and Everything Horror Podcast, to the best of my knowledge no one has received a response. If anyone with Instagram happens to read this, please reach out to us because we would love to know what it is
Likewise, if our friends and contemporaries at larger horror news outlets would like to join us in this discussion, we can’t wait to hear from you.
A special thanks to Andrea Subissati of Rue Morgue and Molly Henery of Nightmarish Conjurings for their input on this article. I hope we have a chance to talk about this and other horror topics somewhere in the future.
As not only a horror journalist but an author who has written for several small and independent publishers, I can tell you that social media is vital to the modern promotion and propagation of the genre in the arts. Actions like those taken by Instagram are a threat to the future of our genre and we can either address them now or wait until we have no voice.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan on social media @dotdblog and read his stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.