I love violent video games. I can blow enemies’ limbs off in Fallout 4 and not be phased by the violence. However, if I were to watch a realistic depiction of torture, domestic violence, or sexual assault in any media, I would flip out with extreme anxiety and anger at the situation being depicted. For most people, watching this difficult content would ellicit the same feelings but at a much more manageable volume. For me, my emotions get ramped up to 11 and it takes me a while to come back down. The timeline goes like this:
Initial Shock of Watching the Scene — duration of scene
Intense Anxiety and/or anger — 30 minutes to an hour or two.
Cool Down of Emotions Yet Intermittent Disturbing Memories of the Scene — days and even weeks afterward.
Needless to say that I have an anxiety disorder. Part of that disorder is that I am hypersensitive to certain disturbing stimuli which includes intense realistic violence in media.
Part I: What Does and Does Not Trigger Anxiety
As I said in the beginning, I love violent video games. I like action movies. Why am I not phased by the violence inherent in these media? First of all, I don’t easily connect with nameless characters who are only on screen for a second while the hero of the film shoots them and they fall down. I do not know their back story. I don’t know if they have a spouse or children or loving parents etc. Knowing a character is part of what invests me in him or her. Even if I know a character, watching him or be killed or get hurt is not always upsetting…it’s how they are killed or hurt which brings me to my next point.
Torture, in general, is a trigger. A few factors that indicate how I react to a scene of torture or one-sided violence include the following:
How much I know the character?
Is the violence punishment for the character being a villain?
Is the character male or female?
How old is the character?
What type of violence is being inflicted on the character?
How humiliating or debasing is the situation for the character?
How traumatizing is the violence?
How helpless is the character to fight back?
One-sided violence such as bullying, sexual assault, and torture are major triggers for my anxiety. What intensifies or lessens the anxiety include context, knowledge of the character, and the intensity of the violence. In context, if a villain is being lightly tortured in order for the protagonist to save the day, I am usually unphased. If the protagonist is captured and horribly tortured, I may flip out. However, if a villain is tortured beyond what is necessary, I may not be triggered but I may view the protagonist as not wholly good.
Part II: Examples of Violent Media that has Triggered my Anxiety
To ellucidate my points, I will share my experiences with violent media, pinpoint the elements from the scene that triggered my intense anxiety, and how I responded to the scene. There will be spoilers so proceed with caurion.
Sandra Bullock lynching scene from “A Time to Kill”
Before I go over this example, I must clarify that I did not see the rape scene at the beginning of the film. Given my hypersensitivity to viewing such content, I am sure my reaction to the scene would be much more severe than the current example. Just knowing about the scene puts me on edge. Anyway, the scene where Sandra Bullock’s character is tied to a pole in the middle of nowhere, is beaten and stripped to her underwear in front a legion of Klu Klux Klan members, and then left to die to the exposure of the elements triggered my anxiety greatly when I first saw it. It still does to this day though not as severely. First of all, I was ten years old when I first saw the Scene and it was the first time I saw that sort of violence on TV. I should never have witnessed such a scene at such and early age. Secondly, the fact she was stripped semi-naked in front of such a large crowd of Klan members probably was the biggest factor of my outrage. It pissed me off how they sought to humiliate her so. Thirdly, the thought of the swamp bugs eating at her alive…I have no words. I remember going for a long walk after the scene to relax. I was to the point of tears feeling intense rage at the cruelty I had just witnessed. This was coupled with my ten-year-old brain trying to figure out why someone would want to hurt someone like that. I saw the scene as I just happened to walk into the room while my 16 year old brother was watching it. Even if I had been his age at the time, I still would have reacted with intense anxiety.
James Bond tortured in “Casino Royale”
Even people who have not watched the film know about this scene. The scene goes like this: British spy 007 aka James Bond is captured, stripped naked, and placed in a chair with the seat removed. While interrogating Bond, the torturer soaks a knotted rope in water and swing the knotted end harshly into Bond’s testicles.
While Bond manages a humorous quip about the torturer scratching his balls, this proved little solace when I first saw the scene. Ever since the video game adaptation of Goldeneye came out for the Nintendo 64, I have been a fan of James Bond. The game came out while I was a child in middle school. While Bond has been in precarious positions before, never had they been as graphic, torturous, or disturbing as the scene from “Casino Royale.” Seeing my childhood hero in such a vulnerable and helpless position angered me. I remember yelling “bullshit” much to the dismay of the other people watching the movie which we rented. I was furious. I was still an undergrad working on my English degree. I decided to try some of my newfound writing skills to write a letter to the director. I gave up once my anger was spent and I realized the futility of my task.
Pulling Teeth in an Episode of “Scandal”
This example is the most recent. Most “Scandal” watchers know the episode where Huck rips Quinn’s molars out. The scene is Quinn is wrapped in plastic unable to move while Huck interrogate and tortured her. My anxiety was immediately triggered with her screams and the blood emerging from her mouth. My house is set up in a circular layout which allowed me to pace frantically in circles while I called “Scandal” a “bullshit show that relied on extreme content to get views” and that “they relied on such methods because of a lack of good writing.” My criticism was at the height of my anger and anxiety, of course. I do not begrudge such content but it obviously not for me.
Part III: Why I Felt Like Sharing This
Over the years, people have witnessed my tirades. There are many more examples I could have shown. The one factor I didn’t share was that I wasn’t alone when I saw these scenes. I could not turn off the TV or change the channel. I had to leave the room. Family and friends have witnessed my flip-outs. Responses have ranged from concern to harsh criticism to being laughed at and made fun of. The reason I Felt like sharing this with you is that the latter two responses are unfair. I can’t help my problems with anxiety. I try to leave immediately to let the other watchers still enjoy the show but that is at ends with my need for solace. I don’t want to be selfish and ruin the other watchers experience but I can’t cope with my intense amount of stress either. I have trouble self-soothing after watching these scenes, especially if I have to be alone. I do take medication for general anxiety and have talked to my therapist about this phenomenon. For the time being, though, my best defense is to avoid shows/movies with such content. I use IMDB a lot, needless to say. I apologize to people who have to witness my antics (especially my loving wife who has been kind and understanding). If you have the same problem, just know you are not alone. If you do not, please try to be understanding and know that people like me are going through intense emotional discomfort. We don’t want to be a nuisance. We just want our anxiety to go away.