This quite a personal article, but it is a necessary one. I hope that by writing this article I will be able to process what took place and also inform others about anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not an easy subject to tackle, as it is still quite a taboo in our society. Being ‘triggered’ is often used as a slur and an insult towards people who are deemed too ‘sensitive’ to handle certain subjects. However, it is something that has been part of the human condition for as long as we have been on this planet. Being triggered is when something, causes a negative emotional response.
Now, the reason why I have decided to write about the subject of being triggered is because I experienced the condition first hand only the other day. I planned to watch Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos, a semi-fictionalised account of the early 1990s Norwegian black metal scene told from the perspective of Mayhem co-founder Euronymous (played by Rory Culkin). The band have had a very controversial history; what with, the 1991 suicide of vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (“Dead”) and the 1993 murder of guitarist Øystein Aarseth (“Euronymous”) by former member Varg Vikernes (“Count Grishnackh”) of Burzum. Of course; after doing my research into the band’s troubled history, I should have been prepared for what occurs in the film. Sadly, this was not the case, and I ended up having one of the worse viewing experiences of my adult life.
I was about twenty or so minutes into the film when I encountered this episode. The film had already left me feeling nauseated when Dead (Jack Kilmer) self-harmed during a live show, spraying blood across the faces of the audience. We don’t really have an extreme close-up of the blade cutting the flesh of the performer, and there’s another action taking place elsewhere in the scene that this act of self-mutilation is not the centre of focus. This was not the scene that led me to experience a panic attack, but I will admit that I was already feeling very light-headed. Upon hindsight, I should have called it quits there and then. Still, I and the film continued, with Dead’s mental health deteriorating fairly rapidly.
The character of Dead in the film is clearly a deeply troubled young man, who finds joy in torturing cats. But there is more to this person that the filmmakers chose to ignore and instead reduce him to a depressed loner. The real ‘Dead’ was born Per Ohlin in 1969 in Stockholm, Sweden. As a young child, he suffered from sleep apnea, a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing during sleep. As the disorder disrupts normal sleep, it can lead to serious mental health conditions and affect a child’s mental development. Aside from suffering from this condition, at the age of ten, Per suffered internal bleeding when his spleen ruptured, after what he alleged was an ice skating accident.
On 8 April 1991, while left alone in the house, Dead uses his personal knife to cut his arms and throat, and then uses Euronymous’ shotgun to shoot himself in the forehead, leaving behind a suicide note. This scene is in the film, shown in brutal fashion lacking any sensitivity, tact or consideration for the viewer and the memory of Per Ohlin. In fact, there is so much emphasis on the self-mutilation, with an extreme close-up of the blood and the wounds, that the director almost glorifies this act.
The viewer doesn’t get to connect with this character and understand the inner torment they were experiencing. Instead, the focus here is only on how gory and ‘messed up’ the suicide is. There’s not a chance for the viewer to pause and reflect on what is taking place. The camera is perverse in the way it won’t cut away from showing what is taking place, to the point that it is disrespectful in how it treats Per’s suicide as a form of entertainment. The scene ends with Per shooting himself in the head, with Åkerlund taking delight in showing us what happens to Per’s head.
Studies have shown that by depicting suicide in a graphic manner whether it be in film, TV shows or in media coverage, can have devastating effects. In an article for Vox, Jennifer Michael Hecht discussed how ‘In 1989, a national conference of suicidologists, psychologists, and journalists pooled their knowledge and came up with a set of media guidelines for reporting on suicide, the goal being to keep vulnerable people alive. Don’t mention “suicide” in the headline. Don’t mention the method of suicide in the headline, and avoid a detailed description of the method in the article. Others were more subjective: Don’t “glorify” the act; don’t engage in “excessive” reporting of the suicide.’ This is something that maybe the filmmakers of Lords of Chaos, should have researched into.
As the suicide scene unfolded, I could feel my hands begin to sweat and a strange sensation of pins and needles. My breathing began to quicken, to the point that I was nearly hyperventilating. The room began to spin. I suddenly felt like I had to vomit. I stopped the film. I went to the bathroom and sat down on the cold tiles with my eyes closed, waiting for the feeling to pass. I felt shaken to my very core. My body trembling. I was unable to stop myself from crying in frustration. A feeling of dread and utter despair washed over me. I knew there and then, that I couldn’t bring myself to watch another single frame from that film.
I have experienced scenes of extreme gore before. My experience of watching films like The Human Centipede trilogy (2010-2015), the Saw franchise (2004-2017), and Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013), have left me which a pretty high tolerance rate towards films of a violent nature. I must admit that I have always found the stories of people passing out while watching films like The Exorcist (1973), Irréversible (2002) and Antichrist (2009), as exaggerated by the press. Some directors like Gaspar Noe seem to boast about how their films made people faint. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
So, when I experienced this reaction to the scene in Lords of Chaos, it initially left me very vulnerable. I was also left me feeling embarrassed and anxious about whether I would be up to reviewing any violent/shocking films in the future. Would this happen every time I saw gore depicted on screen? What about films I enjoy watching like Pulp Fiction (1994) or Possession (1981), would I be able to view them again? This incident planted seeds of doubt in my mind. What if I am not up to being a critic? How many critics who have passed out from watching a film, have you heard about?
I don’t hold the director responsible for my episode. I admire the fact that he had a certain vision and approach to telling this dark tale. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Åkerlund stated that he “decided early on that I wanted it to be as real as possible and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t censor ourselves… I wanted to make it as real and in your face as I could.” I just feel like there was so much potential here to shed some light on mental illness and depression, depicting sufferers as human beings. Instead, it just feels grotesque, distasteful and exasperating. Mostly, the film feels disrespectful not only to Per and his family, but to countless of other people suffering from depression and other mental health issues.
I felt so compelled about what had occurred that I needed to write about it. It is still quite fresh and raw, which shows how deeply affected I have been by what has happened. I hope by sharing my experience that people don’t feel shame about being triggered by a film, or other forms of media.
Don’t suffer in isolation.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and seek help.
Don’t let your life be controlled by chaos.