Courtesy of Katelyn Sliwinski.

Content warning: This article contains references to suicide.

If you’ve been on YouTube or Reddit in the past two years, you may recognize the “iceberg” meme template. Originating from the phrase, “tip of the iceberg,” it displays a photorealistic iceberg separated into tiers — the top is the surface, what the human eye sees, but as we move down the scale, under the water, the tiers “darken” and become more niche. This template has been used to describe a range of topics from video game lore to niche Spotify artists, but it is most commonly used to rank viewer-described “disturbing media.” From YouTube videos to movies, these icebergs describe the horrors of all sorts of disturbing content, taking the internet by storm. YouTuber Wendigoon’s “The Disturbing Movie Iceberg Explained (GRAPHIC CONTENT)” video currently sits at over nine million views, the video itself being over an hour long. There exists a great variety of these videos by all sorts of creators — over the past few years, these videos have helped to bring disturbing media more mainstream popularity. However, this popularity has given rise to a greater discussion: desensitization. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” read one comment on Wendigoon’s video. “The downside was that I was remembering all the horrible stuff I have accidentally seen through the years of being on the internet.”

Though these iceberg videos tend to stay contained in online horror fan communities, there have been examples of disturbing media breaking into a more mainstream audience. In November 2020, found footage-style horror film “Megan is Missing” began trending on TikTok. The film centers around two young teenage girls navigating high school and the internet, later taking a dark turn when our main character is abducted by a man she had been conversing with online. The latter quarter of the film is unnecessarily disturbing, filled with excessively graphic and dramatized scenes. Viewers on TikTok discussed the film as “traumatizing,” often citing not being able to finish watching. Yet as the film spread wider and wider, it became a sort of “challenge” to stomach the content. The TikTok tag #meganismissing currently sits at over 795 million views, with a majority of the top videos detailing how traumatized they feel upon finishing the film. A few of these videos stand out from this trend — they claim that the film is not traumatizing in the slightest, that there exists far worse. While this may be objectively true, the choice to frame the topic with a competitive style perplexed me. One comment reads, “Megan is Missing was a bore!” read one comment. “I fast forward to the end and was like, ‘that’s it?!’ I felt cheated.” Another read, “Finally, some good suggestions.” As I watched this phenomenon unfold, it began to feel as though people were competing with each other to consume the most wretched content imaginable. 

To this day, there exist communities surrounding “traumatic” media, the iceberg trend persisting and repackaged in new ways. I came across a TikTok on my For You page just this month, the caption reading, “POV: you watched a disturbing movie and now you can’t stop.” The comments on this were particularly fascinating, too — many claim that the films recommended in the video are boring despite their long lists of trigger warnings. Most illuminating to me was one particular comment: “I want movies to disturb me so much nothing anyone says to me hurts me, ever.” Among these comments and videos, I can’t help but notice the almost addictive nature people attribute to these films. Once they consume one, they are compelled to seek out more, getting more and more gruesome as they descend underneath the iceberg. To comment something akin to “Megan is Missing was boring” is a flex to unseasoned viewers, to say that you have experienced media darker than they can ever imagine. 

I confess, I once was a perfect example of this phenomenon. In elementary school, seeking out disturbing content was like a drug to my friends and me. We would huddle around school computers when teachers weren’t looking, watching “My Little Pony” parodies on YouTube in which the beloved childhood characters were drug addicts and murderers. These videos featured harsh profanity and cartoonish gore, which my friends and I quickly became desensitized to. We would attempt to show these videos to our uninitiated friends and watch their faces contort in discomfort. It felt good to be the “braver” one. I was still afraid of major motion picture horror films, but these videos were a way to microdose horror, to feel more mature than my peers. It didn’t stop at parodies, either. I would read online creepypastas, fictional horror stories emerging in the late 2000s, and recount the stories to my friends. I would create art of iconic characters, even attempting to create my own original characters. I was captivated by horror — the scarier, the better.

This progressed into middle school, too. It was around age 11 that I was finally able to dive into well-produced horror films. By age 12, I had already watched “The Human Centipede” series. This is no feat to be proud of; I was far too young to see such gory and disturbing content, yet my curiosity was never-ending. Back then, I was proud of it. In school, I found myself feeling mentally older than my peers, fed up with the immaturity that surrounded me. I feel as though this hunt for disturbing content was a way to validate those feelings, to distance myself from the horrific experience of middle school. This is not a way to justify my choices, yet I do feel as though it can help to explain why people of this generation can be attracted to this dark media. Spending so much time online at a young age can make us feel disconnected from those around us, and in my case, the thrill of this disturbing media was enough to bring me back to Earth at times. In my mind, I gained some sort of power by searching the internet for its deepest, darkest contents. The loneliness I felt in middle school classes was no longer my fault — I had reframed things, and now I had just become far too cool and mature for my peers to understand.

This feeling of faux superiority culminated in a moment that still fills me with shame to this day: my best friends and I, huddled in a friend’s basement late at night, all around 12 or 13 years old. We were watching “Cyberbully,” a film relevant at the time for bringing up discussions about cyberbullying and its contributions to suicidal thoughts. The film comes to a climax when its main character about to take her own life, crying in the bathroom as she allows her family to rush in and stop her. This is a harrowing moment, particularly for kids my age, who were just starting to use social media for the first time. My friends were silent, contemplative and sad as they watched the scene unfold — but I saw the scene and laughed. My peers immediately lashed out at me in anger for my response, and for the first time in my disturbing-media-consumption rabbit hole, I felt ashamed. It no longer felt good to be desensitized. I realized I needed to step back and find some humanity.

All of this is not to argue against horror as a genre; I am still a diehard horror fan, and it holds deep value within media. But I do want to highlight how these “disturbing media” communities, this competitive nature of consuming the most grisly media, is doing more harm than good. I certainly think some of this phenomenon can be attributed to Gen Z, to having unrestricted internet access as children in a new digital age. I think back to my experiences watching “My Little Pony” horror videos — it was no wonder I ended up down that rabbit hole. I liked “My Little Pony” as a kid, and YouTube did nothing to hide those parodies from me. My friends and I were naturally curious, fascinated by the landscape of the internet. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. Yet I wish it wouldn’t have taken such a strong hold on me; as mentioned before, this eventual desensitization ended up harming the way I consumed media later on. We need to reframe the way we discuss this content. Perhaps it isn’t a flex to have seen every movie on the “Disturbing Movie Iceberg.” Perhaps it should not feel good that you are able to stomach uncensored brutal violence and assault on film. Why are we competing with each other, poking fun at those who can’t stomach the most abhorrent violence? Why are we transfixed with feeling so utterly disturbed? 

Horror is not only a media genre, but a presence that we have to carry with us in our real lives. Through modern-day mainstream media, people have grown accustomed to viewing crime and war footage. I feel this particularly affects Gen Z children — I recall being made to watch 9/11 footage annually as early as elementary school, as well as participate in school shooting drills that have gotten more and more advanced as we watch these shootings increase in frequency. In high school, we even had a security guard roleplay as a gunman, with class hallways given different tasks such as “run,” “hide” or “fight.” There was nothing we could do but internalize it, participate and hope it never came true. It’s no wonder we are desensitized, made to live with these harsh realities each and every day. Turning to horror as a genre seemed like a natural coping mechanism — it is one that often wrestles directly with these issues. It is a genre that brings us to appreciate the beauty of humanity through its ugliest parts, one that creates artistic rationality in irrational human fears. It can allow us to cope with the horrors of our world by abstraction or exaggeration; horror media can help us feel less alone in these fears. Though as this media gets darker and darker down the “iceberg,” there comes a point where it loses its meaning, merely assaulting viewers’ minds with torture porn. 

If you’re someone who is compelled by these media icebergs, I don’t seek to cast judgment on you — I, too, spent time in late high school perusing the darker parts of said icebergs. However, speaking for myself, it didn’t feel good to do this. It felt like I was forcing myself at times, my stomach uneasy and thoughts clouded with nihilism, all so I could say “I watched (insert traumatic film)” to the world. It’s okay to have limits, to not want to see the most nausea-inducing film of all time. It’s okay to step back and watch a children’s animated film, something to ground you and ease the pain. It’s okay to consume this media, but I argue we horror fans need to refrain from creating a personality around “traumatic” media — let’s find our humanity a bit. And to those that were exposed to dark content at too young of an age, maybe it’s time we critique that fact rather than brag to our peers about the horrific YouTube videos we saw as children. Surely it affects us — it definitely affected me — so why are we trying to make others jealous for not being as traumatized as us? Perhaps it’s time to step back and watch something simple and loving, to remind ourselves of the beauty of human connection in lieu of all that gore. 

Daily Arts Writer Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at ksliwi@umich.edu.