When one of the stars of a live action movie is a dog, what will happen by the end credits? Almost without exception, the dog dies. And it’s sad. And people often cry.
American Beauty (1999) begins with Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, letting the audience know right off the bat that “In less than a year, [he] will be dead.” Our reaction? “Oooo, nice. I’m compelled. Let’s see what happens.”
Imagine if a movie about a dog started off with its owner saying: “This is my dog. She’s a loyal, loving dog no more than six months old. And in less than a year, she’ll be dead.” Like, what the hell?
The reason I bring this up is to better put into context what I’m not talking about. There’s no shortage of books, articles, movies, and so on exploring why it’s more heartbreaking for a cinematic dog to die than a cinematic person. It’s probably the same reason why so many people care so very much for pet shelters and animal rescue and care so very little about access to healthcare, food, water, shelter, and education for other human beings.
What I want to talk about is why it’s more disturbing to see a random dog die on screen than a person. Why is it that I cringe anytime the killer in a horror movie starts things off by silencing the dog, but don’t bat an eye when the dad gets stabbed in the face?
Are animals being killed in general more disturbing because it seems more believable? Most people live highly nonviolent lives, and most of us have met more dogs that have died than people. Is hearing a dog’s neck get snapped out of shot easier for us to believe? Is there a part of us that thinks: “That dog might have legitimately gotten killed?”
Or, an even darker thought: would we have an easier time killing a dog than we would killing a person? Is there a vicarious component? For most people, killing another person in self-defense would be highly disturbing, often resulting in a lifetime of mental struggle. If a dog was attacking you and you killed it in self-defense, how guilty would you really feel?
Maybe, just maybe, when the serial killer starts with the dog, that’s the one kill we can relate to at a primal, innate level. You couldn’t imagine killing a family, but, if you were going to, and the dog started barking…
Horror seems to be the one genre that consistently gives me the chills when it comes to a dog’s potential death. When there’s a bank robbery in an action movie and they feed the guard dogs chocolate brownies, I don’t care one bit. And, just to make sure we actually enjoy the picture, they often cut back to the dogs groggily waking up from their chocolate poison stupor. “Phew,” we say after the robbery went awry and they had to shoot a clerk, “The dogs are okay.”
In the 1971 Australian classic Wake in Fright, there’s a scene where the characters go on a kangaroo hunt that was shot during a licensed hunt. It’s intense, and there are plenty of other movies where animals are killed or harmed for real, including the 1903 film Electrocuting An Elephant, which is exactly what it sounds like. Heaven’s Gate (1980) had a real-life cockfight; a sea turtle was torn apart in Cannibal Holocaust (1980); and, of course, we have the well-known rumors of kitten and puppy murder surrounding the Milo and Otis movies.
Perhaps confirming that the animals actually were killed puts our minds at ease at some level. We know for sure that they were killed, and we know for sure that we didn’t do it. When it’s in a horror movie and we weren’t actually there to confirm the animals made it out okay, that the villain we’ve come to fear by the end didn’t actually kill the family dog, we’re forced to fill in the blanks, to assure ourselves of the logical.
But then we would have to admit that there was an illogical feeling in our gut that the animal was killed, because, why wouldn’t it be? Maybe the queasiness comes from our acceptance — how easily we can get into that headspace of something so sociopathic — rather than anything vicarious.
Is that why we see dogs die so often in horror movies, particularly in the beginning? Does it set the tone of making the unbelievable somewhat believable? Does that quick tinge of real blood spilled unlock some sort of twistedly visceral feeling of bloodlust that comes from someone like us taking the life of something lower on the food chain?
Or maybe dogs are higher on the food chain of the animal kingdom— the food chain that humans have long separated themselves from. As descendants of wolves, maybe there’s something about a dog that triggers the feeling of besting a predator, something we haven’t experienced at any evolutionary capacity for hundreds of years, but might be satisfying somewhere, deep down, at a biological level.
Or maybe I’m just trying to freak you out.