What do movies like Marley and Me, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Old Yeller have in common with horror films like 30 Days of Night, I am Legend, and Signs? They all feed on the audience's love of their beloved pets! Before we dive in, major spoilers ahead for Get Out, The Ring, I Am Legend, The Gift, Signs, and 30 Days of Night along with some spoilers for a few other horror flicks.
Why Kill Animals?
The killing of animals has become a horror film trope over the years because horror movies push the boundaries farther than any other genre. Nothing is more fear inducing, shocking, and disgusting than seeing an innocent animal die on screen. As soon as an animal appears in a horror film the viewer fills with dread knowing theres a good chance it won't make it to the end. We'd rather see 100 people die than a single pup.
Dogs As Antagonists
Movies like The Omen, Don't Breathe, Cujo, and Clown flip this trope on its ear by pitting mans best friend against the protagonists. These canines can often be more haunting than supernatural film entities because we are conditioned to recognize ghosts and demons as scary. To see a friendly St. Bernard like Cujo terrorizing a town is shocking and disturbing. Yet, it's still pretty sad when they die.
A Fascinating Symbolism
This years surprise hit Get Out is a clinic on film making. Every little detail can be analyzed, so much so they already have classes you can take on it! One scene in particular really stands out, when Chris' girlfriend Rose hits a deer as they make there way to upstate New York. Upon first viewing you may think of the accident as a cheap jump scare, but it's so much more! In the commentary, director Jordan Peele touches on the fact that Chris doesn't really understand what he's feeling as he walks to the edge of the woods to check on the dying deer. We later find out the accident with the deer is bringing back memories of his mother's passing, because she too was hit by a car and died on the side of the road. But the symbolism doesn't stop there! Toward the end of the movie a deer head is hanging in the basement symbolizing what Chris will become if they take his body: Just a trophy. However, in a fantastic twist, Chris uses cotton to escape, then impales Rose's evil father with the trophy head. (Get Out is so freaking good!)
Leave Horses Alone
Another common trope in horror films is using the animal as an alarm. Dogs and other animals often warn us of impending danger and put us on high alert with them. In The Ring our protagonist, Rachael, goes on a trip to find out the origin of the mysterious tape that kills people seven days after viewing it. We get a little bit of backstory on the girl from the tape, Samara, and find she lived on a ranch where the horses killed themselves by running into the ocean. In the scene above we see a horse do the same thing, bringing the story full circle while simultaneously being freaky as hell. An animal sensing evil is common in horror, but this scene is truly disturbing.
Don't Kill Dogs... Unless it's Necessary
Dogs dying in horror films is so common that it's in danger of going from trope to cliche. From Jaws to Halloween to American Psycho, the list goes on and on! However, some movies are successful in making the dogs integral to the plot and not just emotional bait.
I Am Legend
I Am Legend, at it's very core, is a story about a man and his dog. The dog is not inserted into the movie just to be an emotional tease. The dog, Sam, is imperative to the story, as he is the only thing the last man alive (so he thinks) has. That is why Sam's death is so devastating in the movie. Dare I say, more so than Marley and Me?
30 Days of Night
Regardless of how you feel about 30 Days of Night, it also uses dogs effectively, albeit in a much different way. In 30 Days of Night, all of the sled dogs in the town are murdered by vampires. While this is shocking and disgusting, it also creates a claustrophobic environment as the protagonists last hope of escape is removed as the town is completely snowed in.
In Signs we get the trope of animals sensing danger, similar to The Ring, but in a very unique way. In most horror movies, like The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity 2, dogs can sense danger, but the danger is imminent. The house is already haunted by an entity that the audience is well aware of. In Signs, M. Night Shamalan vilifies the dog to foreshadow the later alien invasion. It makes for a suspenseful moment in itself with actual paying off later in the movie.
The Dog Lives!
Sometimes horror movies leave the pups unharmed. The Gift the is the best example of this as it manages to get the same anxiety out of viewers, while leaving the dog unharmed in the long run. The psychological dread of not knowing where the dog is and if it's alive is just as effective, if not more so, than actually killing the dog on screen. And of course there are several movies where animals don't show up at all like the Scream and Final Destination series which would rather kill off teenagers... YAY?
If you just can't bear to see a dog die on screen, the website doesthedogdie.com, while still unfinished, can be extremely helpful. My main advice would be to just keep the tissues handy while watching horror flicks.