Canine’s have long had a role to play in cinema, usually in the form of the lovable family sidekick or an animated hero. However, where they are used most fascinatingly is within horror films, largely because it’s when they are placed in the most danger. As a result, it can be significantly more sickening for viewers to even think about a dog dying on screen than seeing humans being murdered by zombies or John Wick.
Our furry friends are often used in horror as a sure-fire way to conjure up strong emotions in the audience. A dog on the brink of death is as suspenseful as any trope used in the genre and instills an immense dread that every horror director strives for. On the flip side is the device used excellently in John Carpenter’s Halloween: the brutal and unsentimental murder of a dog by the abhorrent Michael Myers; a psychopath like no other who was specifically created to have absolutely no redeemable qualities. The vile act sides the audience vehemently with Jamie Lee Curtis and her fellow suburb-dwellers. Such a needless decision increases the anger felt towards the antagonist and emphasises just how removed from reality and deranged he is — see Patrick Bateman kicking a dog to death as a further example in American Psycho. In turn, this creates an unparalleled danger around the character whose evilness is established early on as having no bounds and is increasingly unsettling for the viewer.
When mentioning the suburbs which, thanks to Stephen King, are a ubiquitous setting within the horror genre, the use of dogs ties perfectly into the ideal vision of American life. In Poltergeist, the film starts with the familiar comfort of a nuclear family in a big suburban house with a gorgeous pup. A big, friendly dog is the cornerstone of a traditional American family set-up and helps create a sense of normality and tranquility before it is destroyed by the impending events of the film. In Poltergeist’s case, this is the activity of ancient spirits meddling with the house due to its foundations being built on burial grounds.
The dog in question, E Buzz, creates a great deal of dramatic tension, like many horror hounds. This is because he is aware of the paranormal activity before his human comrades, witnessed by his barking at the TV and walls to suggest a nearing, but unknown, danger. Viewers pick up on these signals a lot earlier than the typically ignorant lead characters, creating unease as they are getting slowly, and painfully, closer to their fate. A great example of which is in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes where the family dog, Beast, foresees peril long before the unsuspecting ménage. A bark at the distant hills immediately causes discomfort, as the threat is visually, and narratively, on the horizon. Similarly, within The Lost Boys, dread washes across a dog’s eyes whilst Sam (Corey Haim) bathes blissfully unaware of his brother’s impending attack due to the effect of “the hunger.” This forces viewers into uncomfortable territory where one anticipates the fate of the character before the characters do themselves — a trope found in any horror film worth its salt.
A desire to subvert normality is a trait synonymous with horror and can be seen with dogs more specifically. The divisive Cujo sees a dopey-looking St. Bernard contract rabies and cause havoc on a mother and son. A typically friendly dog is turned into a ravenous and disgusting mutt as a way of instilling extreme discomfort. The idyllic vision of dogs on screen is tarnished as the main villain is a subversion of something that seems harmless. John Lafia’s canine-centric Man’s Best Friend has a title title that points at the genre’s desire to subvert the audience’s close relationship with dogs by using a common saying about the friendly nature of dogs and using it ironically. Similarly, The Thing’s most repulsive image is one where the grotesque beast rips apart a dog from the inside and grows out like a fleshy Little Shop of Horrors reject. Carpenter highlights the despicable nature of The Thing by making it forcefully transfer a dog’s gentile appearance into a nightmare-inducing creature and does so to create the highest level of fear by desecrating the image of an animal that many hold so dearly.
Dogs are a huge asset to the horror genre, as menaces and as loyal comrades. The simple sound of a bark can instill both fear and security and is a testament to canines as a multi-faceted symbol of cinema.
Tom Williams (@tomwilliams__) is a literature graduate from the University of York and a freelance film critic. He has written for Little White Lies, HeyUGuys and is currently the film editor for The Essential Journal. Tom enjoys all things Keanu Reeves.