Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed an unsettling trend: Almost every time a dog appears in a movie, that dog dies. American Gangster, I Am Legend, No Country for Old Men, The Brave One, Funny Games, 30 Days of Night, Year of the Dog, and even the family movie The Martian Child all either show the dog being killed or lead you to believe that is the case.
Whatever happened, I wonder, to that unwritten rule about not killing dogs or kids in movies?
“It’s the inverse of the basic advertising law—that if you put a beautiful animal on the cover of a magazine, it’s more likely to sell,” says Dr. Alan Lipman, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C.
“It creates three experiences in a person,” he explains. “First, everyone’s a little bit afraid of getting hurt—everyone is protecting their vulnerability. When people see an animal, it gives them that experience of unprotected vulnerability. Second, all of us are instilled with the basic instinct for attachment, to attach to something else and to provide care for something else. An animal instantly evokes that feeling in us. The third is intense empathy, the experience of feeling what it must be like to be that helpless … little … cute.”
Thus, because we identify so strongly with an animal’s vulnerability—particularly when it comes to dogs, who are increasingly viewed as family members— we feel more devastated when we witness an act of violence against that animal.
John McKelvie, PsyD, a psychology resident at the Denver Health Medical Center, concurs. “Innocence and helplessness: Those are the two issues. It’s a value of this society that you don’t commit injury, or assault those who are not capable of defending themselves,”McKelvie says. “We have special laws to protect vulnerable populations, and dogs fall into that category.”
This phenomenon makes perfect sense, and also goes a long way toward explaining why the death of a vicious dog, as in No Country for Old Men or To Kill a Mockingbird, doesn’t usually elicit the same response. Those dogs play the role of the bad guy, so we don’t project feelings of love or vulnerability onto them, don’t imagine ourselves to be the same witless victim of violence, and don’t imagine that their loss would be as upsetting as the loss of our own beloved pet.
Elliot Kotek, editor-in-chief of Moving Pictures magazine, feels directors have very strong reasons to break the taboo. “There’s a trick called ‘petting the dog,’” he says. “In screenwriting, no matter how evil the character, the rule is that if you want to show that they’re redeemable, either have them pet a dog or show them being nice to some sort of animal. On the flip side, when they say, ‘Don’t kill a dog, don’t hurt a kid,’ they’re really saying, ‘unless you want to have a true villain,’” Kotek observes.
Peter Debruge, associate editor at Variety, agrees. “It’s certainly the case where the killing of a dog serves the purpose of illustrating how heartless these villains are,” he says. “[I Am Legend] is probably the highest-profile example. I found it almost unbearable getting to that point because if you’re someone who has seen enough movies, you’re able to see through the formula. And you realize that the dog is an emotional symbol, and the filmmakers are going to manipulate us in the worst possible way to get us to sympathize with the Will Smith character.”
But in this case, as Debruge points out, the filmmakers literally have no other choice. “The one excuse I would give the movie, although I was pretty upset by it, is that that same fate would meet a human character if the movie weren’t about the last human. So instead it’s transferred to a proxy,” he says.
According to Kotek, this trend might not be so new. Recall, for example, 1939’s Of Mice and Men, 1954’s Rear Window and even the seminal Old Yeller (1957). “I think it’s an old adage. When a protagonist in a film has a dog, more often than not, the dog will die,” he says. The difference, as Kotek explains it, might not be what happens, but how it happens.“ Movies have become more realistic,” he says. Debruge concurs, pointing out an across-the-board trend toward not turning the camera away from the gore of reality. “It becomes this symbol, and everything that goes forward is in tune with that unflinching style,” he says.
Lipman also agrees with the cinema verité theory. “Rather than there being an overall shift in movies toward depicting cruelty or violence to animals, what happens is you have a certain group of filmmakers … [who] want to depict realism— they want to depict what they would see as actual human emotions as opposed to clichéd human emotions.”
Regardless of whether we dog lovers are just hypersensitive or that the movement toward realism simply challenges us more, it doesn’t appear that the situation is going to change any time soon. “The fact that it’s happening means that there’s not been enough of a vocal reaction on the part of audiences to discourage it,” Debruge says.
So audiences beware: If you see a dog in a preview, you might very well be getting the bad with the good if you see the film. As for me, I’ll still be going to the movies—I’ll probably just start carrying more tissues.