I remember being very young and watching a Friday the 13th film that had a pet dog character. My brother and I, very wise at ages ten and eleven, were certain the dog was safe – until he got macheted. The horror films I had watched until then had always kept the kitties and puppies safe. I was pissed in my ten-year-old heart, but it was a milestone in my horrorful education: no one is safe.
No one is safe in horror, not humans, and not their pwecious fuzzy wuzzykins. Even wild animals, an additional and sometimes magnificent threat to the beleaguered human, are not safe. However, if the animal is aligned with the supernatural, rather than nature or domesticity, you can be pretty sure it’s gonna make it through (think of the cat in Cat’s Eye or the talking fox in Antichrist).
Besides being an extension of man himself, animals often serve the plot by spreading death (looking at you, rage virus monkeys and your distant cousin, Sumatran rat monkey). And then there are the humans that co-opt animals as part of their identity (our dear friend Porkchop, for example, or a chorus line of demonic priests in goat headdress, etc) so we don’t miss the point that they are inhuman and driven by base need, okay?
Our animal friends are a delightfully flexible trope, and, as I can attest two decades later, one that can be used to very striking effect. But for me, it’s only valid if the animal’s death is faked. Its common knowledge I will watch anything as long as people die in horrible ways, so I gave Cannibal Holocaust a try. It was pretty ick throughout, cultural exploitation bores the fuck out of me and makes me need a shower simultaneously, but once they tore apart that turtle, I was done. If you have to actually kill something to round out your work, then your work is a piece of shit and you need to do a rewrite. Put the fucking turtle down.
But this is a good way to weed out friends. I had a buddy at that time who made a big show of being unaffected and rolling their eyes at me for being such a stick in the mud. Two years and a lot of drama later, I realize now that I should have lost her number then. Anyone who doesn’t agree that killing and tearing apart an animal for no reason is fucked up can lose mine right now, btw. PETA has a lot of things wrong, but we can at least agree on that.