The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) uses dogs as an emotional catalyst to evoke a heightened sympathetic response from its audience. The alien organism – adopting the exterior of a dog – exploited the trustworthy, friendly associations that humans have with dogs in order to infiltrate the research lab after observing human-animal relationships. Clark, a researcher, admits the furry creature to his cage of sled dogs. Figure 1 emulates an immersive experience for the audience as the high angle shot looking down on the caged dogs appears like the perspective of a person watching from the other side. This invokes the horror film technique of eliciting heightened emotional responses as there is a human desire to defend man’s best friend and fix Clark’s misjudgement. There is a looming sense of dread as the audience is aware that the dogs are trapped in a cage being shown in the foreground of the shot, creating a barrier between safety and danger. This entrapment is strategically utilized by the alien as they lie down in the centre of the cage so that the dogs – its prey – are all just a short proximity away. The scene is heightened as the dogs begin to sense the danger. Figure 2’s mid shot slowly changes its focal point from the alien to the sleeping dog in the background as it opens its eyes in alarm. The alien is silent and unmoved in the shadows as the other dogs begin to react as the atmosphere in the cage turns cold. Each dog is given a close-up shot of them barking and growling at the creature, recognising it is an intruder where the humans could not. This emotional shot normally reserved for human expression, evoking a nonanthropomorphic identification to emulate the emotion and distress of the dogs to further allow the audience to empathise with their fear.
There is a sudden chilling turn as the anticipated horror unfolds. The alien bursts out of its dog appearance, showing its horrifying physical form. Figure 3 shows a heartbreaking image of a dog attempting to chew its way out of the cage – something that was previously thought to protect them. In Burt’ Animals in Film, he claims that we respond to some animal imagery ‘more emotionally and are therefore less mediated by the judgements that we might normally apply to other kinds of imagery’. Carpenter exposes the dogs to violence and death to heighten emotional reactions needed for the film’s horror genre whilst taking advantage of human empathy for dogs. By seeing the animal imagery of a dog’s futile attempt to escape a gruesome death with chilling yelps, it causes intense emotional distress to the audience. Carpenter has continuously used shots that have danger in the foreground to express the continuous emergency the dogs experience and a reminder of the horrific violence they are about to be exposed to. There is a rush of relief as the researchers gather in response to the cries of the dogs. Figure 4 shows the bittersweet resolution as two dogs escape the cage to find freedom after two dogs have been killed.
Burt, Jonathan, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion, 2002)
Carpenter, John, dir., The Thing (Universal Pictures , 1982)