at least we have this

Hereditary’s Single Bit of Mercy

Photo: Courtesy of A24

The only spoiler I requested before seeing Hereditary, the Toni Collette–fronted horror sensation currently selling out theaters and making dark bedrooms untenable, was whether or not a dog is killed. “Do they kill a dog,” I asked my friend Megan in our friend Slack. “Oh. Uh,” she wrote back. “If they kill a dog I can’t see it,” I said. “I’ll DM you,” she said. Uh-oh.

One of the worst horror movie tropes is the death of the family dog. It happens in Fear, Hollow Man, Urban Legend, the Evil Dead remake. “Why in all horror movies a dog dies?” this Quora question asks, and I agree — why? As a horror fan, I hate it. It’s easy to see why a screenwriter would make the incorrect choice to include it, however. Dogs are vulnerable and we love them. Their death is a reliable shock, relatably distressing and an instant indicator of the bad guy’s abject badness, or the malevolent spirit’s abject malevolence. It’s easy, but it ultimately fails, like so many easy things do. It isn’t scary to see a dog die; a dog isn’t an audience’s proxy. To see a dog die is only sad and distracting in both its sadness and its lack of inventiveness. We didn’t even get to meet that dog and now it’s dead — the sweet dog?! — just because you didn’t want to think of a different scary thing? I hate it!!!!!!

The fact is — and this is a spoiler for Hereditary, which is a good movie that I recommend — they do kill a dog. Someone does, at least. At the end of the film, the sweet family dog, who only ever served to bark at a demon, is depicted for a moment lying in the grass, presumably dead. His death seems to be included almost as an afterthought. “Oh right, there was a dog. Uh. The dog is also dead.” And of course, the dog had to die. It was a scary movie, and he was a dog.

Hereditary’s mercy, however, is in the lingering question of the particulars of the dog’s fate. For each of the other family members (and, of course, for that poor bird), we know and witness the particulars to a gruesome extent. Beheading, mostly. But for whatever reason — maybe it was cut for time or forgotten, maybe it was seen correctly as an unnecessary inclusion that I personally would have hated — we do not witness the dog’s death. A cheap opportunity for shock not taken, and a relief. A friend argued that the dog could have been beheaded, as we did not see the dog’s head in the grass, but I am of the opinion that if the dog were beheaded we would have seen the dog’s head in the final tableau, as we did the bird’s, which we did not. I am correct.

Thank you, Hereditary, for not showing us how the dog died. It’s possible that he died happily, from old age. And in fact, I believe he did.

While I’m linking to things, I also came across “The Dog Lives! The Best Horror Movies for Animal Lovers.” A helpful list.
Hereditary’s Single Bit of Mercy