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Why Are We More Willing to Watch a Movie if We Know the Dog Won’t Die?

Fox assured nervous viewers that ‘The Mountain Between Us’ wouldn’t kill off the movie’s leading canine, telling us something about how we view life and death on the big screen

Studios will try any marketing angle they can think of to sell their films, especially when they’re not generating much buzz. Case in point: On Friday, Fox unveiled the romantic survival drama The Mountain Between Us, which critics didn’t like and audiences mostly ignored. Still, Fox’s publicity team did all it could, playing up the chemistry between stars Idris Elba and Kate Winslet and, on Twitter, harping on the fact that Elba is a Very Attractive Man. But one of the odder promotional efforts focused on a specific spoiler: The movie’s Twitter account assured potential viewers that the dog that’s on the harrowing journey alongside the main characters doesn’t die:

Surprisingly, this is what seemed to actually create some chatter around the film. “This is literally the most important feature of any movie I consider seeing: the dog must live. Bless you!” tweeted @TiBerriLeaves. She later added, “All other makers of movies take note: either the dog lives, or we won’t even watch ur movie on AMC.” Others chimed in, too, citing movies that had traumatized them because they didn’t know a dog died in them, including I Am Legend and John Wick. As @crazycankles put it, “Someone in [Fox’s] marketing dept deserves a raise, considering how much this excellent spoiler increased opening weekend attendance.”

Normally, people hate stumbling upon spoilers before they see a film, but Fox figured, maybe correctly, that the crowd that might check out The Mountain Between Us would want to know what to expect. Never mind that there didn’t seem to be much concern about whether Elba’s or Winslet’s characters survived their snowy ordeal — as long as the pooch was safe, all was well.

Fox’s advertising tactic might be new, but the underlying anxiety isn’t. Both from anecdotal personal experience and from scientific studies, it’s clear that people have a profound connection to animals in movies — a connection that doesn’t necessarily apply to the pets’ human counterparts. I still remember as a child watching The Abyss at home, as my nervous mother asked me if Hippy’s pet rat Beany would be okay. This is a movie, by the way, in which lots of Hippy’s crewmates will lose their lives in horrible ways, but none of that mattered to my mom. “Nothing better happen to that rat!” she told me in a threatening manner.

In 2013, Northeastern University tried to find an explanation for this panicked reaction in some viewers, charting the reaction of 240 locals who “randomly received one of four fictional news articles about the beating of a 1-year-old child, an adult in his 30s, a puppy or a 6-year-old dog. The stories were identical except for the victim’s identify. After reading their story, respondents were asked to rate their feelings of empathy towards the victim.” The study found that the victim who received the least amount of empathy was the adult in his 30s. As one of the study’s authors, a professor of sociology and criminology, put it, “It appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves,” which lessened the subjects’ compassion toward them.

These findings suggest something intriguing about how we process different types of fictional characters who are put into peril. Of course, we don’t want the good guy to die, but to some degree, we accept that he’s an adult with free will who knows what he’s gotten himself into. By comparison, babies and animals provoke a heightened sense of outrage when they’re hurt or killed. That impassioned response seems to stem from an innate sense of betrayal that people feel when storytellers break an unspoken but sacred trust with them: You can’t kill animal characters for dramatic purposes — it’s just wrong.

The discrepancy in the reaction to human and animal deaths can be irritating for filmmakers. During a 2013 Hollywood Reporter roundtable with a group of TV showrunners, two of them commented on the amount of darkness that goes on in their dramas — and that only the death of animals seemed to upset viewers. Referring to the pilot episode of House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey’s slimy senator kills an injured dog, creator Beau Willimon said, “The double standards are laughable. People had no problem seeing on House of Cards some of the ways people behaved emotionally or physically violent to one another. But we killed a dog in the first 30 seconds and people freaked out.” To which Game of Thrones co-creator D.B. Weiss responded, “When we killed a horse on Game of Thrones, people were not happy. But we didn’t actually kill a horse. No horses harmed!”

I suspect part of the reason we’re a lot less charitable concerning the loss of adult life in movies and TV shows is that Hollywood has taught us not to value those lives as much. When a beloved fictional icon like Spock dies at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we already have a years-long relationship with the character, so his death stings.

But in the current blockbuster era, when special effects dominate, it’s much easier to portray massive fatalities on a much larger scale with the click of a button. Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan spoke about this dehumanization of death in 2013, pointing out that recent films like Star Trek Into Darkness, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Man of Steel “exploit[ed] familiar 9/11 imagery in ways that are far more extreme and blatant than anything we’ve seen on the big screen before.” Rather than making all those anonymous deaths resonate, however, the CGI carnage has a numbing effect: “[W]ith the removal of mortality from the equation,” he wrote, “the mayhem is just deadening; all bombast, little consequence.”

In a sense, we’ve been conditioned to view random human deaths as merely a plot point — a cold, efficient story beat that doesn’t actually register as emotional. A whole other essay could be written about the way babies and kids are used as button-pushing sympathy devices in movies — I’ve had several friends who, once they became fathers, could no longer watch kid-in-peril thrillers — but screenwriters have always treated animals with a certain reverence they’ve rarely shown humans. The death of a pet is often treated not just as awful, but as the motivating factor for a hero to spring into action.

Last year, GQ’s Kristin Hunt took a tour of movies in which a solitary male character loses his beloved dog, everything from Shooter to John Wick to the Mad Max movies. “Hollywood knows we love these majestic, slobbering beasts,” Hunt explained, “and so it’s created an emerging subgenre of action movies predicated on this simple premise: Someone killed my dog, and now that asshole has to die.

This motivation is a can’t-miss for hyper-violent revenge films, justifying all types of gory bloodshed that the hero dishes out. After all, who’s gonna argue with John Wick laying waste to everybody in his path after what happened to his pooch?

For those who want to know what they’re getting themselves into animal-wise before they head to the multiplex, Does the Dog Die? provides a helpful service, cataloguing thousands of movies by different triggering factors. You can find the answers to questions like “Does an animal die?,” “Does a kid die?,” “Does a parent die?,” “Are there clowns?” and even “Does someone fart/vomit?”

Clearly, a site like this is valuable for some viewers, but it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes: Isn’t part of the point of going to the movies to experience difficult, challenging or distressing subject matter that pushes us out of our comfort zone? It’s why I relish a biting comedy like A Fish Called Wanda in which Michael Palin’s inept assassin character keeps missing his human target while always accidentally killing her yappy dogs: It’s funny precisely because it’s taboo.

Of course, filmmakers have gone over the line, killing live animals to create a reaction or to underline the fact that movies aren’t like real life. One of the most famous cases was in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend, a dark criticism of the Vietnam War, cultural imperialism and bourgeois society that tries to illustrate how wretched humanity is by depicting a live pig and goose being slaughtered right on camera.

When Godard was questioned about why he killed actual animals in Weekend, his answer wasn’t very convincing. “Well, why not? A lot of people are killed in Africa and Vietnam,” he replied. “Why shouldn’t I kill animals? It was not done because animals are animals compared with human beings; it’s just that if I had killed a human being I would have been put in jail. … I think an audience will be much more shocked by the death of a pig than by the death of a human being.”

But that argument fell on deaf ears, including those of New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, a longtime Godard fan who was appalled. “No doubt Godard intends this to shock us,” she wrote in her review, but she felt his approach was utterly unsuccessful and needlessly brazen. “Is he forcing us to confront the knowledge that there are things we don’t want to look at? But we knew that [already]. … [B]ecause we know how movies are made, we instinctively recognize that his method of jolting us is fraudulent; he, the movie director, has ordered the slaughter to get a reaction from us, and so we have a right to be angry with him. Whatever our civilization is responsible for, that sow up there is his, not ours.”

A film like Weekend is an extreme example, but Godard’s crude provocation highlights the creeping anxiety some viewers have whenever an animal appears on screen. The world can be a horrible place, but we don’t want that horribleness to be visited upon the dogs, cats, pigs or geese in our fictional stories. So, if you were undecided about whether to see The Mountain Between Us because you’re not emotionally prepared for a dog dying, have no fear. It’s part of the deal we as viewers have made with ourselves: Let us kill each other on the big screen, but keep the animals out of it.