Sometimes you watch a film that helps clarify what a horror film is by not being a horror film. Disney / Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (2015) is that film—and it set me thinking about the contested place of dinosaurs in the horror genre. Films with rampaging dinosaurs are often categorized as horror films. But should they be?
This will be the first of two posts that explore what makes a horror film by looking at two films about dinosaurs, identifying what is explicitly not horror (The Good Dinosaur) and what unequivocally is horror (Carnosaur, 1993).
To start with what is not horror: Disney / Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. While it is not a horror film, The Good Dinosaur, like many Disney films, contains horror, the appearance and containment of which seems necessary to the film’s construction as something other than a horror film.
The Good Dinosaur (well worth watching, I should add) is set in an alternate world in which that fatal asteroid missed the earth and the dinosaurs were not wiped out. It centers on a family of Apatosauruses peacefully farming in their own corner of the world. All is not entirely well in this world, however, because the youngest, Arlo, is struggling to make his mark in the world: he is overly timid, easily scared. Given the job of guarding the family’s silo of food, Arlo is charged by his father with killing the “critter” who’s stealing their food and endangering their livelihood. When their trap catches a small boy, however, Arlo is unable to kill him, and, in frustration, his father forces him along on a hunt for the boy. Here’s where the moment of horror comes in: Arlo and his father are caught well outside the confines of their home as a storm erupts, sending a wall of water down the river, sweeping away Arlo’s father and ushering in that death of the parent that features in so many Disney films.
The series of events that leads to the death of Arlo’s father—Arlo’s own weakness, the invader who crosses into their sanctuary to steal their food, their movement beyond the boundaries of their usual terrain, and the tidal wave that sweeps down the river bed—all constitute the discrete and contained kernel of horror in the film, and they do so because they are all crucially about boundary transgression. An “invader” (the human) comes into their terrain and they move out of it; the tidal wave that brings literal destruction embodies this overcoming of the habitual and clearly bounded world.
A little bit later, once again chasing the boy who has broken into their silo, Arlo himself is swept down the river. After that, however, the rest of the film is about the reconstitution of borders and the recreation of a “purity” that expels the impurity produced by boundary crossing. Arlo goes to other places, meets other people, but by the end of the film he must return to his proper place and live with his own family.
Two crucial instances that embody exactly what horror is not occur between Arlo and the boy he meets and befriends. Arlo and the boy are unable to talk to each other, but they become closely bonded after they share a common moment of grief after Arlo explains to the boy what a “family” is. He plants five sticks in the earth, representing himself, his parents, and his two siblings. He then draws a circle around the sticks. The boy also plants three sticks, draws a circle around them, and then knocks the two larger sticks over and covers them with earth: they represent his dead parents. Arlo does the same with his larger stick, his father.
Late in the film, Arlo and the boy discover other humans, and, in a predictable moment, Arlo has to give the boy up, forcing him to join his “own kind.” Arlo reinforces this imperative by drawing a circle in the earth again, emphasizing the separate circles—the separate species—that define and contain himself and the boy. They can travel together for a while, but “nature” forces them apart. Arlo then goes back to his farm and his family, with no suggestion the boy will be ever be back.
One can easily read The Good Dinosaur as being all about containing the brief moment of “horror” that erupts when boundaries are broken—when the boy invades the dinosaurs’ farm, when Arlo and his father leave their territory, and when the river bursts its banks. Once these events force Arlo out of his home, once he has met other species, he has to learn to give them all up and come back to his family. All groups, all species, return to their safe separateness. That is how horror—the mixing of what shouldn’t be mixed—is avoided.
It is precisely in this dynamic—perfectly illustrated by the circles Arlo and the boy draw, circles that they do not breach—that The Good Dinosaur represents the antithesis of horror. Horror is defined by impurity, by the crossing of borders and the mixing of categories. It is generated in the crossing, in the mixing, in the liminal space in which all genera are smashed. [i] The entire project of the The Good Dinosaur is to keep genera separate, however. Its very project, in other words, is anti-horror—is keeping horror at bay. Though of course, to do so, it has to admit its fleeting moment of horror, safely contained as it is, in order to then array all its narrative force against it. The Good Dinosaur, then, not only stands as the very opposite of horror, but it also shows how horror is paradoxically necessary to Disney’s anti-horror project.
[i] For discussions of horror and category transgression, see Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), 32, 43; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Cohen (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 6.