Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) famously opens (after the credit sequence) with what has to be one of the most famous shots of roadkill in horror—a dead armadillo on a hot Texas highway. The shot is an establishing shot, but it also predicts something of what is to come. The young and attractive main characters, speeding past the charnel houses of a forgotten part of Texas, will soon find other kinds of “animals” who have been left behind by civilization, abandoned by the side of the road of progress. And then they themselves will also become a kind of roadkill.
The trope of roadkill is a prominent one in horror films. You only have to think, though, of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Lois Duncan’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) to recognize that writers have long used distracted driving to make a point—in the case of these novels, a point about characters’ callous disregard for the lives of other humans.
Characters killing animals while behind the wheel of a car is pervasive in the horror film, however. Besides the three I discuss below, the trope comes up in Dead in Three Days (2006), Husk (2011), and The Monster (2016). And those are just films I happen to have seen recently.
In three films released in the last couple of year, the deaths of animals by the side of the road play a prominent role in the narrative, helping to shape the meaning of the film. To put it bluntly: the deaths of animals in these films are meant to tell us something about what’s going on with the humans. The deaths of animals are metaphors. The question is, does this symbolic use of dying and dead animal bodies enhance the art of the film—or does it simply exploit the animals, which matter only insofar as they tell us something about humans?
Karyn Kusama’s 2015 film is all about grief, featuring a now-divorced couple, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard), who lost their son in a terrible accident several years ago. The film opens with Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving through an LA canyon to a dinner party at Eden’s house. They hit a coyote and it lies on the road, still alive, whimpering in pain. Will has to muster the fortitude to kill the coyote with a tire iron—a brutal yet merciful moment.
Will’s killing of the coyote foreshadows subsequent events involving his ex-wife. Kusama offers similar close-ups of both the coyote and (later) Eden to highlight the parallel. It’s a connection that raises all kinds of interesting questions about what and who humans are. During the dinner party, Eden espouses a view of humans as just matter. She tells Will that all our negative emotions, including grief and depression, are “just chemical reactions. It’s entirely physical,” she says, “and it’s completely changeable.” Her efforts to change this “physical” stuff, however, end up failing, which is why, like the coyote, she has to be put out of her misery. Through the coyote scene, and its reflection of the later scene with Eden, The Invitation questions whether human can rise above our “physical” bodies and the emotions rooted in them.
Train to Busan
South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho begins his 2016 zombie film with a man driving recklessly along, searching with one hand for his cell phone on the passenger seat and so hitting a deer. As the man drives off heedlessly, leaving the deer’s body, we get a long shot of the deer lying crumpled on the road. And then it moves, stretching out its legs and finally coming back to (a kind of) life: it’s infected—harbinger of the masses of humans who will soon be similarly infected.
The truck driver symbolizes all the human carelessness about other life forms and, indeed, about nature itself that leads, the suggestion is, to the zombie virus. The long shot of the deer embeds it in a natural scenery that looks passive but that is about to mutate and take its revenge on an exploitative humanity. The deer represents, then, a carelessly destroyed nature—and a warning.
Deer imagery abounds in Jordan’s Peele’s 2017 horror film about US race relations. The first time a deer appears, it is struck by Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) as they are driving up from New York City to Rose’s family home. Chris’s reaction as he looks at the deer dying by the side of the road implies there’s more to this death than it seems. And, indeed, it turns out that the death of the deer echoes the death of his mother, also struck by a car and left to die by the side of the road, when Chris was a child.
The layers of meaning surrounding these twinned deaths build throughout the film, extending from human carelessness to specifically white carelessness to a wider systemic indifference to marginalized black bodies. Indeed, the final scenes of Get Out return back to, and invert, the death on the road with which the film begins.
Significantly, while The Invitation and Train to Busan seem to draw parallels between animals and the humans they symbolize, Get Out is very interested in drawing distinctions. Those in power in our society try very hard to turn certain human bodies, black bodies, into animals, but, the film insists, animals and humans are not equivalent.
Together, these three films explore some of the very different implications of signaling the fact that, yes, on the one hand, human bodies are animal bodies. On the other hand, though, humans should never be forcibly reduced to animal bodies by those who pretend to—and who seek—a transcendence of our shared human nature.