Dehumanization: Why people dying can be funny, and animals dying never is.


April 7, 2012 by Heidi

Not too long ago, the amazing Amy of Tripping Over Books had a post about her “pet” peeve, in which she bemoaned authors killing off animals in books.  I agree wholeheartedly, and when I had my own brush with this feeling while reading Barry Lyga’s fantastic I Hunt Killers (reviewed here), I figured I had enough to say that I’d write my own post!

So here’s my first question—does the fact that we see death in books, video games, T.V. and movies so much help to dehumanize it?  Now, I am so NOT one of those people who thinks that violence in entertainment leads to psychos and violence in real life, in fact, I’m a big proponent of it on the level of personal enjoyment, but I can’t help but feel like experiencing the death of people so much makes me really not care.</embed></object></div>”;” alt=””>
I make this same joke a lot.

Flannery, of The Readventurer included a pretty amazing graph in her review of I Hunt Killers in which she plotted various books and life events on a chart with an x-axis of funny to scary and a y-axis of gory to clean (and yes, Flannery, child birth is both very gory and a little scary).  This helped solidify some thoughts for me.  I like gore, and I like funny; I heart Quentin Tarantino movies and Chuck Palahniuk books.  Some sick, sad part of my soul revels in the gratuitous violence of a scene so bloody they have to make it black and white just to forego an NC17 rating (if you don’t know what I’m referring to, go watch Kill Bill.  Stat.  Unless gratuitous violence bothers you, then really don’t).  The Showtime show Dexter fits in there somewhere, as does the aforementioned I Hunt Killers.  I feel virtually nothing for these people whose lives are lost.  In fact, I savor them.  But then there’s a line, and that line my friend, is cute fluffy animals (okay, any animals, but being cute and fluffy helps with the pity factor).

naughty spaniel puppy with litter mates

That’s it, the one and only time I really felt anything like horror for any of the victims in I Hunt Killers was for the dog (I don’t think this is a spoiler as it’s mentioned early and often).  Why is that?  What’s wrong with me?  Part of me thinks that we get so upset about animal deaths because they always seem unnecessary.  Animals, generally, don’t have motives or perform actions that make them responsible.  They’re always the innocent bystanders.  Animals can’t be dehumanized for us, because they aren’t human…and quite frankly for me I tend to like them better than most humans.

So, is it sad that in order to pull at our heart strings, authors have to resort to killing off animals?  Is it even necessary?  I think it can be a cheap ploy, but on the other hand, it can be a genius way to put a ‘human’ face on a situation we’ve already stepped back from emotionally.  When I go into a book or movie knowing there will be violence, I’m cool with it.  I expect it, I like it, and as such, I don’t care when people die.  I’ve dehumanized them, and already written them off as not real.  But I can’t do that with animals.  Animals are always real, and thus, will always have my pity.


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  1. I'm not sure if it's a cheap trick by authors to use the animals as tear jerkers. I always feel really compassionate towards the animals because they are so innocent. In the film version of 'I Am Legend' (the book's probably the same) I was devastated by the animal death. I think authors also personify the animals and make them seem more aware and loving then normal animals. I do wish more animals would survive- in some books you know the animals are only there to die! x

  2. I totally agree. I read a lot of really disturbing stuff but animal cruelty is just so much harder to read. I think, for me, it has a lot to do with helplessness. I listened to I Am Legend and got so attached to that dog. And even in I Hunt Killers and Dexter, the parts that disturb me most are the animal mutilation scenes. I can't believe I didn't include Dexter in my graph.

  3. Heidi says:

    Dexter's interesting as well because of the whole anti-hero facet. We support Dexter killing people because they're 'bad' people, even though he's still a serial killer! And you're right, it does have to do with the helplessness. I guess I'd probably get the same feelings towards children, but writers usually go for the animals instead of children. Maybe kids would just be one step too far?

  4. Heidi says:

    I know, that's what bothers me (the having them there to die thing)! I've seen it said a lot of places that the dog in I Am Legend was one of the greatest animal characters of all time. I haven't read or watched it, but really should because I love a good animal character. Though I'm not going to lie, having known the dog dies doesn't make me line up for it.

  5. Melanie says:

    Animals dying always gets to me whether it's purposeful or not. In fact, in one movie the man died and then his dog died awhile later. I felt no sadness toward the man's death but a lot for the dogs. It sort of made me feel bad and I sometimes find myself worrying over dehumanization.

  6. Heidi says:

    I know, right? It's always good to know I'm not the only one who seems to prefer animals to people, but that doesn't necessarily make it okay not to care about human deaths. I suppose if we did care too much, we'd be wrecks all of the time!

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