Written By: Stephanie Pislis
Animal cruelty in horror, whether fake, real or inconclusively ambiguous, is a trope that is quite fitting when it comes to the realm of horror. With the intention of a horror flick being to shock, disturb and petrify its audience, the harming of animals is something that will make almost any sane individual cringe. The question of animal ethics is a topic that touches on several factors. Animals for consumption, labor and even domestication are all debatable facets of the issue. Yet when it comes to the mere harming of animals for artistic and cinematic purposes, this is perhaps where many of us will draw the line.
It is not a secret that the exploitation of animals for cinema has unfortunately lead to the unintentional (or intentional) harming and even death of many animals. This is especially true in regards to earlier films, films that were created when the laws towards animal rights were more lenient and less severe. Nowadays, intentional animal cruelty in cinema would certainly not pass.
History of animal cruelty in horror films
The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of 1937 is an act passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom that explicitly forbids the intentional harming, torture or killing of animals for the sole purpose of cinematic entertainment. It categorizes harming animals as such:
“[acts] organized or directed in such a way as to involve the cruel infliction of pain or terror on any animal or the cruel goading of any animal to fury” (1 Edw. 8 & 1 Geo. 6, c. 59).
In other words, veritable animal cruelty for entertainment is strictly forbidden. On the other hand, the simulation of animal death and torture by means of special effects is permitted. Footage of animals getting harmed in nature, such as is often seen in documentaries, is permissible and does not fall under the category of an offence. It is also permissible to show the real life horrors that take place within industries that use animals for human consumption such as slaughterhouses, fur industries etc. Since its creation, the act has never been repealed and is still active today. Offences under this act are punishable by a fine and/or up to three months’ imprisonment.
The following movies are just some examples of how previous films have exploited and abused animals for shocking or disturbing imagery:
Island of Lost Souls
It is uncertain and quite difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in time which provoked the creation of this law. However, it is speculated that a film entitled Island of Lost Souls (1932) was a significant factor in its creation. Island of Lost Souls is now a cult classic. It is a sci-fi horror film that revolves around an obsessive scientist who conducts experiments on animals on an isolated island, namely vivisections. The film was subjected to mass controversy and censorship due to its inclusions of animal cruelty. The film was eventually allowed to be released after certain cuts were made to it.
In more recent years, perhaps one of the most notable films that contains real-life animal cruelty is the 1980 film directed by Ruggero Deodato entitled Cannibal Holocaust. With a name like Cannibal Holocaust, one can surely expect the worst. Veritable animal cruelty is not the only reason this film has received much controversy as well as a cult status. The cinematography of the film, in particular the handheld-filming and documentation style of it, was so gruesomely realistic that it actually led some viewers to believe that the vile cannibalistic footage was real. Thus snuff film allegations were made against it. These allegations were rightfully dismissed once proven otherwise, yet the animal cruelty that is displayed in the film was not.
For those of whom aren’t familiar with the plot, Cannibal Holocaust follows an anthropology student who leads a rescue team deep into the Amazon rainforest in order to locate a missing crew of filmmakers. Along the way, the rescue team participants come into contact with primitive and cannibalistic tribes and all hell breaks loose.
In this film we are shown a live, giant sea turtle being manually ripped apart in order to make a soup with its meat. Other animals that died on set include a coati and a squirrel monkey. It is also said that the killing of a pig was filmed, however the loud squeal of the dying pig caused an actor to botch his lines and therefore the take could not be reshot seeing that they did not have any additional pigs to slay. Many of the actors and extras of the film were said to have been so disgusted by these cruel and vile acts that some even retched during and after the scenes involving animal harm.
A true portrayal?
Some will argue that the animal killings in this particular film are merited because they are meant to portray actual practices of certain existing tribes. The turtle was actually used in order to make a soup, i.e. consumption, and thus this act would technically evade the previously mentioned law. However, others will argue against these statements and further their stance by claiming that it is also inhumane to subject the actors to these vile and traumatic acts.
In the case of Cannibal Holocaust, a well-known and high-budgeted film, many witnesses were able to attest for the violent acts done against animals and thus the condemning of the crime is quite obvious. However, one issue that may still currently be prevalent today is the fact that real animal cruelty may be extremely difficult to prove. Especially in lower-end underground horror flicks, once the act has been committed and cleaned up after, if its authenticity is denied by the filmmakers, it would be quite difficult to prove otherwise.
Luckily, the act against animal cruelty in horror films were created quite early on and is still in use today. Even though some acts may continue to go under the radar, real animal cruelty in film is much less common than it used to be. Although some of the reasoning behind certain acts and portrayals of animal killings in film are up for debate, I’m sure that we can all agree on the fact that the pointless killing of animals for entertainment purposes is a rather barbaric practice! Now go and give your fury and loyal companion a hug and a treat!
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