The Symbolism of Dead Animals


A dead rat with milky eyes has a shiny fly crawling over its mouth

You’re walking down the street on your lunch break. It’s a nice day: sunny with an impish breeze. You turn the corner to the park, the one with your favorite bench; it’s where you go to relax. Then you see it. There. On the ground. A dead crow. 

You move into your new house. You’re the first roommate to arrive. Tall scaly firs gently cradle the property, casting deep shadows over your new driveway. How picturesque. How nice. You park your car and grab the first boxes. As you approach the front door, you see it. There. Splayed out on the ground like an abandoned picnic blanket. A dead rabbit.

Reminders of death are always jarring. Although part of the human condition is knowing that we die, we rarely appreciate having our memories jogged. In life, each animal carries its own symbolic burden; this is the same in death. As a genre, horror has capitalized on corpses for narrative and thematic effect. Writers and directors understand the difference between a dead crow and a deceased rabbit, and turn those distinctions to their advantage. 

  1. Small Animals
    1. The Meaning of Dead Birds
      1. The Meaning of Dead Crows
      2. The Meaning of Dead Pigeons
    2. The Meaning of Dead Rodents
      1. The Meaning of Dead Rats
      2. The Meaning of Dead Mice
  2. Mid-Sized Animals
    1. The Meaning of Dead Cats
    2. The Meaning of Dead Rabbits
    3. The Meaning of Dead Dogs
  3. Large Animals
    1. The Meaning of Dead Deer
    2. The Meaning of Dead Horses

The Omens of Dead Animals

In the late 1800s, British anthropologist Henry Ling Roth wrote about the customs of the native people of northern Malaysia. In his book, he says, “the worst of all omens is a dead beast of any kind… found anywhere on the farm. It infuses a deadly poison into the whole crop, and will kill someone or other of the owner’s family within a year.” When we happen upon a dead animal, we often pathologize its death. We worry that mortality is contagious. We somehow fear its demise is, in some way, a gruesome foreshadowing of our own. 

In fiction, it often is.

Small Animals

The Meaning Of Dead Birds

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds shows the avian population turning very suddenly on humanity. Birds offer a unique symbol in their universality: you can find them pretty much anywhere you go. Their portrayal in The Birds as a sudden, evil force to reckon with aligns with Philip J. Nickel’s view that horror “helps us see that a notion of everyday life completely secure against threats cannot be possible, and that the security of common sense is a persistent illusion.”

With their ability to fly, birds represent freedom. From Forrest Gump’s Jenny praying to become a bird so she can escape her abusive home life to Peter Pan’s declaration that he is a bird that broke free of his egg, birds offer an allegory for hope and free rein. As such, dead birds represent the opposite: the death of freedom. 

It is worth noting that this morbid symbolism is not universal. In tarot, for instance, the Death card symbolizes not an end but a new start. As such, some believe that dead birds symbolize the same

However, that hasn’t stopped the horror genre from capitalizing on the darker associations of a dead bird. 

The Meaning of Dead Crows

Crows are such a staple of horror that they have developed their own trope: the Creepy Crow. Like other corvids, the crow’s jet black appearance and opportunistic diet has garnered it an association with death and misfortune. The night is late, Lenore is lost, and some terrible Raven knocks at the chamber door. 

Groups of crows, colloquially known as a murder, are considered harbingers of death. Because of their macabre associations, some suggest that dead crows potentially symbolize good, rather than bad, luck. Is the death of death not auspicious? 

However, the reality of death is rarely so hopeful. There is the symbolism of a dead animal and the visceral feeling of finding one splayed out in your backyard. Crows are associated with the consumption of dead or rotting flesh; George R.R. Martin calls his grisly fourth novel A Feast For Crows, referring to corpses on a battlefield. A dead crow begs another, darker question: what was able to slay death? 

The Meaning of Dead Pigeons

Pigeons are a common feature of city life. Their death, in an urban environment, is relatively common. They might get hit by a car, a bus, a very intense bike commuter. However, their death in rural and suburban settings is far less common and far more sinister. If their prevalence makes them a representation of life as we know it, their death marks the end of that.

Happening upon a dead pigeon in a city might portend a turn towards darker paths; it might represent the apathy of urban life. A dead pigeon in suburbia is a blemish; it is a sudden reminder of violence in a world of manicured lawns and strip malls. 

In Hereditary, a pigeon dies flying into a window, blending horror and the everyday. It is perfectly plausible for a bird to die like that; there is nothing inherently supernatural about the event. It has probably happened to you once. But it is horrible. It is horrible because it is real. It is horrible because it has happened to you once.

When Charlie goes to examine the pigeon corpse, the audience is forced to confront the discomforting normalcy of death. The pigeon becomes an omen of the death to come, foreshadowing some of the film’s darker plotlines.

The Meaning of Dead Rodents

Much like pigeons, rodents are common pests. We often cause their death deliberately through traps and poisons. We expect to find them caught in a cage. However, to be surprised by one that is already dead is unsettling; it is as though fate has gotten ahead of us.

The Meaning of Dead Rats

Dead rats can mean a few different things. Rats are associated with disease; they carried the fleas that carried the Black Plague that killed one third of Europe. They are seen as true vermin, creatures living in the shadowy underworld. Rats seem to be able to survive anything; a dead rat has finally met something stronger and more resilient. We wonder if it is coming for us next. 

On the opposite side, the term lab rats conjure images of experimentation and white lab coats, of the smell of bleach and the shine of metallic equipment. A dead rat in this sphere represents an experiment gone wrong. It dips into the more sci-fi side of horror, the speculative terror of uncertainty. We experiment on rats before moving onto humans. It begs the question: if the rat dies, is the human next? In season three, episode three of House, M.D., “Informed Consent,” the death of one scientist’s lab rats ultimately foreshadows his own.

The Meaning of Dead Mice

Compared to rats, the portrayal of mice is kinder. A mouse is small, simple, soft. It is a pest, yes, but it is not treated with the same malice as rats are. Figures like Jerry, Stuart Little, and Mickey put mice in a friendly, accessible light (which is interesting considering that mice are vindictive little pets that are prone to bite while rats are actually quite clever and sociable. I digress). 

The mouse’s presence in children’s media shrouds it in innocence. It is the wide eyed naivete to a rat’s cynicism. The death of a mouse often marks the death of innocence. It represents a greater force bearing down on a creature caught unawares. Turning towards Lenny in Of Mice and Men, we understand how a mouse’s death is treated as foreboding and cruel, even when unintentional.

Mid-Sized Animals

The mid-sized animals that end up dead in books and movies are often pets, which adds an emotional layer to their death. Pets are associated with unconditional love, with the safety of home. The unexpected death of a creature like that breaks the sanctity of the home. It elicits questions about who and how and why. 

The Meaning of Dead Cats

For fans of true crime, the corpse of a cat has a clear, chilling association: serial killers. Murderers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer often got their start killing neighborhood cats and dogs. Netflix’s Don’t F**k with Cats documents how Luka Magnotta moved on from killing kittens to killing people. 

The death of a kitten is like the death of any young animal: it represents an early and unexpected change of events. Young kittens, blind and in need of care, die in the absence of nurturing. To find a dead kitten is to discover that the setting is hostile. In The Haunting of Hill House, the death of kittens that were, for all intents and purposes, well cared for, is seen as an extension of the house’s evil.

Finding a dead cat, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, elicits the same stomach clenching question: how did it die? Cats are independence incarnate; their death represents a shrinking bubble of safety. A dead neighborhood cat hints that chaos is just outside the door, just beyond the world perceived by the tragically loud and self-absorbed human inhabitants of the neighborhood.

Cats are natural survivors who go into hiding when they die; finding a dead cat usually hints that it has been killed, intentionally or unintentionally. The terms “dead cat” refers to a piece of “violent or jeering criticism.” Violence and death are often connected when it comes to cats, likely because of their deep-rooted ability to fend for themselves; they wouldn’t go down without a fight.  Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” juxtaposes the good and kind relationship its protagonist has with a living cat against his violent alcoholism, which leads to the cat’s death. Pluto, the cat, dies for his cat-like defiance, for looking upon a cruel owner with unflinching eyes. Ultimately, Pluto reflects a cat’s resilience in his ability to haunt his owner even from beyond the grave. 

The Meaning of Dead Rabbits

The rabbit is an auspicious animal. Dried, preserved rabbit’s feet are often considered good luck charms. On the flip side, a rabbit found suddenly dead marks a change in luck for the worse. Rabbits are prey, not predators. They come onto this earth to exist peacefully; their violent end is not one they would bestow on another. A dead rabbit can represent cruel nature taking its course. The “bunny boiling” scene in Fatal Attraction is a ghastly reminder of how easily this passive animal is subdued. It is a reminder that there is a predator on the loose.

Rabbits, with their soft fur and blood-red eyes, offer a duality between beloved and terrifying. Jordan Peele’s Us plays upon this, placing rabbits at the center of the underworld tale. “They’re adorable,” Peele says, “but they terrify me at the same time.” The visceral reaction to a dead rabbit often comes as a result of this ambivalent feeling. 

Rabbits are also trickster animals, from Bugs Bunny to the Peter Rabbit, from the Algonquin and Ojibwe Nanabozho to Leuk of Senegalese folklore. In nature, rabbits turn to trickery to make up for their lack of predatory skill: their white tails confuse predators during a chase, allowing them to escape unscathed. A dead rabbit, then, marks the ends of the escape. It tells us that the tricks have finally caught up with the trickster.

The Meaning of Dead Dogs

Dogs have been by humanity’s side for at least 18,000 years. This proximity makes their death personal and emotive. The “dog dies at the end” trope is a feature of movies across multiple genres. If the dog that died is a family dog, the death often represents an end to childhood or innocence. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the dead dog forces protagonist Christopher to investigate his own life, the barrier separating his world and his father’s coming down in the process. This is not a painless journey. A dead dog is meant to elicit a strong emotional reaction. 

Dogs are associated with safety and comfort. They protect from intruders; they make a house a home. As such, their death marks the opposite: safety is over; intruders have infiltrated our space. In the case of folk horror film The Witch, the dead dog is an omen that there is devil magic around. It is a warning sign for a very literal danger: the dog’s death is only the start. Meanwhile in The Babadook, the death of a dog offers a figurative representation of its protagonist Amelia’s emotional state and the degradation of her sense of security in her own home and mind. 

Edith Wharton’s “Kerfol” directly connects the death of dogs with domestic violence. Wharton wrote in her diary in 1924: “I am secretly afraid of animals—of all animals except dogs, & even of some dogs. I think it is because of the usness in their eyes, with the underlying not-usness which belies it, & is so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off & left them: left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? Their eyes seem to ask us.”

Large Animals

Due to their considerable physical bulk, large animals are associated with permanence or resilience. Although a dead rat is disturbing, there are a number of ways a creature so small could have died. When an animal is large, its death elicits imagery of felled trees. It didn’t die; it was taken down. Its death implies there is something bigger out there, skulking in the dark. 

The death of a large animal also suggests a degree of gruesome logistics, forcing us to ask: what are we going to do with the carcass? The corpse of an animal that is too large to move is often left to decompose naturally, serving as an ever-present reminder of death and decay. The cow skull in the desert is a trope used to alert the viewer that the environment is cruel and unyielding. 

The Meaning of Dead Deer

Deer are the bane of drivers; those who drive in areas frequented by deer live in fear of an imminent car accident. Alive, deer carry associations of innocence and frailty. We use terms like “doe-eyed” to refer to eyes that are large, gentle, innocent, childlike. A dead deer marks the end of that innocence.

In Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the death of a deer is used as an omen for the horror to come. One of the movie’s only jump scares, it is intended to symbolically alert both audience and protagonist Chris to the dangers that are imminent. It hints at the not-so-innocent nature of the supposedly innocent activity Chris journeying towards (literally and figuratively). 

The Meaning of Dead Horses

Horses have a unique relationship with people in that they are equal parts companion and mode of transport. A wild horse is associated with grace and freedom, while a domesticated horse conjures images of steadfast relationships and trust. A dead horse, then, can symbolize the end of a relationship or a loss in direction

According to Chloe Zhao, director of The Rider, horses are a unique animal because they are simultaneously fragile and dangerous: 1,200 pounds of glass. In death, this is made eerily apparent: an unmovable, bulky mass has been struck down. Director Corey Finley says of horses that, “They’ve got a really creepy look to them. There’s something a little bit monstrous about the horse and something very very beautiful too and very noble.” The grotesque beauty of a living horse is turned into morbid appeal in death. A dead horse is something that cannot be looked away from nor avoided. 

And ’till then, we pray and suspend

The notion that these lives do never end

Joanna Newsom, Sadie

Categories: SymbolismTags: , ,

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