One of the many things I adore about NBC’s Hannibal is the feathered stag that haunts Will Graham and sometimes evolves into a stag-man. I have a huge soft spot for the recurrent use of animals as symbolic, otherworldly entities in horror – i.e., not as monster bait, nor necessarily as the monster itself, but as a sort of gateway, sometimes a hallucinatory one, between the normal and paranormal world, or between the mundane and the sublime.
Clearly, I like stags for this purpose – I did write a story about a Stag-Man, after all – as they strike very evocative poses and call to mind a strange combination of beauty, royalty, sacrament, and ultimate victimhood (the ridiculous idea of Bambi as King of the Forest). Any sort of animal horn is probably going to immediately ping your cultural spidey-sense, whether you think of the Abrahamic Devil or something older, like a bull-god. Much like the stag, you hit that weird sweet spot between an image that looks very powerful but is intended to be sacrificed. The Conspiracy captures this quite well, when one of the guys trying to break into a secret society finds himself wearing a very ominous-looking bull mask that marks him as the “quarry”:
But you don’t have to stop there. Twin Peaks does this with owls (they are not what they seem), so well that I actually am rather frightened of owls now. It’s a shame, because I used to like owls. The video for the song “The Owl,” by I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, doesn’t help.
Candyman does this with bees.
Ju-On does this with cats.
The Omen does this with dogs (all kinds of dogs, but the skeletonized jackal in the remake is the worst IMO).
The Disney movie captures precisely none of this, but Kipling’s The Jungle-Book has one of the greatest ambiguous animal conduits into the unknown of all time – the “ghost”-tiger Shere-Khan. I’m sure Shere-Khan himself was inspired by the great man-eating tigers that were the bane of British India’s attempts to lay railroad tracks.
Buldeo was explaining how the tiger that had carried away Messua’s son was a ghost-tiger, and his body was inhabited by the ghost of a wicked, old money-lender, who had died some years ago. “And I know that this is true,” he said, “because Purun Dass always limped from the blow that he got in a riot when his account books were burned, and the tiger that I speak of he limps, too, for the tracks of his pads are unequal.”
“True, true, that must be the truth,” said the gray-beards, nodding together.