She Had It Coming: “Jurassic World” and the Morality of Horror Film Deaths

Jurassic World, the fourth film in the series inaugurated by Steven Spielberg’s now-iconic Jurassic Park, smashed both domestic and international opening weekend box office records. Audiences were well primed for the movie; time has allowed the memory of Spielberg’s exponentially darker sequel, The Lost World, to drift out of our collective memory, and Joe Johnston’s Jurassic Park III never really entered it to begin with. Jurassic World had originally been planned for a release in the middle of the last decade, but fortune delayed it nearly ten years. On top of that, audiences were reminded of the original film’s charm when it was rereleased in 2013 with surprisingly tasteful 3D conversion. Finally, Jurassic World, directed by one-time indie filmmaker Colin Trevorrow, arrived to find audiences eagerly waiting for something that might approach the sheer fun of Spielberg’s original film. To his credit, the film largely delivered on those expectations.

The thrills of the Jurassic Park films have always been divided into two components: they are partly a response to the suspense created as humans are hunted by reptilian monsters with the intelligence of a malevolent dolphin, and partly a response to the sheer horror and gore that arises when those evil dolphins ultimately devour some supremely unlucky person. It was a pattern I felt comfortable with, until a particularly disturbing death led me to question it halfway through the film.

When Claire (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) is visited by her two young nephews (the requisite children of any tangential Spielberg project), she leaves their actual chaperoning to her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath). Zara isn’t particularly savvy with kids, although not contemptuous of them either. Eventually they ditch her in order to have some fun off the grid, setting off a frantic search by Zara, and later, Claire. Their eventual reunion is cut short when a swarm of flying pterosaurs attack the crowd of tourists gathered in the park’s visitor center. Zara is unlucky enough to be plucked up by a pteranodon, which proceeds to drop her into the park’s central water tank. It pushes her below the surface, apparently in an attempt to drown its prey, then pulls her up again, only to repeat the process multiple times until a giant aquatic reptile rises from the depths to consume both Zara and her flying assassin. At this point in the film, multiple people had been devoured by dinosaurs, to varying degrees of shock and comedy. But something about this particular death made my stomach turn. The deliberate way the creatures toyed with her before she was eaten seemed sadistic rather than animalistic, and unlike any of the previous deaths. What had she done to deserve that fate?

The logical answer was “nothing.” She wasn’t the film’s villain, who would surely pay for his sins (Vincent D’Onofrio was essentially dead the second we saw his goatee pop up on screen). The vast majority of thrillers and horror films operate with this explicit moral code: villains and sinners will get their comeuppance in the end. We feel this pattern in our bones. But below this explicit moral code lies a deeper, more insidious one: the implicit idea that characters will die for their sins in accordance with more medieval or fundamentalist moral codes.

We see slasher films with the knowledge that most of the characters will be brutally murdered. It’s an adrenaline rush to know that so much terror will be doled out while we ultimately remain safe, like riding a visual and aural rollercoaster. Both deliver a kind of high at the conclusion. What makes the experience so terrifying is that all of the deaths seem senseless. If that could happen to anyone, am I really safe?

That interpretation reveals itself to be incomplete, however, when considering the similarities among the doomed characters. The counselors of the Friday the 13th films are killed because they dare to have premarital sex and to work in the same place where a child died years ago. Of course, we could write that off as the opinion of a deranged murderer, if only it weren’t for the way those films take such glee in their murders.

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a much better horror film, the group of twenty-somethings (this time playing twenty-somethings rather than teenagers) are killed because of their embrace of liberal values and counter-culture attitudes. There’s the sex thing again, as well as their acceptance of drugs, astrology, and, most damning, vegetarianism. Their fates are sealed when they come upon Leatherface and the Sawyer family, a clan so conservative and reactionary that they resort to inbreeding rather than venturing out into the world and risking exposure. Again, among all the figurative gloom of the film (much of it actually takes place in daylight), it seems to take perverse pleasure in its horrors, as exemplified by the family dinner and Keystone Cops-worthy chases in the film’s final minutes. This glee suggests that the film has adopted the viewpoint of its main villains to a certain extent. The fact that many viewers have an urge to cheer when the whiny, wheelchair-bound character is cut to pieces belies it.

As repugnant as they may be, knowledge of these regressive moral codes needn’t spoil our enjoyment of thrillers and horror films. Because these codes are more in line with Europe in the dark ages than America in the 21st century, it’s easy enough to shrug them off and chalk it up to moral voyeurism.

Which brings me back to Jurassic World and my enduring unease. It was already clear that the devoured assistant Zara had not crossed any explicit moral boundaries, so what implicit codes had she broken? She hadn’t sinned by engaging in sexual activity, drugs, or astrology. (Although vegetarianism is a little harder to rule out). Instead, she had failed at her maternal duties as the guardian of the two teenagers. Although she never says anything critical of the kids, she has the temerity to talk on a cell phone rather than devoting her full attention to them (apparently something no good mother has ever done). Later, she loses track of the kids, putting them in danger. Except they actually run away from her in order to explore on their own. With that in mind, her implicit sin is nothing more than being a working woman who isn’t unnaturally bonded to two unfamiliar teenagers.

Much has been made of the sexism of Jurassic World vis-à-vis the stilettos Bryce Dallas Howard wears throughout (not that there is ever any point at which she could pause to switch them out for a comfortable pair of New Balances). As Gabrielle Moss astutely pointed out at Slate, the heels are one of the best parts of the film, as Howard is able to ultimately save the day without having to ditch every single signifier of femininity. Elsewhere the film does everything in its power to criticize her for being a successful woman who has risen to great heights in a major company and has chosen to delay having children. Perhaps most egregiously, at one point Howard wears her jacket on her shoulders like a shawl, something done only by fashion models and Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The film does its best to suggest there’s something wrong with Howard because of her ambitions and lack of maternal instincts, but ultimately her status as one of the leads protects her. Rather, her assistant Zara, who displays similar traits to a lesser extent, is the one who will be sacrificed as punishment. And that’s what left me feeling so squeamish even after I left the theater. I can put aside the reactionary and implicit moral codes that these films operate under easily enough because they have no place in the world I live in. But there are still plenty of situations where women are criticized for being ambitious, or successful, or delaying starting a family, or eschewing the whole thing altogether. There are women who have been, and will continue to be attacked and even killed because they fail to meet various standards of femininity, or don’t display the right degree of maternal warmth, or fail in some other way to follow the scripts assigned to them by society.

We see thrillers and horror films for escapism, for thrills. With a little bit of contortion, we can walk out of them and be secure in the belief that they don’t really advocate for the mindsets that we temporarily assume while viewing them. Unfortunately, this time I could have twisted myself into a pretzel and still not been able to get around the issue of the film’s message. The dinosaurs were supposed to be the most frightening part of Jurassic World, but the film’s retrograde gender roles ultimately gave them a run for their money.

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