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Top 10 Horror Movies Featuring Animals (and Behaviour)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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One of my guilty pleasures is sci-fi movies featuring animal behaviour, especially when it’s done terribly. For something different from my usual articles, I decided that for Hallowe’en I’d highlight my top ten favourite good-bad movies that feature animal behaviour as a main theme (even if not intended that way).


10) Piranha 3D

In the trailer for this movie, the voice-over says ‘Piranha hunt in packs – not for protection, but for overwhelming force. They’re organized, methodical. The first bite draws blood. The blood draws the pack’. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Piranha are in fact quite shy fish, that stay in schools for protection from their own predators, like dolphins. Yes, sweet lovely dolphins are the ones taking out these ‘super-aggressive, super-intelligent man-eating machines’.

9) Rise of the planet of the apes

This movie was highly entertaining, but contained some very bad science. I’m willing to suspend belief far enough to accept that non-human apes could evolve into a super-intelligent race. I’m even willing to go with the idea of injecting chimps with genes that become incorporated into their own DNA. But really, a talking chimp? (sorry for the spoiler, but I promise this scene will still be as ridiculous for you). Even if a chimpanzee somehow gained super-intelligence and learned human language, because of physiological differences they don’t have control over their vocal cords like humans. Chimpanzees also don’t have mouth and jaw structures that would allow them to produce human speech. Although, having said that, maybe I shouldn’t be so judgemental. Perhaps the ability to develop a new mouth and throat structure was in the Alzheimer’s drug along with the super-intelligence, and they just forgot to mention it in the plot.

8) The Birds

A classic horror film; it’s one of those ones that young people today can never believe that our parents’ generation actually found scary. The birds in this movie are more vicious than city seagulls. Why are the birds so angry? This is never explained.



7) Phenomena

This is perhaps a lesser-known movie, to all except the hard-core horror fans. Made by Italian director Dario Argento in 1985, this surreal film surprisingly stars a young Jennifer Connelly. Early on in this film we learn that she can telepathically talk to insects. She goes to talk to a scientist about this new occurrence in her life. He tells her that this is unusual. However, not for the reasons that might seem obvious. No, he surprised because apparently although it is well-known that insects have a telepathic connection with each other, humans aren’t normally in on this connection. If this weren’t weird enough, this scientist also has a pet chimpanzee sidekick who displays some very unnatural chimp behaviour throughout the movie, culminating in him stabbing someone to death.

6) Snakes on a plane

This was a brilliant film. And entirely realistic, as anyone who has ever taken a plane or worked with snakes will know.

5) The Fly

This is a film so classic that even if you haven’t seen you’ll have seen references to it in other movies or shows (including The Simpsons). In it, Jeff Goldblum attempts to teleport himself, but ends up mashing together his DNA with a fly’s. Teleportation science aside, the fly behaviour is somewhat basic in this film. Yes, they give the fly-man the ability to walk on walls and regurgitate acid. He also becomes more aggressive and interested in casual sex. But had the writer’s known about the elaborate courtship songs of even the simple fruit fly, perhaps this film might have featured some more specific insights into the surprisingly complex behaviour of flies.

4) Every shark movie ever made

All shark movies follow the same safe formula: bikini-clad lady swimming with scary music – is it a shark? – oh no it’s just her boyfriend/ goofy friend/ random person dressed up as a shark. Next attack is the real one, and this will continue seamlessly until there are only two people left, giving them just enough time to make out before they too are probably eaten. One behaviour that is never explained in these movies is why the sharks seem to only attack good-looking people, and save the best looking people (preferably a blossoming romance) until last? Also, how do they know to attack the ‘evil’ characters just after we see them doing something particularly evil? Perhaps some of the ‘shark scientists’ in these movies should be looking into these questions. Jaws was already a bit ridiculous (in terms of the realism of the shark behaviour), but since then people have taken it upon themselves to take the theme as far as a tornado of sharks (sharknado) and sharks that swim through snow (avalanche sharks).

3) Black sheep

This dark New-Zealand horror comedy about genetically modified sheep attacking humans is one of my favourites. Although the behaviour displayed by the sheep in this film isn’t characteristic (such as them driving farm trucks and biting off human ears), I’m willing to forgive them for the comedy that ensues.




This is a 1950s movie about giant radioactive ants. It is also one of the very first movies about scientists irradiating an animal to make it big and angry, and perhaps the inspiration for many more of such films. The ‘ant science’ in this movie is actually surprisingly good, or at the least passable.

1) Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park is one of those films that just doesn’t seem to age, and even the ‘90s graphics still look good today. Unfortunately, since the movie was made scientists have found out more about the dinosaurs in question, including new ideas about their behaviour. The (utterly terrifying) scene with the velociraptors, for example, would not be quite the same if made today. In the film they are presented as highly intelligent predators that corner the characters through group hunting. We now know that these animals were feathered, much smaller, and may not have hunted in groups. Would the scene have been as terrifying if were being chased by animals not dissimilar to chickens – perhaps even looking a bit like this?

If you think back to the best scenes in this movie, so many of them relate to the dinosaur’s behaviour, and the humans trying to work it out. Perhaps because in reality scientists know so little about dinosaur behaviour, this movie is in fact one of the most believable of all.


Felicity Muth About the Author: Felicity Muth is an early-career researcher with a PhD in animal cognition. Follow on Twitter @notbadscience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 11:15 am 11/1/2013

    What about Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street”.
    Caveat: I’ve always had a crush on Jennifer Connelly so this one is for her as Queen of the Insects-
    I read that sharks have (an ESP in the form of) a lateral line which detects the faint electric signals of prey from a distance. How hard is it to suspect such biological features could express as telepathy? The whole nervous system could be an antennae.

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  2. 2. Looie 12:23 pm 11/1/2013

    Re J. Park, the scene with the velociraptors didn’t follow the science even when the movie was made. They knew that velociraptors were much smaller than that — but carnivorous turkeys wouldn’t have been frightening enough.

    Best regards, Bill Skaggs

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  3. 3. ErnestPayne 1:11 pm 11/1/2013

    What about the original “Little Shop of Horrors”? A great date movie.

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  4. 4. Felicity Muth in reply to Felicity Muth 9:51 am 11/2/2013

    You know I really did consider this- it’s my favourite musical ever. However, not sure if it’s a plant or an animal? But it does seem to display behaviour so perhaps it is an animal… What do you think?

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  5. 5. Felicity Muth in reply to Felicity Muth 9:52 am 11/2/2013

    oh really! That’s interesting. I’ll add that to my list of cool jurassic park trivia

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  6. 6. Felicity Muth in reply to Felicity Muth 9:55 am 11/2/2013

    I’m afraid I haven’t seen that one, but will definitely check it out! About the sharks- you’re right, a lot of other animals do communicate using senses that we don’t have and we wouldn’t detect without the use of technology. However, this is still a long way from what people call ‘psychic’

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  7. 7. tuned 11:42 am 11/2/2013

    Let’s differentiate “telepathy” from “psychic” by relegating psychic to things like knowing the future/past. Thought is even now being spied into by direct contact sensors and computers. Brainwaves are controlling prosthetics, etc. It is therefore only a matter of sensitivity to the brains’ electrical (and perhaps resulting chemical) signatures. Rather like they sharks do to detect prey, as I posted previously. Since there is likely variation in brain patterns by individuals the reception may seem more confusing, like dreams. Pity the poor people born with such sensitivity, they would indeed seem crazy and even think they were crazy for a long time, maybe even never sorting it out.
    Even worse, pity the poor folks born with a more “amplified” set of brainwaves and signals. Like D.A. postulated in “Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” they would be easy prey.
    Many creatures use chemicals as signals which science is discovering, both as signals and simply detected by others.
    Many creatures use MAGNETISM sensitivity as “ESP” which is an EMR. Again, how hard is it to imagine a sensitivity developed to brainwaves EMR (and chemical signatures)? A low level “understanding” of such might be an empathy by creatures capable of it.

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  8. 8. joelle lageyre 10:55 am 11/7/2013

    What about bears ? Big angry grizzly bears .

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