The Monster You Know: Why Cujo (1981) is Terrifying

*As always, some spoilers ahead~

Now, I’d like to state for the record that I’ve never been especially afraid of dogs. I’ve always maintained a healthy respect for them and the predators they once were for sure. When it comes to large dogs, I’ve always been cautious of getting too close, of letting them pounce on me. As a little girl, I did have some terrible recurring visions of a large dog knocking me to the ground, scratching or biting my face in the fall. When you’re a child, dogs can be so large, their teeth so potentially sharp. Suffice to say, I never grew up in a house with a dog. (We’ve always been cat people, tbh.) Again, though, I’d like to emphasize that while I may have some anxieties related to man’s best friend, I’d never classify myself as phobic. I know dogs are not inherently violent nor do they have any overtly violent intentions. When a large dog jumps on you, it’s most likely because they are excited. It’s part of how they show affection. If a dog scares you, they probably don’t mean to. Unless that dog belongs in a Stephen King novel and their name is Cujo. Then, they might just want to terrify you.

I went into Cujo (1981) not so much afraid of encountering a rabid dog but afraid I couldn’t handle the violence that would undoubtedly befall this poor, titular dog. The book was written in 1981 and I greatly feared and anticipated what animal abuse I may encounter in its pages. I should’ve feared the dog more. Again, I’m not especially afraid of dogs and yet I found this book scary because of how familiar the monster in it’s pages is. I feared how probable the monster could be. That kind of horror, that fear of the mundane and how easily it can become menacing, is what struck me most about Cujo (1981). It’s horror is not only still prevalent and prescient but so deeply potential. I went into this book prepared to be more sympathetic for its monster and instead I found myself terribly compelled by the potential for what we hold most dear to become that which we fear most. Please, let me tell you why Cujo (1981) is terrifying.

Like most of King’s works, this story opens on a seemingly mundane family in a seemingly mundane Maine town. Castle Rock, in this case. In the past, there was a serial killer named Frank Dodd who operated in the area but that human monster is dead and time moves on. Every town needs a boogie man anyway. A monster to hide in children’s closets and compel them to be good or else.

At the core of this story, there are two families. The up-and-coming Trenton family who moved to Castle Rock from NYC contrasts with the considerably poorer Chambers family, who are clearly living by the skin of their teeth. Vic Trenton has ensured he is able to bring home the bread and then some to his family through an as-of-yet lucrative advertising business. His wife, Donna, doesn’t need to work and their son, Tad, has only one worry: the aforementioned monster in his closet. On the flip side, Joe Chambers is a blue collar, blue blood, mechanic who lives on the outskirts of the outskirts of town. Charity, his wife, has lived an anything but charitable existence unless you count her husband’s charity in not beating her every single night. No, instead he just ensures she can never stray too far from his reach, refusing to allow her the freedom to visit her sister Holly in Connecticut. Chambers’ son, Brett, spends his days helping his father in seeming preparation to follow in his work-boot steps. The only tangible affection that exists between father and son may just be Cujo, a much-desired gift acquired after an auto repair was traded on a fancy car was traded for a dog’s lifetime of discounted food. As Cujo would grow to be a 200-lb St. Bernard, this was a very savvy deal. 

Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, the Trentons and the Chambers couldn’t be more different. Though class conflicts don’t really come to the forefront per say, the different opportunities or lack thereof available to each family +  the qualities of life of each family do ultimately contribute in different ways to the central conflict. The family”s paths cross when Vic Trenton’s fancy jag becomes in need of a repair that could be quite expensive at a town-side mechanic. Vic received a recommendation for Joe Chambers and has his family tag along on the trip out. It is on this initial venture that we meet Cujo. While Tad is entranced and Vic finds the dog harmless, Donna is immediately frightened by Cujo and does not want her son to interact with the large dog. Perhaps she senses the potential for danger, some remnant of women’s intuition spurring her strong aversion? In the 1983 movie, Cujo has already been scratched by the rabies-carrying bat, leaving a nasty wound on his nose which could have been a warning sign to Donna of trouble to come. In the book, though, the Trentons meet Cujo prior to him being infected, leaving the reason for Donna’s initial fear more speculative. Being that Cujo is a 200 lb. St. Bernard, it could just be a remnant of primordial fear for a beast coming too close to her offspring. Regardless, this first meeting goes without issue, making Donna’s reaction seem unnecessary. What is does do though is provide readers the association of fear with the dog. Intangible, illogical fear. We don’t know exactly why, but we’re afraid. Same as with the monster in Tad’s closet. (An association that we will touch on.)

After this meeting, the book walks us through several circumstances that occur between both families that will ultimately culminate in a kind of “perfect storm”. Firstly, Cujo goes chasing after a hare and gets scratched on the nose by a rabid bat. Readers are also let to believe that the subterranean cave Cujo gets his head stuck in and has his fateful meeting with the bat may also be the dumping ground for aforementioned serial killer Fred Dodd. The floor of this subterranean cave is littered with the bones of creatures who could not escape its grasp, both associating the ultimate consequences of what occurs within the cave with death as well as foreshadowing the situation Donna and Tad will find themselves in later in the book.

Additionally, during this time, readers discover that Donna was having an affair with a jerk-off “stripper” (I.e antiques refurbisher) named Kemp. (She breaks it off fairly early on though, much to Kemp’s displeasure.) Vic suspects the affair which adds to the stress he is experiencing from his job — a recent product (Zingers) from the Sharp Cereals company for which his small business does advertising caused a severe reaction in many young consumers. The red dye used to give the newly released cereal a bright, cherry hue is indigestible and causes several children to experience gastrointestinal issues. When they vomit, it looks like blood. Not great. It’s a PR nightmare and the advertising campaign Vic and his business partner Roger created for the product and the company does not help matters. (I.e. A “Nothing wrong here” slogan is a bad one for this situation.) So, Vic is not only (rightly) concerned that his wife is having an affair but he is also worried he will lose a large customer which could tank his business and leave his family in financial turmoil. Tad, meanwhile, is growing increasingly concerned with the monster in his closet, fearing what will happen when it starts creeping further out of the closet, towards his bed. It’s glowing red eyes and sulfurous smell linger in his mind. Even Donna can somewhat feel it’s presence, again sensing something is “off”, catching a whiff of sulfur that shouldn’t be in her son’s closet, a hint of the monster. To ward off his son’s fears, Vic is essentially forced to create a kind of chant/prayer to say with Tad before bed every night, a ritual that seems to keep the monster at bay. These “Monster Words” become something Tad holds onto in times of great fear.

As for the Chambers family, things are also in flux. Charity has won the lottery — $5k and she plans to use this money as leverage to get her possessive husband to let her go visit her sister, Holly. Joe doesn’t like Holly and her lawyer-husband and perfect family seemingly because they reflect everything the Chambers’ blue collar lifestyle lacks. He finds them shallow. Charity, though, thinks they offer Brett a glimpse into a better life, a better life for himself. After much argument, she managed to strike a bargain, allowing herself and Brett to go see her sister the upcoming weekend in exchange for the money. Meanwhile, Cujo is fully succumbing to rabies and the rabid urges flowing through him. He keeps imagining hurting people, tearing them limb from limb. Killing to kill. In the book, he battles these urges but it seems some unseen or supernatural force is slowly consuming him. Based on how Cujo contracted rabies paired with Tad’s recurring red-eyed monster, I believe it’s safe to say that we are meant to believe that Cujo is being possessed, in part, by the evil and murderous spirit of Dodd. At the very least, the rabies is meant to be symbolic of the primordial predator, the beast that has stalked our nightmares since ancient times, the creature that kills to kill. Because of their upcoming escape to her sister’s, though, Charity convinces her son not to alert Joe that Brett suspects anything is wrong with Cujo till they’re safely away. This means that when Brett encounters an almost entirely rabid Cujo on their property the morning they are supposed to leave, he says nothing. So, Cujo is swallowed by the morning fog, free to go fully rabid.

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Back at the Trentons’ place, things have also begun going downhill. When Vic confronts Donna about the possibility of an affair, she outright confesses to sleeping with Kemp — stressing, though, that she ended it because she loves her family. As Vic needs to leave on an urgent business trip with Roger to do major damage control and hopefully save his livelihood, he doesn’t really have time to hash things out with Donna, leaving them and us in limbo, uncertain about the future and wondering at how tenuous our futures can be. This also leaves Donna as an interestingly unlikable character (which contrasts with how likable Cujo was at first). We’re placed in this position to almost want something bad to happen to Donna – something I believe makes us feel all the more anxious later on in the story, as though we also contributed to the circumstances that led to Donna’s fate.

Anyway, Charity + Brett Chambers exit left while Vic exits right. 

Donna may have also tried to make an exit if not for one key detail on which the entirety of the plot hinges — her old Pinto is desperately clinging to life. The auto shop in town charges a small fortune (that the Trenton family, in their tenuous position) cannot exactly afford right now while the car dealership is located in New Paris, way too far for the Pinto to even dream of making. While Vic, from the hotel, urges Donna to call the dealership to pick up the car (he’ll find a way to pay for it), Donna doesn’t want to cause anymore hardship. She feels so guilty already. So, she decides she’s going to go out to the Chambers’ property and handle this small thing. They fixed the jag right quick and they can probably do the same for the Pinto. Even though she’s afraid of Cujo and uncomfortable around Joe Chambers, she figures she can suffer that much and have one less thing for Vic to worry about when he comes home. She was going to leave Tad with a babysitter but Tad outright refuses to stay at the home with the monster in his closet. More, he refuses to let his mom go without him. He can see the red eyes coming for them, smell how near the monster is. He’d rather they both stay at the house where Vic tacked up the Monster Words but Donna is determined and so, with the Monster Words Tad untacked from the wall in hand and a small boxed lunch Donna prepared to hold them over for the afternoon this errand was supposed to take, they make the unfortunate trip out to the Chambers’ property in the middle of nowhere, entirely unprepared for and unsuspecting of the doom that awaits them. 

As they go, King makes a point to emphasize how isolated the Chambers property is from civilization. There’s nothing but uncultivated land and unpaved roads. Ramshackle dwellings dot the land with miles between them. Unattended children in dirty diapers remind us of how careless these neighbors are, of how careless nature can be. In the movie, overgrown foliage and a small mound of trash obscured the Pervier property from Donna’s view as she drives by. The Pervier property is the closest to the Chambers’ and is home to uncouth, honorably-discharged-injured-in-the-line-of-duty-and-oh-so-bitter veteran Gary Pervier, seemingly only friend of Joe. Gary had planned to spend the weekend gambling with Joe and Joe’s newfound money. Unfortunately for Gary, Cujo found him first and tore out his throat. More unfortunately, when Joe went looking for Gary that morning, Cujo was still in Gary’s basement, awaiting his next victim. 
This is a particularly chilling scene in the book. Joe is hesitantly creeping through Gary’s shadowed house when he notices a dark blob on the floor in the living room, a dark stain spread out beneath it. Initially, he thinks either Gary is still passed out from drinking the other night or it’s Cujo, who Joe could not locate last night or this morning. Brett and Charity had not called about their concerns over Cujo yet. When Joe discovers Gary’s body and notes the torn throat, he understands instantly that Cujo has gone rabid. He runs for the phone in the kitchen and because it’s the 80’s, begins rapidly thumbing through the phone book for animal control. So rapid is his search and labored his breathing, that he doesn’t hear Cujo nose open the door to the darkened basement behind him until it’s too late. All Joe hears is a rumbling growl and all he sees is a brief glimpse of red eyes before he too becomes another victim, throat torn out. Good riddance.

Perhaps if Donna had been able to see the gaping hole torn into Gary’s screen door on her way to the Chambers’ or any of the blood just beyond the doorway, she may have known something was wrong. But of course she doesn’t. So, unbeknownst to Donna, she drives straight into the beast’s lair, the Pinto dying just as she reaches the Chambers’ property, a smidge away from the garage. She figures Joe can’t ignore the car now that it’s right outside his front door.

Since no one answered the phone all morning, Donna figures Charity + Brett probably went into town and Joe is in the garage. She makes to get out of the car, noting the eerie silence as she does. It’s too quiet. Just as she begins to consider what that could mean, Cujo appears. He’s covered in Gary + Joe’s blood, foaming at the mouth, and his eyes are a murderous blood red. They latch onto Donna, “The Woman” as Cujo thinks of her, and in that moment, the two become mortal enemies. Perhaps Cujo had a kind of preternatural knowledge that Donna was responsible for the incessant, headache-inducing calls at the house all morning or perhaps the spirit of Dodd possessing him saw a vulnerable woman and went ballistic or maybe it was just cruel fate but all of Cujo’s hate and rage are now directed at Donna. 

Cujo rushes the car and Donna frantically climbs inside, shutting the door just before Cujo slams into it. He growls, biting and scratching at the door, the scraping sound almost screaming. Or, maybe that’s just Donna and Tad screaming. Donna pushes a panicking Tad out of the way to roll up the windows as Cujo ferociously tries to get at them. Cujo slams and slams into the car, banging on it with his paws, growling all the while as Donna and Tad curl up inside. The car rocks but holds. Tad clutches the Monster Words in his pocket that he brought from home, hoping they will work now to banish this beast. But they don’t. Donna and Tad are now trapped in a dead car in the middle of nowhere with a 200 lb. rabid dog as their only company and with no way to contact anyone for help. They have little food and, as we learn, this is about to be the hottest summer on record for Maine. Donna hopes the mailman will come soon or that someone will see the quick note she scrawled in the kitchen about going to fix the Pinto but what she doesn’t know is that Joe put a hold on the Chambers’ mail starting THAT day and that the note she scrawled at the house would be erased by a jaded Kemp, who came by to harass her but ultimately ended up trashing the place when he found it empty. More to the point, this property damage paired with Vic’s knowledge of the affair with Kemp would sidetrack the investigation into their disappearance for an additional day once Vic realized something was wrong when no one answered the phone at home after almost 48 hrs. Brett and Charity also drag their feet calling neighbors to check on Cujo, battling their own more domestic demons.

Ultimately, Donna and a quickly deteriorating Tad end up in this mortal conflict with Cujo, a standoff in the sweltering Maine summer in a car that quickly becomes an oven in the heat, for an estimated four fucking days. It’s a nightmare scenario, horribly imagined, perfectly crafted. Every piece of both the Trentons‘ and the Chambers’ separately complex lives unified to create this situation. The trepidation and dread builds with each awful revelation that help is being delayed or sidetracked. It’s horrifyingly satisfying. Donna and Tad are trapped and like those unfortunate creatures in that subterranean cave where Cujo was infected, they will die if they cannot find an opening. Unfortunately, that opening keeps becoming smaller and smaller.

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Again, it all comes together is such a satisfying cruel way.

What I find most compelling overall is the central conflict in this story. Though seemingly simple on paper, it speaks to so many of our most deeply human fears. Though we imagine ourselves to be these apex predators, that position is tenuous at best. Any shift could tip the balance at any moment. We are confronted by this realty and the inherently mercurial nature of the universe in the form of a large, rabid dog. In this scenario, we are Donna and we are finding out in the worst way possible that we are not the predators we imagined ourselves to be. We never were. Survival is not a guarantee. It is and has always been something we must fight for — to the death if necessary. For me, this story taps into that most ancient need and the fear that propels it. Cujo (1981) is a compounding of all our most primal fears, this story a microcosm through which to explore what we do if placed in a life-or-death situation against an overwhelming foe — a foe we’ve let inside our lives because we foolishly believed we could tame nature.

I am in that car with Donna and I’m terrified. The world beyond is vicious and blood-thirsty. It wants to harm me and my young. As a reader, I’m thrust into this bitter us-or-them situation, wondering what I’d be willing or able to do under such stressful circumstances. Could I kill to kill? Would I?

And, it’s SO easy to be in that car. As in King’s The Shining (1977), the bare bones of the plot are scary in large part because of their plausibility. In The Shining (1977), it is the very real possibility of isolation turning a man into a monster that leaves us wondering just how much of the threat in the Overlook hotel was supernatural. In Cujo (1981), all of the circumstances that create this “perfect storm” are very real threats today — the obvious being rabid animals, intense heatwaves, car troubles, etc. and the underlying being dysfunctional relationships, abusive partners, bad business breaks, poorly developed infrastructure, wealth inequality, etc. All of these issues appear to some degree in Cujo (1981) and all of them are still present threats that could spiral out of control, becoming our own “red-eyed monster” creeping out of the closet. For me, at least, that is what makes Cujo (1981) so terrifying. Regardless of whether or not there is a supernatural element to the story, the plausible reality of it instills fear. 

The hopeless quality of the book’s (1981) ending, I think, also captures another level of this fear, perhaps the deepest level of this fear. In the book, Tad dies. Not because of Cujo or any other red-eyed monster. He died from heat exhaustion complicated by fatigue and dehydration. Even though Donna finds her courage and her will to survive and does challenge Cujo to a life or death battle that she comes out of victorious, it doesn’t matter. Even though Vic realizes in the midst of the investigation where his wife, son, and the faulty Pinto must be and heads over to the Chambers’ property, he is too late. It’s an unfortunate reality of survival — not everyone can make it. Also, one can do everything right or everything possible and still lose. It’s the horrifying reality and I feel like it is demonstrated very well in this novel.

Donna is motivated to survive largely because she wants to protect her son. Even though she feels guilty about betraying Vic and definitely feels like she’s being deservedly punished (she’snot – this is clearly overkill and if you think otherwise, you can fight me), she adamantly refuses to die before she can save Tad. In the movie, her efforts pay off and she is able to revive and save Tad (for some reason this was decided to be the more impactful ending????). The book, I believe, more closely mirrors reality though in that it is cruel and unforgiving. There is no bargaining with the universe, with a rabid dog, with an unrelenting heatwave. No amount of Monster Words can assuage such horrors. It’s a brutal realization and I think it hits it’s mark in this story.

Cujo (1981) draws a great deal of power from taking everyday horrors and cranking them up to an eleven. It emphasizes how tenuous our safety truly is at any given moment and how easily it can be put in jeopardy. We are all one bad relationship, one bad car day, one rabid dog away from crisis. We take the assurance of our survival for granted, not realizing we could so easily become another animal trapped at the bottom of a subterranean cave or within the confines of a powerless car, as the case may be. We place chairs in front of closet doors and write prayers, hoping they will  be enough to hold the monsters back. We make promises to never cheat again, promises to be grateful for the lives we have. We hope that all these actions are not pointless. That survival is not pointless. We try not to be afraid that, in spite of these precautions, it is. That’s all we can do and maybe, we believe, maybe it’ll be enough. We hope never have to find out either way.

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Hey~ I hope you enjoyed that brief walk through my thoughts on Cujo (1981). I recently read this book and it left quite an impression on me. I thought nothing of King’s could scare me as much as The Shining (1977) or Pet Sematary (1983) but I was delightfully and horrifyingly wrong. I hope I captured even the slightest bit of the terror I experienced while reading this novel. If you enjoyed this analysis, do look forward to more reviews of King’s works in the near future~

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