Stephen King’s Cujo: A linguistic spectacle of rabidity and pensive fearfulness

Words by Darren TYNAN

Stephen King’s novel Cujo evokes a whirlwind of horrifying imagery, yet it is also a diverse text which operates far beyond the most obvious horrors generated by the eponymous character. Cujo, a rabid and murderous Saint Bernard, drives a large portion of the raw horror and crippling terror in the novel. However, it should be noted that this character is just one of the devices which King uses to evoke such sensations. There are other aspects of King’s work which parallel the monstrosity of Cujo’s gnashing, blood-soaked and insatiable visage; Cujo delves into the terrors of interpersonal futility, fear-driven infidelity, marital misery, existential boredom, and the inability to completely protect loved ones from sickness, depravity and decay. There are subtleties in the text which should not be foreshadowed by the monstrous canine vision which King portrays. By distinguishing the differences between horror and terror, Cujo can be dissected with an appreciation of how the mechanics of horror and terror can operate both singularly and in plurality. Through a close analysis of King’s work, Cujo can be interpreted as a multi-dimensional text which delves into an array of terrifying prospects.

In her 1826 essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, Ann Radcliffe states: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.” Based on Radcliffe’s definition, there are expansive personal experiences to be gained from terror. Contrarily, the character of Cujo is an embodiment of pure horror; a “dead world on his breath, terminal sickness, senseless murder” (King, 1981, p.260). The murderous rampage which Cujo pursues is a reflection of unbridled madness, and certainly one with ruinous implications. Cujo can be interpreted as an ‘invader’ who disrupts normality, and it is this type of characterisation which reinforces a common characteristic of the horror genre: “what generates this frisson of horror is an overwhelming sense that the invaders are obscenely, transgressively impure.” (Clute & Grant, 1999, p.478). Radcliffe highlights the differences between terror and horror in that horror is potentially detrimental and ruinous to the senses, whereas terror elevates the soul and ‘awakens’ the faculties. But it is too simplistic to state that these are both separate terms and operate without dualistic dependency. Terror and horror operate symbiotically, and therefore depend on each other to operate. Readers are confronted with the horrific imagery of Cujo’s trail of destruction and madness; several characters including the dog’s owner are killed and in one instance ‘gutted’. The degradation of human form in this case both ‘annihilating’ the faculties of the characters, and also generating terror for the ‘fictional’ townspeople of Maine (as a critical reflection of the horrific events) and the reader, in the external world existing outside the text. Thus horror and terror are not operating separately but pluralistically. Cujo generates horror and fear; destruction and critical reflection, threatening to freeze and annihilate the faculties of the characters, but also elevating these faculties to a high degree of life, retrospectively.

Cujo begins with an account of serial killer and policeman Frank Dodd, who is described as a ‘monster’ who killed numerous innocent residents of the town of Castle Rock, Maine. Although this information is not a cardinal aspect of the narrative, King provides this prerequisite to invite the reader to reflect on the constituents of a ‘monster’, before delving into the psychological state of Tad Trenton, a four year old who believes there is a monster in his closet. It is this sense of ambiguity which questions the reader’s interpretation of a monster. Is the closet-monster Tad perceives the result of his worried mind grappling with the heinous actions of Frank Dodd, a socially trustworthy individual? Is it a prophetic glimpse into Cujo’s rabidity, or merely some figment of Tad’s imagination? King asserts the interminable and universal monster archetype in folklore; “Werewolf, vampire, ghoul, unnameable creature from the wastes. The monster never dies.” (King, 1981, p.9). King infers that there are numerous monstrous forms to be found in his work. It should be stated that the ‘monsters’ which are alluded to are not restricted to tales of folklore and fiction. Frank Dodd’s character is a critical reflection of the monstrous actions of a mentally-ill human being, waged against innocent people in fortuitous circumstances. It is also a critical reflection of the ‘monsters’ of society: “The world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and the unwary.” (King, 1981, p.335). For King, terror and horror operate in multitudinous forms, driven by and coexisting with an infatuating and interminable sense of fear, which is embodied through the various characters in Cujo.

A thematic undercurrent in Cujo is the boredom of marital predictability, and the terror of living a mundane and unfulfilling life. The character of Donna Trenton, mother to Tad and wife to Vic Trenton, is confronted with the banality of her own existence, as she muses over how clichéd and predictable her life becomes. Donna struggles to articulate her worries. She is typified with Beckettian characterisation, as she tries “to make sense of the senseless and to communicate the uncommunicable” (Abrams & Harpham, 2012, p.2). She expresses a conflicted poignancy, as she realises her concerns are indescribable: “They were hard to define and even harder to articulate. Things like loss and fear and getting older. Things like being lonely and then getting terrified of being lonely.” (King, 1981, p.53). Donna’s reaction to this fear is a regressive one. She desires to deviate from the normality and safety of her marriage, and embarks on a treacherous path of infidelity. Donna’s affair with the character Steve Kemp is the resultant psychological weapon she uses to combat the self-anxiety caused by her aging. In this sense, Donna expresses the Freudian notion of regression: “a defence used by the ego to guard against anxiety by causing the person to retreat to the behaviours of an earlier stage of development.” (Hock, 2009, p.239). King uses this characterisation as a pivotal point to shape Donna’s journey through marital terror, in which she later attempts to redeem herself from her infidelity. With regard to Vogler’s character arc, as part of ‘The hero’s journey’, it is necessary for Donna to leave her ‘ordinary’ world, in order to gain new insight into her marital condition: she seeks to escape an ordinary world impregnated with the fear of banality, marital tedium and predictability.

King explores the terrors of infidelity, which are driven in Cujo by a kind of misogynistic warfare. After Donna has a brief affair with Steve Kemp, she experiences a moral crisis and abandons her love affair. Subsequently, Steve is reduced to a misogynistic frenzy, referring to Donna as ‘Miss Highpockets and a ‘fancy cunt’. His fury spirals toward a climax which terrifies Donna. She warns Steve that the affair has to end, and he states: “What if I decided it isn’t? What if I decide to just rape you there on the floor in that damned spilt milk?” (King, 1981, p. 51). The implied reaction is horror, as the reader fathoms the inferred act of rape. As Hanich explains: “The viewer (sic) is involved in a balancing act between the luring pull towards the frightening object of fascination, and the threatening pull away from the fascinating object of fright.” (Hanich, 2010, p.81). Steve embodies an erratic masculine presence, and Donna’s initial impression is one of horror. Her faculties are frozen and potentially debilitated, as she realises that Steve is capable of outweighing her physical strength; the threat of rape is a very real and tangible possibility. It is only in retrospect which Radcliffe’s notion of terror can ‘awaken’ Donna’s soul; her narrow escape from psychological torment and physical abuse allows her to renew the conditions and values in her marriage and family relations. It is this specific kind of retrospection which allows Donna to gain experiential value through terror, which naturally evolves from her initial reaction of horror. Her appreciation for her husband and family is renewed, because her life and wellbeing is viciously threatened with rape: a form of debasement and abjection. As Creed states: “The abject must, nevertheless, be tolerated for that which threatens to destroy life also helps to define life.” (Creed, 2000, p.65).

A marginal but important character in Cujo is Aunt Evvie Chalmers. She is typified as an old crone, a weathered and deaf woman who is both loved and tolerated for her excessively loud banter, and dies early into the novel. Her final moment is described, as she is reduced to a singular aural state after hearing a cry from a child:

For a moment it seemed that the cries were joyful, but as she went out, suddenly propelled as if by a hard but not unkind push from behind, it seemed to her that the child was screaming in fear, in agony: then she was gone.” (King, 1981, p.68).

Aunt Evvie reflects on her final moment, as King portrays her last realisation with a specific kind of melancholy. The reader is positioned in a state of ambivalence toward her condition and final moment of cognizance. It could be said that Aunt Evvie dies in a dualistic state of horror and terror. Although there is nothing blatantly ‘impure’ or ‘trangressive’ about her death, her senses are ‘contracted’ and are not nearly, but completely ‘annihilated’; her experience can be interpreted as a kind of existential horror with regard to mortality. Radcliffe’s definition of terror implies a kind or parable or didactic value toward the experience of being ‘terrified’. It implies an insightful ‘expansion’ of the soul; an expansion of cognizance and experiential gain, to achieve lofty states of consciousness and being. Thus paradoxically, the character of Aunt Evvie also experiences a heightened state of awareness in her debilitated state: her recognition is the universality of fear. Her final impression illustrates a poignant and functional aspect of the human condition, in which fear plays an inevitable role.

Cujo is a carnival ride of pensive fearfulness; the reader experiences hairpin turns into the multitudinous forms of horror and terror. King reminds the reader that there are interpersonal, social and philosophical terrors which parallel the murderous demeanour of Cujo the rabid canine. King’s work highlights the universality of fear, and the multi-dimensional functions of terror. Although Radcliffe’s singular definitions can be applied to the forms of horror and terror which are evident in Cujo, the relationship between the two is also symbiotic; the terms depend on each other to operate, and there is a constant interplay between them. Horror can progress into terror, which can have experiential value in the sense that the ‘expansion’ and ‘heightened’ state of life faculties can offer the important function of retrospection. The characters in Cujo experience terror that allows them to define and re-evaluate their lives. It is in this sense that terror and horror operate pluralistically, and serve an important function in the narrative. For King, fear itself is a subject of fascination, and an inevitable part of what it means to be alive.


Abrams, M. H., & Harpham, G. G. (2012). A glossary of literary terms. (10th ed.)Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage learning.

Clute, J. & Grant, J. (Eds.). (1999). The encyclopedia of fantasy. London, UK: Orbit

Creed, B. (2000). ‘Kristeva, femininity, abjection’. In K. Gelder (Ed) The horror reader.(pp.64-70) New York, NY: Routledge.

Hanich, J. (2010). Cinematic fear in horror films and thrillers: The aesthetic paradox of pleasurable fear [Ebook library version]. Retrieved from:

Hock, R.R. (2009). Forty studies that changed psychology. (6th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

King, S. (1981). Cujo. London, UK: Macdonald & Co.


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