In the past few years, several television shows have used a seemingly unlikely animal as a sign of BAD THINGS: the deer. If, for instance, I were a child in The Walking Dead’s zombie apocalypse, I would steer clear of all deer, no matter how they enticed me with their seeming tranquility; in Season 2, Carl is shot after approaching a doe, and in Season 4, deer are featured in Mika and Lizzie’s swan song, “The Grove.” The opening credits of Top of the Lake show important images from the series floating into the depths of the water; the deer head (while not exactly this guy, still foreboding) marks a location ultimately revealed to be the site of a terrible event from the past. True Detective opens with the discovery of the body of Dora Lange, whose posed corpse is adorned with a crown of deer antlers. In Hannibal, murder victim Cassie Boyle is impaled on a deer head; the stag becomes for Will a symbol of Hannibal’s evil and his own growing darkness, and he frequently hallucinates/dreams of a stag with plumage and a Wendigo-like stag/Hannibal hybrid. A largely unseen deer runs rampant through the town of Mapleton in The Leftovers; in the present day, it occupies Kevin’s dreams? visions? memories? and destroys his kitchen, and, as we learn in a flashback episode, it crashed through buildings and homes in the days leading up to the Sudden Departure. Some of today’s best dramas are incorporating deer—from the ominous to the nefarious—into their shows’ symbology. But why?
In many world myths and religions, the deer is far from a malevolent creature; to the contrary, it frequently represents gentleness, protection, and regeneration (see, for instance, John Bucher’s article on Saint Hubertus in the context of The Leftovers). Turning a deer dark provides a powerful juxtaposition between commonplace notions of a deer’s innocence and the animal’s more sinister functions, as demonstrated in the shows mentioned above; it’s disturbing when, say, an on-screen child is a murderer because apparent purity has been corrupted, and the same might be said of these harbinger deer. In some cases, too, (e.g., The Walking Dead, Top of the Lake), the deer mirror certain vulnerable characters, who, like deer, find themselves imperiled and besieged. For although deer are typically connected with serenity, as the targets of hunters, they are also associated with violence and death.
But why deer in particular, as opposed to another woodland animal, and why so many? I speculate that it may have something to do with a deer’s duality and ubiquity. While often calm, deer are capable of destruction; they have the size and equipment to damage not just gardens and shrubs, but also cars, pets, and people. Furthermore, as human populations grow and towns and infrastructures encroach on previously pristine forests, with increasing frequency deer end up in people’s backyards. We are encountering more deer, more often, and, while deer are majestic and lovely to watch, these unexpected meetings can be dangerous. So perhaps the running theme of creepy TV deer results from writers’ awareness, on some level, of the growing—and potentially threatening—interaction between people and deer in everyday life.
Or, perhaps these shows’ writers can’t shake the association between deer and unanticipated trauma because, like me, they were permanently scarred by that classic horror film, Walt Disney’s Bambi.