Image by Jacob Salamon

The Grinch’s Dog Isn’t Real

Dec 11, 2019 · 5 min read

By Olivia Crandall

It’s basically Christmas. Which means it’s just about time to gather ‘round the old family couch and routinely watch the same six things on loop even though your parents have cable and a brand new Amazon Fire Stick still in the box. Because if a lifetime of heading home for the holidays has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes it’s easier to just let tradition take the wheel.

But if you’re tired of debating with your dad over whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie (there’s a right answer here), or sick of your mom spoiling every episode of House Hunters, maybe it’s time to mix up the yuletide media discourse. Get ready for a new theory to stir up an intrafamilial dispute: The Grinch’s dog is not real.

In case you’ve been putting all of your annual holiday eggs into the Hallmark Movie basket and somehow missed the three different adaptations of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, as well as the original 1957 Dr. Seuss book, the plot is pretty simple. The 2000 Jim Carrey film version, however, is slightly more complex:

All the Whos in Whoville love Christmas except the Grinch (Jim Carrey), who lives on Mount Crumpit just outside of town. A lil’ Who named Cindy Lou Who (pre-Gossip Girl Taylor Momsen) has a run-in with the Grinch at the post office while he’s playing some pranks. She becomes curious about the green misfit and investigates his backstory, finds lots of childhood trauma, and then nominates him as Holiday Cheermeister (mostly out of pity). With a bit of coercion, the Grinch comes down to Whoville to accept his award, but his childhood bully, Mayor Augustus Maywho, swings in at the final hour with a heavy dose of cruelty. The Grinch stomps back to his mountain and plots to steal all the Whos’ presents/decorations/joy on Christmas Eve. He finishes the task (complete with a jaunty musical number), only to find out the Whos don’t really care — they know the true spirit of Christmas goes beyond the material. This wholesome show of Christmas spirit causes the Grinch’s heart to grow three sizes, and he then proceeds to slide down to Whoville to turn himself in, join in the celebration and steal a Who’s fiancee.

During all of this, he is accompanied by his dog, Max. But not a single Who acknowledges the presence of this dorkily adorable creature. Cindy Lou herself has no less than four encounters with Max, and unlike any child (and most adults), she completely ignores him. There are no neck scritches. There are no gentle head pats. There isn’t even a shy smile.

This leads us to believe that either: The Whos are mentally immune to cuteness (there’s just no way — have you seen their interior design aesthetic?!), OR Max isn’t a real dog, but instead a figment of the Grinch’s imagination, perhaps a tool to handle childhood trauma or what Freud would call “the return of the repressed.” Okay, now we’re getting somewhere — for there are several potential ways to explain the role of Max, all equally pivotal to the Grinch’s narrative arc.

A Living, Breathing Service Animal (in a Town Where Every Citizen is 100 Percent Compliant with Best Practices for Behavior Around Service Animals)

If this is the case, Max should probably get one of those certified vests and fight back more ferociously when the Grinch forces Max’s butthole on the sleeping mouth of the Mayor. However, considering there are exactly zero other dogs shown in 110 minutes of extensive Whoville footage in the film, it’s highly unlikely that Max is a poorly trained service animal.

An Imaginary Fluffy Friend

Before going full Freud, it’s worth exploring the possibility that Max is an imaginary friend the Grinch never managed to outgrow. According to one study, by age seven, about 37 percent of children create an invisible friend. Oldest children, only children, and children who don’t watch much television are even more likely to dabble in invisible friendship. Bearing in mind that the Grinch — an orphan raised by two elderly women — was essentially exiled to Mount Crumpit while still in elementary school, it makes total sense that he would develop someone like Max not only to cope with fears, anxiety, stress, and trauma, but also to freely express his innermost thoughts and concerns without fear of an adverse reaction.

But just like real friends, it’s been observed that invisible friends aren’t always obedient, even if their relationship with children is usually hierarchical. This could explain why Max is sometimes difficult to control, protesting the Grinch’s nefarious plans with barks, yelps, and even the occasional nip. Although Max does fit most criteria of an invisible friend, the question remains: Why has the Grinch held onto him so tightly into adulthood? Has he perhaps become more than just a normal childhood coping technique?

A More Joyful Tyler Durden

If Max isn’t a relatively straightforward imaginary friend, perhaps his existence stems from deeper within the Grinch’s psyche. Sigmund Freud believed that repressed desires didn’t disappear, but rooted themselves deeply in our subconscious. The so-called “return of the repressed” happened as these buried desires began manifesting in behaviors (Freudian slips, for instance), thoughts, and dreams. Armed with outdated psychoanalysis, I’d like to propose that Max is the reappearance of the Grinch’s repressed goodness. Consequently, Max may exist as “the return of the repressed,” which Freud defined as the process where repressed elements, preserved in the unconscious, tend to reappear.

This notion of the return of the repressed appearing in film may sound familiar. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) serves as a projection of the Narrator’s (Edward Norton) subconscious desires. He is the person the Narrator would be if only he could live his truth, rising to every carnal need and desire, to an obviously toxic end. We can think of Max as potentially filling a similar role, created by the Grinch’s unconscious mind as a physical manifestation of his inherent goodness. If Tyler Durden is the devil on one hero’s shoulder, Max is the angel on that of our antihero. The spunky dog exists solely as a figment of the Grinch’s mind, pulling him to his ultimate potential, which instead of creating an anarchist fighting ring, is discovering the true spirit of Christmas and undergoing a bit of heart-growing catharsis along the way.

But What Does It All Mean?

No matter what flavor of armchair psychology we choose to dabble in, Max remains a constant force of good throughout the Grinch’s developmental journey. Whether it be as a service dog, an imaginary guide through trauma, or a manifestation of repressed emotions, the outcome remains the same. We’re left with a reminder that although the Grinch is green, subsists on a diet of mostly garbage and broken glass, and survives with a questionably human cardiovascular system, he’s just trying his best. He’s been through a lot and is still wrestling with how to deal with the damage his childhood inflicted on his psyche in a way that feels healthy. The journey of internal work is rarely perfect. And since Whoville doesn’t exactly seem to have a thriving mental health infrastructure, the Grinch’s use of Max is nothing if not productive. Aided by his canine guide, he walks away from the entire Christmas-stealing ordeal with compassion, self-awareness, and maybe even better coping skills. Which is great. Because if Max is real, maybe now he’ll finally get a bath.


The low brow of high brow.


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Wisecrack covers the intersection of culture, philosophy, and criticism.



The low brow of high brow.

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