Heather Knight is a lifelong fan of movies, with a special fondness for horror. Other things she’s fond of include comics, true crime podcasts, her dog, Stephen King novels and breakfast foods. If it’s a bad remake, she’s probably seen it. Blame her Trekkie parents for everything.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. How it changes us, slowly at first and then all at once. When I was a kid, I used to read R.L. Stine books cover to cover and sneak-watched Are You Afraid of the Dark? in our downstairs family room, familiar with the topic of death though I have no clear memory of the first time I ever became fully aware of it.
When you’re young, death can be more of an innocent curiosity, and I used to try to imagine where we went after we died until my head hurt — thoughts straining to reach an answer that felt just out of my reach and entirely outside of human comprehension. Where do we go? Who gets to decide? Does anyone actually know or is it all just made-up stories to make ourselves feel better?
Enter Pet Sematary.
Louis Creed and his family have just moved to Ludlow — a rural town in Maine — and into a house next to a busy highway that seems to kill more animals than it spares. To remember them, the children of Ludlow take the broken, lifeless bodies of their beloved dead pets to be buried in a place they call, charmingly misspelled, “Pet Sematary.” It’s the day that the Creeds first visit this burial site that sparks a chain of events leaving a trail of misery and horror in its wake that no one could have predicted, except maybe their well-meaning nosy neighbor Jud Crandall.
A patient is brought in to Louis the following day, hit by a car and already half-dead. After Victor Pascow takes his last breath, inexplicably, he speaks to Louis. “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier.” This omen sets the tone for all of the pain and suffering that is still to come for Louis, who never listens to a damn word of advice from anyone. That night, Louis is again visited by Victor as an apparition, who warns him not to go on to the place where the dead walk, that the barrier was not meant to be crossed. When the Creeds’ cat, Church, is later found run over in the road, Jud takes Louis to a mysterious place beyond Pet Sematary to bury Church. The next morning, when Church is suddenly back in the house like nothing happened, Jud casually tells a story about how he’d buried his dog in the ground past the Pet Sematary. Not with the happy ending you might hope for, though.
It came back wrong.
All of the characters in Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary wrestle with facing death in their own ways. Louis struggles against the contradictions of his work as a doctor in the face of comforting his daughter, Ellie, who’s just now beginning to open her mind to ideas of death and an afterlife, and a wife, Rachel, who rejects the reality of it altogether due to the traumatic passing of her sister when they were children. Despite his famous tagline — “Sometimes dead is better” — Jud rejects this philosophy to help a young girl who would be inconsolable without her cat. Pet Sematary has always resonated with me the most out of all King’s stories in that way, how it touches on conversations about death in a manner that provokes deeper thought on the fragility of our existence and how we grieve, soothing the anxieties that come with growing older.
The day the Creed family first visits the Pet Sematary is a big moment for Ellie, the first time she’s seeing death as more than a vague concept now that it’s right in front of her. Afterward, when she expresses her dismay to her father that one day her beloved cat will die, she’s resistant to the idea, crying that God should get his own cat because Church is hers. The first time you realize you and the people you love aren’t the exception to the rule, it changes the way you think — how you operate in the world suddenly faced with your own mortality. It reminds me of my favorite line from the book when Louis, looking on his daughter with Rachel thinks to himself, “We’re really going to get old. No one’s going to make an exception for us. She’s on her way, and so are we.”
Mourning takes many forms. The ancient Egyptians believed that to pass on to the afterlife, your physical body must be preserved through mummification to protect it from harm. The Greeks were buried with coins for the ferryman to ensure safe passage across the River Styx to the Underworld. Mayan rituals included burying their dead with maize, a symbol of rebirth to guide them through the afterlife, while Victorian England held such a morbid fascination with death and mourning practices that some created “spirit photos” — photographs made using double exposure to create ghostly images of the deceased next to mourners.
The Balinese consider cremation to be a sacred duty, necessary to release the soul so it’s free to inhabit a new body, and mourners in New Orleans hold jazz funerals to march and dance through the streets, celebrating the life and memory of the dead. The funerals I’ve been to have all been similarly somber ceremonies, where the guests wear black and place flowers on the casket without much fanfare. Regardless of the practice, the tradition of mourning unites us all as part of the human condition. Everyone is marching down the same path toward oblivion, some more quickly than others.
Rebirth and the afterlife are major themes in most belief systems, and everyone has their own idea about the big question. “Different people believe all sorts of different things,” Louis explains to Ellie when she comes to him seeking answers about where we go after we die. “Some believe in heaven or hell, some think we come back as little children, some think we just wink out like a candle flame when the wind blows hard.” When Ellie asks Louis what he believes, he simply tells her that he thinks we go on, unaware that his words would soon come back to haunt him. Beliefs in the existence of an afterlife may vary, but they all have a thread in common: Whether you believe in paradise or rebirth, many want to believe that we go on after death. Most don’t believe that one can come back as they were.
The inevitable climax of this story is when Louis’s 2-year-old son Gage is hit by a truck on that same highway. Incapable of processing his trauma, the same night that Gage is buried, Louis digs him up and takes his body to the burial ground. When Gage returns to life, he’s noticeably changed from a happy toddler to a bloodthirsty murder-demon. He kills Jud and Rachel before Louis is forced to put down his own child. Now driven insane by his own grief, Louis takes Rachel’s body to bury her in the same soil that both Church and Gage had been resurrected in, Victor’s desperate warnings once again falling on deaf ears.
It’s also never really explained why the place beyond the Pet Sematary is so different that it allows things buried in its soil to come back to the world of the living, but in the book Jud repeatedly refers to those lands as former burial grounds once kept by the Micmac Tribe. The notion of haunted burial grounds was not a new idea by this time, but at least since the 1970s and 1980s, it became a popular plot device. Movies like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist II and The Shining are just a few of the more well-known examples of how this kind of narrative became a theme rooted in American culture, possibly speaking to hidden anxieties about the land on which we live and the ugly truth lying beneath it.
The land we live on is not our land.
Pet Sematary is a giant cautionary tale. When you’ve lost someone, the pain is unimaginable. It can take you over — and if you’re not careful, you can find yourself bargaining for things you shouldn’t. I always think back to one of the most heart-wrenching episodes of television — Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body.” Buffy pleads with her sister to call it off when Dawn attempts to resurrect their mother. But in that last moment when they hear that knock on the door, you can see in Buffy’s eyes that she was only one decision away from rejecting the laws of nature if it meant seeing her mother again. What would you do if you could get back someone you lost? I honestly don’t know, but I’m glad the temptation doesn’t exist to find out for myself.
Reunited, Zombie Rachel and a delusional Louis share a disturbingly passionate kiss before Rachel stabs him in the back, ending the movie on a dark but also vaguely comical note as the Ramones song “Pet Sematary” sends us out. So what were the lessons learned? None, really. At every turn, no matter how many warnings he was given by sassy ghost-guide Victor, Louis still went to the place where the dead walk not once, but three times. Once purely scientific about the subject of death, Louis puts all reason out the window when presented with an alternative to it all. Grief is horrific and irrational. But if we don’t face it, we could end up getting murdered by our zombie wife in the middle of the kitchen.
What happens when you die? Most of us think about it at some point in our lives, and it’s ultimately Louis’s inability to cope with this unanswered question that leads to the events that take place. Whether you think we go somewhere else or simply return to the ground we came from, the one thing we have in common is that all we have is time, and not much of it. The ending of Pet Sematary encompasses what the entire movie feels like, just the right amount of camp while also instilling a feeling of real, human sorrow. The soil of a man’s heart is stonier. You have to tend to yours carefully in order to make things grow, but Louis chooses the easier path taken instead of facing his own grief and pays the price for it.
Sometimes, dead really is better.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019
Pop Skull – Richard Propes
The Ghost and the Darkness – John Tuttle
Graveyard Shift – Eric Harris
Alien – Nicole Brooks
The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler – Lou Harry