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“Sometimes Dead is Better”: Grief and Transformation in Pet Sematary (2019)

“And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.” 

Stephen King, Pet Sematary 

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary achieves the remarkable task of reaching into King’s chilling novel and transforming its most potent themes, moods, and ideas into an intriguing work of audiovisual horror. Initial reviews focused on the differences between the book and the film, a practice that tends to get caught up in plot details, losing sight of the fact that adapting a book into a film necessarily yields changes and that such films should ultimately be evaluated as separate works of art that aim to tell the same story in a different way. 

The best Stephen King adaptations - Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), Stand by Me (1986) - demonstrate a deep understanding of the heart of each respective text, yet take a specifically cinematic approach in bringing these stories to life. Indeed, Pet Sematary omits and rearranges certain characters and events, but meticulously builds the strange menace that surrounds Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family after they move into a house on the edge of the woods in Ludlow, Maine. The tall green trees tower over the Creed’s home, marking the boundary between safety and danger, casting shadows and housing strange ritualistic burials carried out by children wearing animal masks. Immersive cinematic elements such as the film’s sparse soundtrack punctuated by sharp jump scares and the washed-out and dark cinematography plunge the viewer into the unsettling world of this story.

Above all, Pet Sematary is a story about death. Each character has been scarred by a form of loss, or else live in terror at the thought of what happens to people (and cats) after they die. As a medical doctor, Louis confronts death, sickness, and violence every single day. In one of the most startling moments of the film, university student Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) dies a gruesome death after being struck by a car on campus, and spookily addresses his dying words to Louis, a man he has never met. Pascow haunts Louis for the rest of the film, showing up in his dreams and his children’s drawings, communicating cryptic messages from beyond the grave. Louis’s wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is fearful and closed off about death, and suffers traumatic flashbacks of her sister’s horrific death from spinal meningitis. Tension builds between Rachel and Louis after their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) starts asking questions about the afterlife, as Rachel wishes to protect her children from her own traumatic experiences by softening the truth, whereas Louis believes in honesty and openness.

Pet Sematary becomes truly horrifying when these initial brushes with and curiosities about death become direct confrontations, beginning with Ellie’s cat Church being hit by a truck. Despite Louis’s initial frankness, he does not have the heart to tell Ellie that her cat is dead, so in order to avoid a difficult and heartbreaking conversation, Louis and the Creed’s neighbour and friend Jud (Jon Lithgow) take Church’s body deep into the woods, past the so-called “Pet Sematary” Louis has previously sleepwalked through, to a burial ground with a dark, ancient history. The graveyard’s magic brings Church back, but at a cost - he is a grisly zombie-like version of his past self, violently ripping apart birds and hissing and scratching at the owners he previously loved. 

Pet Sematary’s resurrections call to mind Freud’s concept of the uncanny, frequently evoked in horror studies to refer to the unsettling feeling of experiencing something that is familiar, but not quite. Church returns from the dead in his same body, but there is something off about him - as Louis states in the book, he seems a “little bit dead.” He is scruffy and dirty, cold and temperamental where he was once gentle and soft. Indeed, seeing someone return from the dead is one of the most uncanny experiences imaginable, and Pet Sematary brings this menacing idea to life. Even though he is technically the same cat, Church no longer has a place in the family after his death, as he evokes revulsion and fear rather than affection. 

The questions King’s novel initially hints at - what if my dead cat came back to life? Would he be different? - grow into something truly horrifying when Ellie herself gets hit by a truck while chasing after Church. In the novel, Louis and Rachel’s two-year-old son Gage (Hugo & Louis Lavoie) is the one hit by a truck, but the filmmakers thought that Ellie’s curiosity about death and the afterlife would offer a perfect circle moment if she were to die instead. Desperate to ease the pain of losing his daughter, Louis decides to try and bring her back, perhaps foolishly but understandably praying for a different result from Church’s return. Of course, Ellie returns pale, cold, lifeless, and violent. She shows glimmers of her former self, dancing around the living room in a pink tutu, but instead of cute, her dancing comes off as creepy and strange as she smiles up at her father with her shadowy, colourless face. From there, the film unravels into a blur of heartbreaking violence ending in more death than it is possible to keep track of. 

The film relies on jump scares and increasingly bloody and gruesome familial violence, but what shines through all of this flashy gore is the way that grief shapes and drives people to do catastrophically destructive things in an attempt to ease the pain. One wonders why Jud ever showed Louis the burial ground in the first place, knowing its magic only leads to discomfort at best and more death at worst. It may make sense to anyone who has ever lost a loved one that if there was some sort of power that could bring that person back, you would submit to it in a heartbeat, regardless of the consequences. The magic of the burial ground acts as a form of denial, an attempt to cheat death, a task so foolish and catastrophic that only the earth-shattering force of loss can explain why anyone attempts to do so. The tragedy of Pet Sematary is that once someone is dead, grief is unavoidable, and the only way to keep living a healthy life is to face its terrifying scope head on and feel every ugly and excruciating feeling, a lesson the Creed family learns in the most horrifying way possible. 

Watch the remake.

Watch the original.

Buy the book.


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