Exploring the horror behind Pet Sematary - iHorror
image via Empire, courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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When Stephen King wrote Pet Sematary, he reminded the world how dangerous horror should be.

That’s not to say – that up until then – horror movies were by any means safe. Oh no, scary movies have always served as a barrier between two worlds: ours and a very dangerous place. A place that could quickly take over your backyard, your place of employment, or, perish the thought, your very home. Under the wrong circumstances, things in our world could go quite badly for us and horror has always been there to express how awful the outcome can be.

Horror thrives on pushing us to the edge, leaving us no safe place to hide, and, hollowing out our misplaced security. Vacations turn into bloodbaths, psycho-killers are always just behind the door, and Hell always manages to be pried open. We expect that out of horror. We’ve come to love it in fact. The gorier the better.

In short, audiences had seen it all. They knew how to kill a werewolf, a zombie, and a vampire. Don’t have sex at camp and you’ll (probably) survive Jason’s killing spree. And never go to Haddonfield on October 31st. By the ’80s, horror fans knew exactly how to survive most scary-movie scenarios.

But Stephen King’s story gave genre fans a dose of terrifying reality … and no one, not even the most seasoned amongst us, was prepared for it.

It may shock you to know that Stephen King almost left this story in a drawer and – at least at first – had second thoughts of it ever seeing the light of day. That’s how much the story affected its writer. Pet Sematary came about one day when one of King’s own kids got dangerously close to the road and was narrowly rescued from the on-reaching clutches of Death.

“What would have happened if…” the master of horror wondered, and, to answer that terrible question, one of his most prolific stories came to be. As all good artists do, King exorcized his demons on paper and created a modern classic.

 

Pet Sematary took its creator to unsafe places

Stephen King had already published Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Cujo, but paused a moment and reconsidered Pet Sematary. It may not have ever seen the light of day had King not been contractually bound to release a new book, and so, like the demonic powers that manipulate the world beyond the deadfall of the Pet Sematary, some dark power had its way and gave the horror world this devastating tale of human sorrow.

Therein lies the story’s true power – the dark horror of the story revolves not around demons, zombies, or the Boogeyman; but around our own failing mortality. We are all just on one side of the grave, and one day we’ll be on the other.

image via Rolling Stone, courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What Stephen King proposes though is sometimes dead is better.

 

Sometimes dead is better?

Wars have been fought in times passed as kingdoms sought some mythical fountain of youth. The Tree of Life and its sacred promise of immortality is a central piece around many world religions. People want to avoid death at all costs.

But what if someone could be brought back from the dead? Can the grieving heart be consoled any differently on the issue? How far would a broken heart go to have their loved one back?

There’s a piece of our own selves that is buried in the ground when a loved one passes on and we are left alone on this side of the tombs. So how very tempting it would be to renew that person to life!

After all, crowds stormed to the side of Jesus of Nazareth begging His mercy to raise loved ones from the grave. Jesus may have raised Lazarus, but what infernal powers might we be dealing with to do the same for our lost loved ones if we were given half the chance?

Stephen King’s story pits a family against this very issue. The Creeds have just recently moved into their new home – a whole new State for that matter – and prepare to face the challenges and joy that accompany any move. Right away they are introduced to their kindly neighbors, the Crandalls and all seems well. Almost perfect in fact. I’ll go so far as to say not even Norman Rockwell could have painted a more ideal setting than we see among the Creeds.

They have two lovely children, a pet cat, and Louis Creed is the new doctor over at the college. Things start off pretty good. This is all set up for the tragedy ahead of course.

At its core, Pet Sematary is a meditation on our fragile mortality. People tend to forget we are all only flesh and blood. From the dust we were raised, and back to dust shall we return. Death is not biased and can spread its shroud without a moment’s notice.

Whereas plenty of horror movies deal with violence and murder, Pet Sematary takes us to the silent graveside and puts us next to those who mourn. It’s something we’re not exactly used to when it comes to watching horror movies, not the bereavement aspect. It’s not exactly popcorn material.

But Stephen King introduces his readers to the certainty of death and the dire consequences that come from trying to manipulate nature and defy our own mortality. What comes back out of the grave is not who first went into it. Whatever evil controls the abandoned burial ground of the Natives is altogether cruel.

Given what happens to those buried beyond the barrier of the Pet Sematary, yes, as much as it may pain the broken heart, maybe dead is in fact better.

 

In closing

Reading the book was far more impactful than seeing Marry Lambert’s original adaptation. I can’t wait to see what all is explored in the upcoming revival of this classic chiller tale.

The disastrous horrors that befall the Creed family are grim reminders of how quickly our own lives can spin out of control. I admit this is the one King book I had the most trouble finishing. I tried to read it on three different occasions, but I got depressed each time and had to stop. I finally sat down and read it this year, cover to cover, wanting a new perspective in preparation of the new film. Upon completing the book I find myself not depressed, but very impressed. This feels like a very personal work from its creator and it touches on so many human traits that often get woefully overlooked in the genre.

I mentioned famed artist Norman Rockwell earlier, and I stand by that. King is a master are creating everyday, down-to-earth people and pitting them against the most inhuman kinds of terror. And the lunatic puts his arm around us and say, ‘hey I got something wild to show ya, pal.’

And we follow the guy!

Pet Sematary goes into places I didn’t want to follow. I did not want to attend the funeral. I did not want to sit in the grieving home of parents who just buried a child. I didn’t want to deal with any of that. Life is bleak enough as it is, but therein is the genius of the product! Stephen King scares us because he lets life just do its thing. And sometimes life is a real bitch to deal with.

But with all this bereft discussion on death, it’s good to stop and not be so busy sometimes. Take time to laugh and enjoy life. This is what we’re given. So let’s live while we still can. Let the what-ifs deal themselves out. Or, if you just can’t get your own what-ifs out of your head, why not trap them on paper? That’s what Stephen King did and we’re all glad he did it.