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Why Pet Sematary Refuses to Die

Stephen King’s story focuses on our culture’s obsessive denial of grief.

Kerry Hayes / Paramount Pictures

Like a roadkilled cat gruesomely returned from the dead, Pet Sematary is back. The 2019 remake of the 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel lumbers onto the screen like a resurrected pet (or child): It looks normal at first glance, but the more you watch it, the more you understand something is seriously wrong. “Sometimes dead is better,” intones the folksy local Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), a fine summation for this remake as there ever was. Which is truly a shame, since its source novel remains one of the more thought-provoking exercises by King on death and loss, and what happens when we refuse to face what’s right in front of us.

King himself has said he never wanted to see the novel in film. He wrote it in 1978, after his daughter’s cat Smucky was hit on the highway outside their front door, and after saving his young son Owen from running out on to that same road. The book so horrified his wife and his friend Peter Straub that they advised him against publishing it. Only when King needed a novel to get out of a contract with his publisher did he resurrect it. “That book came out of a real hole in my psyche,” King has said about the novel. “If I had my way about it, I still would not have published Pet Sematary. I don’t like it. It’s a terrible book—not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals down into darkness.”

Like so many of King’s novels, Pet Sematary is about the darkness at the edge of town: the sour evil that lurks thinly veiled behind a picturesque rural Americana. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family move from Boston (where Louis was an E.R. doctor) to the sylvan Ludlow, Maine, where he’s to assume an unassuming gig as the campus health services director of a local university. What seems like a sleepy, monotonous job of diagnosing strep and mono takes a bad turn when a student, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), is hit by a car and brought in oozing blood and brain; Louis, despite a valiant attempt, cannot save him. But worse things are in store for Louis: His new home abuts a dangerous highway where trucks race by, killing local pets by the score. His property, meanwhile, stretches back fifty acres into the forest—“further than you’d ever care to go,” his neighbor Jud explains—where there are worse things than trucks.

What made the original novel so evocative was its fundamental meditation on grief. In both the book and the movie, Louis and his wife are struggling to avoid the agony of loss. For Louis, it’s the student Victor Pascow who he couldn’t save. His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), meanwhile, is still haunted by her sister Zelda’s death from meningitis when Rachel was a child (she blames herself for the fall that finally kills Zelda, and, as this version makes clear, she’s probably right to). When their 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) starts asking questions about mortality, they’re unable to offer her anything except platitudes and clichés—Louis the atheist via bloodless descriptions of decomposition, and Rachel countering with insultingly vague promises of Heaven.

When Ellie’s cat Church gets hit by a truck, Louis can’t bear to tell her, and his neighbor Jud offers to help him bury the cat in the pet cemetery behind the Creed’s house. Once there, in the dark of night, Jud seems possessed, and offers to take Louis and Church’s body past the deadfall of piled logs at the edge of the pet cemetery, through a swamp to a burial ground where dead things that are buried return.

The cat comes back the very next day, surprising those who thought he was a goner. Church’s fur is now perpetually matted and blood-clotted, and he’s got a mean streak, which he displays by eviscerating a still-twitching bird on Rachel and Louis’s bedspread. Is it still the same Church? Hard to say. You can’t get answers out of a pet, and even non-resurrected cats are a bit mercurial. So when one of their children dies tragically, who’s to blame Louis for wanting to take another trip out past the deadfall?

Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer want their new Pet Sematary to work like an uncanny double of the original: There are numerous set-ups building towards iconic scenes from the original, all of which are undercut at the last minute—most famously the scalpel-on-Achilles-heel action that was probably the original film’s defining image.

But mostly the remake opts for familiarity over surprise. One could not ask for a more dutiful checklist of horror film clichés, from the opening shot of the happy family in their car, watching the trees go by as they’re filled with expectation of their new house (seen also most recently in Jordan Peele’s Us), to the first-night-in-the-new-house-parents-get-a-little-randy sequence, to some of the hokiest mist-covered soundstages this side of a Christopher Lee Hammer film.

Overall, the film moves through its beats like a rote recitation, so rapidly that one has no time to adjust. Questions that went unanswered in the original novel go even more unanswered here. After his gruesome death, Vincent Pascow continues to offer wisdom, warnings, and predictions to Louis—but why? What’s his backstory? Does Louis have some kind of Danny Torrance-esque ability to communicate with the dead? If so, why haven’t the scores of dead patients he must have seen in his previous gig as a Boston E.R. doctor ever come back? (Ahmed does a fine job with what he’s given here, but with the filmmakers changing Pascow’s ethnicity, it’s hard to escape the sense that he’s entered “magical negro” territory.) Kölsch and Widmyer seem so eager to get through this whole mess that there’s no time to stop and ask any questions.

Their fanboy devotion to the original, though, means that the filmmakers saw no need to update the original film and novel’s most problematic aspect: its treatment and mistreatment of Native American themes. The actual phrase “Indian burial ground” is thankfully missing, but early on, Louis unearths an old map of his property that reads “TRIBAL LANDS,” and he later learns through his neighbor Jud that “the local tribes fled—they came to believe those woods belonged to someone else.” As he listens to Jud talk, Louis fingers a newspaper clipping whose headline reads, “Indian land claims unsettled.” For white people who drove the indigenous population of New England off their lands, it’s a comforting counter narrative to be told that the land was so evil that the Wabanaki people didn’t want it and left of their own accord.

Pet Sematary remains perhaps the clearest pop cultural expression of the white anxiety over the Native American genocide—we know full well we’ve stolen this land, but are desperate for some kind of narrative that will absolve us of that guilt, and the only thing we can come up with are horror stories in which the land itself is cursed. It’s an almost textbook example of Freud’s concept of the return of the repressed, writ large for a whole nation—as Philip K. Dick writes in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, “Reality denied comes back to haunt.”

Reality isn’t the only thing that comes back to haunt: pets do, too. Pet Sematary plays with that very odd status domestic dogs and cats have in our lives. Before his death, Church comes and goes, both a member of the household and an autonomous feline out in the world on his own. A paw in both worlds, he’s halfway between the wilds of the forest and the comforts of home. After his trip back from the other side, Church straddles a different divide: half alive, half dead—but his newly disturbing behavior isn’t really anything other than an exaggeration of his former life. His gift of a half-dead bird, after all, isn’t all that unusual. Almost anyone who’s lived with an outdoor cat is sooner or later to treated to such a treasure left on a doorstep. King’s work has always been most chilling when it’s about the monsters already inside the home, and even before Pet Sematary’s zombie-children third act, it’s plenty unnerving by simply turning our attention to the furry killers within.

If pets are a little unnerving, Pet Sematary seems to be telling us, then so too are our attitudes towards them. In an early scene, Ellie and her mother witness a funeral procession of a dead dog that borrows its aesthetic from the fox’s wedding in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams: in creepy, handmade animal masks, wordless children beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly as they pass by. It’s a purposefully grotesque parody of a real funeral procession, a dog’s body in lieu of a human’s, meant to hint at the darkness to come, as well as demonstrating just how seriously the kids up in Ludlow take their pets.

Pet death is one of those gray areas when it comes to grief. Everyone is sad for you when your pet dies, but you’re not supposed to go overboard. You can’t miss work for a dead pet like you can for a relative. Nonetheless, pets are how many of us first encounter death—in many households you could say they’re a kind of training wheels for death. The dog or cat dies, the kids are sad, the parents have to teach them about death, but then when actual humans start dying, it’s less of a shock for the kids. The whole point of helping your children deal with a pet’s death is to get them to see that it’s ultimately not a big deal, that eventually life will move on, that pets die all the time. There’s a reason that the pet cemetery’s name is comically misspelled, and why it’s cared for by children: getting worked up over pets’ deaths is childish.

But this kind of stoic thinking is of course what leads Louis and Rachel into such dire straits—because they can’t grieve themselves, they can’t talk to their child in a healthy way about death. Desperate to shelter her from death, they can’t bear to tell Ellie that her beloved cat Church has died; they try to keep it a secret, agreeing to tell her it ran away. And then Louis contrives with Jud to commit much darker deceptions, and, well, it all goes sour from there.

“When I read it over,” King said of Pet Sematary in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, “I thought, ‘There’s such grief in this book.’ Just awful.” It’s not clear to me why grief itself should be so awful—but also, King is wrong; what makes Pet Sematary so disturbing is its absolute lack of grief. The Creeds, like the rest of the town of Ludlow, will do anything to not face death. The book has endured despite King’s own attitude towards the novel, I think, because it’s hyper-focused on our culture’s obsessive denial of grief, and how desperate we can be to avoid staring death in the face. What The Shining is to alcoholism, Pet Sematary is to another pathology: what Ernst Becker long ago called the denial of death.

The new Pet Sematary is by no means a good film but the original story still seems relevant in a way that King’s other books (and horror in general) rarely are. It’s a story about the perils of repressing grief, of being unable to face the wreckage and reality of death. And reality denied always comes back to haunt.