“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can and he tends it. Cause what you buy is what you own, and what you own always comes home to you.” ~ Jud Crandall, Pet Sematary
Hands up now. Who though I was going to quote, “Sometimes, dead is better”?
I’ve been meaning to talk about this book/film combo for a long time. I was going to save this for Halloween, but hey, if the film industry can release horror flicks any month of the year and reduce October to a mere punchline of what it used to be, than so can I. (:P)
It’s practically a paper, and because I ended up having so much to say about it, I’ve decided to split it into chunks. Read at your leisure, if you’re interested.
On the surface, the plot is pretty basic: man resurrects the dead (intentionally, for once) and shit happens. Spice it up with pets, ancient Native American burial grounds, demons, possession, infanticide, and Maine-erisms, and you have Stephen King’s take on the subject.
For a while this was lauded as one of his most terrifying books (in part due to the realism brought on by King’s hypothetical speculation on a few real-life events which happened to his family) and I maintain that reputation. Vigorously.
Before I explain why, here’s my history with both versions:
I saw the movie first, when I was maybe about 7 or 8 years old. My parents didn’t want me watching horror movies, but my friends’ parents had no such compunctions. Either that or they didn’t care, so whenever a big slumber party rolled around and we were driven to the local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video (anyone remember those?), we tried to pick out things that we knew we shouldn’t be watching.
That is pretty much the extent of my “rebellion” as a kid.
The first time I saw Pet Sematary, I found it more depressing than anything. I was so heartbroken by Gage Creed’s death, that was all I could focus on, long after we’d returned the rental. It wasn’t until the second or third viewing that I really picked up on the horror elements, and once I did, this became my favorite horror movie ever.
It wasn’t just that it brought me to the dance; there is some truly grueling, psychological shit in there that had me pondering death, grief, and humanity before I even knew those were concepts. And moments of it are, in fact, pretty scary.
High school really kicked off my reading phase, and one of the first books I sought out was – you guessed it – Pet Sematary. I fell even more in love with the story, now so much creepier and subtler and horrifying, and saw the complex relationships of the characters. I wish it had been one of our required readings, because A) half of the time those were boring or we were a few years away from really comprehending or caring about them, and B) Pet Sematary is thrilling and, despite its gruesome and obviously inappropriate subject matter, contains an interesting exploration of death and how people relate to it, particularly in their fear and avoidance of it.
Grief is an element of life that even adults struggle to understand and accept, largely because no two people grieve in the exact same way and in our attempts to find a common pattern, we often end up pigeon-holing and stigmatizing healthy people.
Rather than doing a standard side-by-side comparison of the book and the movie, I’d like to talk about what I felt worked and didn’t work in both stories. By that, I mean what particularly added or detracted from the horror or otherwise didn’t seem to fit.
For the uninitiated and unfamiliar, here’s a summary:
Louis Creed moves to Ludlow, Maine with his family to take over a medical position at the local university. His house is right on the outskirts of town, next to a road where large Orinco trucks speed back and forth every day.
His neighbor across the road, Jud Crandall, takes the family on a walk into the woods behind their house and shows them the Pet Sematary (misspelled because it was basically set up and maintained by the children of the town, many of whom have lost beloved pets to the road). Jud tells the daughter, Ellie, that the markers and “gravestones” speak for the animals and the love their owners felt for them, so it’s not “a scary place…it’s a place of rest and speaking.” Louis’s wife, Rachel, recoils at the mention of death because, as we learn later, her sister Zelda deteriorated and died gruesomely from spinal meningitis. She does not think death is ever a good thing, and is upset when Ellie later expresses fear and anger that her cat will die someday.
Side note: I love Ellie’s line: “He’s not God’s cat. He’s mine. Let God get his own cat if he wants one.”
A student named Victor Pascow is mortally injured in a car accident on Louis’s first day of work. As he tries to do everything he can for the student, and then prepares his body to be taken away, Victor seems to come alive again and calls Louis by his name (though they’ve never met). He speaks cryptically, remarking that “the soil of a man’s heart is stonier”, before seeming to die again.
That night, the ghost of Pascow appears in Louis’s bedroom, leads him to the pet sematary, and points to a cluster of fallen branches near the back border, saying, “Don’t go on, Doc, no matter how much you may feel you have to. Do not go on to the place where the dead walk.”
Louis wakes up the next morning, convinced that he had a nightmare, but is startled to discover that his feet are muddy.
The rest of the family is off at Rachel’s parents’ house when Winston Churchill, Ellie’s cat, is struck and killed by a truck. Jud, feeling a bond with Louis, offers to help him bury the cat, but then leads him over the “deadfall” of branches in the back of the cemetery.
After a somewhat perilous journey, they come to a place that Jud identifies as a “Micmac Indian” burial ground, and he instructs Louis to bury the cat by himself and make a cairn over the grave. Louis does, but struggles a bit because the ground is hard to dig.
Jud tells Louis not to mention what they did, and Louis reluctantly agrees and goes to sleep. The next morning, Louis is startled when Church comes back. Jud tells Louis the story of his childhood dog (whose grave marker had two death dates on it because it was resurrected). Louis asks if a person has ever been buried up there, and Jud denies it, seeming shaken and horrified by the idea.
Someone from Ludlow dies, and after attending the funeral, Louis discusses life after death with Ellie. Rachel, overhearing the conversation, gets the courage to open up about her sister’s death, and how Zelda’s condition made her spiteful and nasty, as well as difficult to care for. Rachel admits that she felt great relief when Zelda finally died, but was also traumatized by it. Her parents were away, and she thought that they would think she killed Zelda because she couldn’t deny that she hated Zelda and wanted her to die.
Louis’s toddler, Gage, runs into the road and is killed. Rachel’s father, Irwin, causes a scene at the funeral by picking a fight with Louis and accidentally knocking over the casket. The rest of the family struggles to cope as Louis shuts down a bit, weighing his options. He eventually sends them away to Rachel’s parents’ house again, claiming that he will join them soon, but not before Jud gives him a talk. Jud tells him that he knows what Louis is thinking about, and that it’s been done before. Bill Baterman once brought his son, Timmy, back from the dead after he was killed in a war, which resulted in Timmy terrorizing the town and its citizens before he and Bill are killed (circumstances vary in the book and movie).
Once the family has left, Louis prepares to exhume Gage’s body and take it to the burial ground. Ellie begins having nightmares in which she is warned by “Paxcow” that Louis is going to do something bad (she also had dreams of her cat being dead earlier in the story, though Louis never tells her that it happened and denies it when she asks). Rachel, remembering Louis’s mentions of Pascow, calls home and receives no answer. She then calls Jud, who didn’t know Louis stayed in Ludlow, and despite him urging her not to, she decides to come home.
Jud waits for Louis to try to stop him, but Louis does the deed and makes it home, where he crashes into bed, thoroughly exhausted. Resurrected Gage comes home and quietly retrieves his father’s scalpel, before psychologically tormenting and offing both Jud and Rachel.
In the morning, once he’s discovered what happened, Louis prepares a few needles of morphine. He kills Church and then takes on Gage, who appears almost like his old self right as Louis kills him. Louis, now insane and white-haired, takes Rachel to the burial ground, convinced that he waited too long with Gage, but Rachel would be different because she just died a little while ago.
The story ends on a cliffhanger with Rachel resurrected, and in the movie, she kills Louis in the midst of a passionate kiss.
To Be Continued…