I Figured Out Why “Pet Sematary” Scares Me
And it has nothing to do with the zombie cat.
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary has always stood out in my mind as a particularly dread-inducing standard of horror. Just this morning, I was happy to realize what makes the story so brutally effective in its delivery.
This line of inquiry started when I revisited the book a few years ago. I was surprised to rediscover some of the B plots that I missed in my first reading. There’s a largely unspoken theme undercutting this story: Louis Creed’s masculinity.
When the Creed family decides to neuter their cat, Winston “Church” Churchill, Louis protests and inwardly mourns the loss of their cat’s manhood. He feels a deep sense of having betrayed the cat and, by extension, himself. Louis enjoyed the idea of his cat living dangerously and meeting his end like a warrior. Church’s transformation challenged his sense of manhood and individuality in the context of the family.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this side of the story, which in no practical way intersects with the A-plot involving the undead and an Indian burial ground. It’s so emotionally resonant, neatly underlines Louis’ mental state, and I needed to make sense of what makes it work so well.
At the end of the day, Pet Sematary is about a man who fails to keep his family together.
Most of the traditional haunted house-type horror movies incorporate the challenges of maintaining a working family. In Poltergeist (1982), the paranormal investigators make a big point of emphasizing that the family can endure anything as long as they stay together. As a storytelling technique, these efforts can get a little ham-fisted, but they do have an effective purpose: they instill a sense of hope.
Pet Sematary is completely devoid of hope. Every time Louis Creed works to sustain his family, the circumstances get exponentially worse.
The 1989 film did an excellent job of capturing this sense of dread. Rachel Creed’s morbid childhood spent with a demented sister demonstrated how their entire marriage was built on a hopelessly unstable foundation.
This is a similar tactic to one King used in The Shining. Jack Torrance’s internal monologue involves a lot of the values and emotional poison that came from his (Jack’s) abusive father. The family was rife with complicated, unresolved problems even before the supernatural came into play.
Perhaps that tactic is what makes these stories so emotionally memorable. None of these characters started as white picket fence-versions of familial bliss. Their major issues went unspoken or unaddressed, and the supernatural was a means of leeching their darkness into full view.