Most of Stephen King’s classic novels of the 70s and 80s were about fatherhood and family under threat. Writing as baby boomers were coming of age, King was acutely attuned to what it meant for baby boomers to inherit a nuclear family structure that, in many ways, was inimical to the ideals and aspirations of their generation. As a result, many of his books from this period focus on the Gothic presence of previous generations, and previous ideals of masculinity, as they operated through and within the nuclear family as an uncanny staple of the baby boomer future. While this produced many of his greatest works, Pet Sematary is arguably the scariest, the most schematic and the most personal. In the preface to the most recent edition, King suggests that much of the book is autobiographical, emotionally speaking, while great chunks also mirror his own career and family at this point, right down to the misspelled “Pet Sematary” sign that gives the novel and two film versions their name.
Part of this schematic quality depends upon the space where the story unfolds – or, rather, the three spaces where the story unfolds. Both the book and the film start with Dr. Louis Creed and his family relocating from Boston to rural Maine, where he intends to start a medical practice. Virtually all the film takes place in Creed’s new house, which is sandwiched between a rural highway and the woods. The rural highway is mainly quiet, but happens to be a back route for trucking companies, which take advantage of the low traffic to exceed the speed limit whenever they can. The woods are part of the broader Maine woods, and are accessed by a path that also leads to a pet cemetery – styled “pet sematary” by a local child – where pets have been buried for the last hundred years. However, there has been a spike in pet burials since the trucking companies started using the road outside Louis’ house, where many unsuspecting pets have been taken unawares by an unexpected truck.
In other words, the film takes place entirely within a family house hemmed in on two sides by threatening and alienating spaces. Although there are many pets buried in the cemetery, and although Louis has a practice in a local town, we see virtually nothing of the local population. Instead, the film, like the novel, is almost entirely restricted to Louis (Dale Midkiff), his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), his children Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes), and their new neighbour, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who introduces them to the pet cemetery in the first place. While other characters appear from time to time, they are relegated to the background, keeping the focus centred on how this father, and this family, adapt to their new life sandwiched between the highway and the woods outside their door.
To that end, Mary Lambert really emphasises the transitional zone between the highway and woods from the very outset. In the opening scenes, she opts for lush, wide shots that serve two purposes – insisting upon the propinquity of the highway, house and woods, but also keeping them compartmentalized as different types of spaces. In fact, the more that the woods and highway encroach upon the house, the farther away they seem to be, or the more alien they seem to be, producing an anamorphic sense of space in which the Creed house, and Louis’ command over his family, is perpetually expanding and contracting. The crisis of the film comes when Gage dies after running onto the highway in front of a truck, leading Louis to bury him in the pet cemetery. In order to set up this crisis, Lambert orchestrates a brilliant scene in which Gage chases a loose kite from the family yard to the highway. As the kite soars over the yard and woods, but also draws Gage towards the highway, Lambert builds a buoyant and fluid sense of space – almost a sense of hyperspace – in which the highway and woods seem very close and very far in the very same moment.
Long before we get to that point, however, the film has to explain the nature of the pet cemetery, and neighbour Jud Crandall’s obsession with the pet cemetery. Before we even get to that point, though, the film imbues pets themselves with an eerie and unsettling significance. Specifically, Lambert follows King by suggesting that pets are often where a child first encounters death, and the concept of death. Early in the film, the Creeds’ cat Church is run down by a truck, meaning that they have to bury him in the pet cemetery. This leads to Creed’s first discussion with Ellie about death, and sees him take on a new role and significance as her father. Being a good father, in Louis’ eyes, depends upon being able to explain, regulate and mediate the meaning of his death to his daughter and his family, in order to preserve his family, and the fantasy of his family, as a source of life and sustenance.
However, the first part of Pet Sematary introduces a series of vignettes that challenge the ability of paternal authority to explain, regulate and mediate death in this way. There are vignettes about people who want to die, such as the Creeds’ maid, who commits suicide because she doesn’t have a husband or doctor to care for her, like Rachel Creed. There are vignettes about people that other people want to die, like Rachel’s sister Zelda, who suffered from a severe case of spinal meningitis that was a source of shame to her conservative family. There are vignettes about people who don’t die properly, such as a patient that Creed treats who returns to him in a series of supernatural visions. Finally, there are vignettes about people who die too early, such as a local child who was buried in the pet cemetery shortly after passing away. As these vignettes pile up, Creed finds it harder and harder to control, explain or mediate death, both to himself and to his family, while death eventually starts to elude the nuclear family as a site of explanation or containment.
Of course, this begs the question of why Creed needs to mediate death to his family in the first place. In part, it’s a matter of a fatherly authority, especially since he is a doctor. But it’s also a matter of his relationship to his father-in-law, who rarely appears in the film, but is a constantly threatening presence. Figuratively, providing his family with life is associated with the death of Creed’s father-in-law, not simply because his father-in-law competes for authority over his wife and family, but because his father-in-law belongs to an older and more authoritarian generation. Put bluntly, Creed’s father-in-law has more of a fatherly presence in his family than he does, despite the fact that he lives in Boston. As a result, Creed’s inability to properly mediate death to his family starts to feel synonymous with his inability to properly differentiate his family from that of his father-in-law, or to define his family as a discrete entity in itself, rather than as part of his father-in-law’s extended family.
For that reason, Creed is effectively excommunicated – or excommunicates himself – from his father-in-law, and from his wife’s family. Despite the fact that the Creeds have just moved to Maine, Rachel and the children still spend most of their time at her father’s house in Boston. During these periods, Creed is left alone in the house, and has to find a way to reinstate his paternal authority enough to rival his father-in-law, and motivate his family to return home. While his father-in-law is more suited to the role of patriarch, Creed nevertheless has to find a way to – figuratively – kill him, thereby affirming his capacity to mediate death for his family, and differentiate his family from the rest of the world. The first step in this process involves his relationship with his neighbour Crandall, who is the other main character for most of the film. In the absence of his own father, or any available father-figure, Crandall becomes a good surrogate, partly because he’s not really a father-figure so much as a grandfather-figure – avuncular enough to provide sustenance, but too old, and too eccentric, to really be a threat to Creed’s sense of his own masculine identity.
Creed’s remasculation also occurs through the pet cemetery itself, which he explores with Crandall’s help. Shortly after his wife and children leave for Boston, Crandall reveals to Creed that there is in fact a second pet cemetery, hidden behind the pet cemetery that he has seen. In the 2019 version of the film, Creed and Crandall moves through a series of nebulous, supernatural spaces to arrive at this second pet cemetery. In Lambert’s version, however, it takes them an all-day hike to get there, through a variety of landscapes that eventually lead to the top of a mountain. There, Crandall reveals a pet cemetery that was known to the local Indians in the area, but which also predated their presence – a supernatural site that has the capacity to restore life to any organism that is buried within it.
This is one of the key horror spectacles of the film, and is undoubtedly spectacular, following Creed and Crandall as they negotiate a series of Maine landscapes before arriving at the real cemetery, which is covered in ceremonial symbols and shot by Lambert from the air. In a comic twist, however, Lambert, like King, also presents the cemetery as a site of male bonding and secret men’s business – a way for Creed to recoup the masculine hubris that seems to have been hoarded by the previous generation. The reason that Creed and Crandall travel to the cemetery in the first place is to bury Creed’s cat Church, who is hit by a truck shortly after his family depart for Boston. While this has horrifying consequences later on, the burial itself is framed by Lambert, and King, as a campy male ritual, or rite of passage. Accordingly, Crandall explicitly prohibits Creed from discussing the burial with his wife and children, intoning “What we did was a secret thing…women are meant to be good at secrets, but the soil of a man’s heart is stonier, like the soil up there in the burial ground.”
During the next chunk of the film – and it’s a big chunk – Lambert focuses on Creed, Crandall and Church, who returns from the dead the same night, in an evil and undead incarnation. The same sense of secret men’s business prevails here, but it takes on a more domestic inflection, bringing the contrast between the two characters and actors into sharp relief. While Creed is mild, bland and devoid of charisma, Crandall is flamboyantly and campily charismatic, to the point where they seem to have arrived from two different films, or two different generations of actors. In their rapport, it’s clear that a middle term is missing – the generation above Creed, and below Crandall, that in King’s scheme represents the ideal combination of masculine distance and charismatic command, and which is typified by Creed’s father-in-law. They can agree, however, that the ritual needs to remain secret in order to protect women, and to protect Creed’s family, who finally return from Boston to find that Church’s character has changed for the worst, even though they don’t know why.
This next part of the film works quite well as an evil pet story a la Cujo, and is a pretty creepy story on its own terms, as Church’s behavior grows more erratic, malicious and unpredictable. However, things intensify further when Gage, like Church, wanders onto the highway, and is also killed by a speeding truck. While this is a tragedy for the whole family, and for their extended family and circle of friends, Lambert, like King, mainly focuses on its repercussions for Creed, and for his sense of family unity and cohesion. At the moment Gage is hit, Lambert cuts to a montage of fading family photographs. Similarly, when Gage finally returns from the pet cemetery, Lambert cuts to Creed’s father-in-law’s house in Boston, where all the family photographs hanging on the wall are disrupted by this supernatural shock wave. Before that happens, however, Gage has a regular burial in Maine, where Creed gets into a fist-fight with his father-in-law in front of the casket, leading Rachel and Ellie to head back to Boston so that he can clear his head and have some personal time.
Once again, Creed decides to bury a dead family member in the pet cemetery while the rest of his family is staying with his father-in-law in Boston – except that this time it is his son, rather than his cat. Tortured by guilt, Crandall also confides to Creed that the pet cemetery thrives upon burials, and that it may have actually “caused” Gage’s death in order to ensure itself another burial. Thwarting his father-in-law and thwarting the pet cemetery now become the same thing for Creed, who sees both of them as challenges to his ability to regulate death for his family. He thus buries Gage in the cemetery out of defiance as much as hope that he can ever see his son again in a recognisable form. On the cusp of the cemetery, this connection is made explicit, as a monstrous version of Creed’s father-in-law’s face appears as both the guardian and personification of the cemetery, challenging him to try to reassert his claim and authority over his family by burying Gage within its boundaries.
Sure enough, Gage, like Church, quickly returns from the dead, although his creepiness takes on a different form. In the recent remake, Ellie returns, rather than Gage, and feels uncannily familiar, living with Creed for quite a while before her evil nature starts to manifest itself. For that reason, we see quite a bit of Ellie after returning from the pet cemetery, and her undead incarnation becomes a new character in itself. By contrast, we see very little of Gage after he returns, since he mainly hides and waits for his prey, calling out to Crandall, who he kills, before disposing of Rachel, after she returns, and then setting his sights on Creed. What makes Gage scary thus isn’t his physical presence so much as the way in which he is abstracted and dissociated from his allocated role in the family. The child who is comforting when contained by the family structure now becomes horrifying when he can’t be contained by the family structure, or by Creed’s paternal authority and capacities.
To that end, Lambert presents Gage as a rupture in Creed’s parental and paternal purview rather than a sustained presence in himself – and the film’s refusal to present him as a presence to Creed, and to the audience, is what makes him so frightening. Instead, Gage is now so many lines of flight away from Gage’s purview, starting with his first luring cries out to his parents, whom he refers to by their proper names, rather than as “Mum” and “Dad.” This dissociation of his voice from his allocated role as child also dissociates his voice from his body, meaning that his body grows more decontextualized and doll-like as the final act proceeds, but also that his voice starts to inhabit multiple parts of the house at once, drowning out any attempt that Creed makes to regulate and rein in the situation. By dissociating himself from Creed’s paternal authority, Gage also appropriates that authority – and his first act is to steal all the medical equipment from his father’s briefcase, before setting out to use the equipment, and paternal-medical authority, as a form of destruction.
In these final moments, it is as if Creed’s own paternal aspirations, and those of the nuclear family itself, have returned as a source of social destruction, rather than a source of social cohesion. As a result, the violence packs a real punch here, moving beyond mere gore to a deeper sense of debilitation that is encapsulated in the way that Gage disposes of Crandall as the last tentative source of paternal assistance – slashing his Achilles tendon so he falls to the floor, and then slashing his mouth so that he can no longer speak. From then on, the possibility of violence to the tendons, or to the mouth, makes Creed feel unbearably exposed whenever he gets down on his knees, or whenever he opens his mouth to call for help. Yet this horror also draws out the campier and more comic aspect of the film as well – Creed’s relation with his father-in-law, whose phone call at the moment of maximum crisis eclipses even Gage’s rampage, and grounds all the gore and bloodshed in a banal family drama in quite an inspired, irreverent and unexpected way, displacing Creed even further from the pathos, hubris and authority that he is so desperate, and so unable, to draw upon.
Like the 2019 remake (although in a different way), the film ends with Creed having no choice but to embrace the nuclear family as a source of social destruction, embracing his wife’s corpse after she too returns from the pet cemetery. As he does so, Crandall’s words about the stoniness of a man’s heart recur, but with a new coda, in which he reminds Creed, from beyond the grave, that being a father depends on “what you own – and what you own always comes home to you.” In these astonishing final scenes, Pet Sematary truly feels like a summative work in King’s early career, much as The Dark Tower franchise would be a summative work in his later career. With pets crowding in from the woods, and super-phallic vehicles crowding in from the highway, the Creed house feels like a logical extension of both Cujo and Christine, dovetailing their very different figurative responses to the paternal anxieties that haunt King’s early career. And between those two spaces, left alone in the house to brood on his fantasies, and to try to come to terms with them before his wife returns, Creed feels like a later, more suburbanized version of Jack Torrance, writing and rewriting his own role as father in the same way as Jack in the Overlook Hotel, but with an even deeper and more entrenched writer’s block, an even more sombre sense of futility.