Pet Sematary is one of the most terrifying novels Stephen King has ever written. After finishing it in 1978, King famously put the manuscript away in a drawer, where it stayed for years because he believed it was too dark and bleak to be published. Although it eventually was in 1983, King wasn’t happy about it. He did it begrudgingly to fulfill the final terms of his contract with Doubleday Books.
“If I had my way about it,” King said in a 1985 interview, “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. It seems to be saying that nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that.”
What makes Pet Sematary stand out in the King canon has less to do with the monsters it conjures up and more with what lies beneath. The film isn’t frightening because of the jump-scares. As horror movies go, it’s not especially bloody or violent. The vision of a cat with glassy yellow eyes, hissing into the darkness, is not going to keep anyone up at night. While Miko Hughes is creepy as baby Gage, and his laughter becomes a dulcet chime for pure malevolence by the end, that’s still not the reason why Pet Sematary is going to dig into your bones and stay there long after the credits roll.
Pet Sematary is terrifying because it’s about death. Inglorious, mundane, brutal, senseless death. A death you can’t fight off or abate because you never see it coming. It’s not about saving the day or saying goodbye. It’s about what we feel when we lose something we love and cherish and need more than we think we need anything else in this world. It’s about what we would allow—what unspeakable, feverish things we would do or say, and what places we would go to inside ourselves, against all reason and sense, if somehow it meant getting it back, even just for a second. And most of all, it’s about not getting over it. It’s about being swallowed whole by the pain.
Once Jud (Fred Gwynne) and Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) cross that barrier, to venture to a place where the ground is sour and the dead don’t just speak but walk, Pet Sematary becomes more than just another rote Stephen King film adaptation (of which there are many) or some gory celluloid garbage to fill out a long, cold October night. It becomes a one-way tunnel into the heart and source of all true darkness, and it never gives us an out.
Similar to King’s most memorable works—The Shining and Misery, specifically—the inspiration for Pet Sematary came from his life. In 1978, King served as the writer-in-residence at his alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono, and rented a house for his family in Orrington, alongside a major highway frequented by trucks coming from a local chemical plant. In addition, not far from the house was a “pet sematary,” where neighborhood kids buried dogs, cats and other beloved animals. It was where his daughter, Naomi, buried her cat Smucky after it was killed in the road. Later his son, Owen, almost ran into the road too—King would later state he was unsure if he grabbed him in time or if instead, Owen stumbled before reaching it.
This chilling experience forms the basis of Pet Sematary, where a similar setting is staged as the premise for the Creed family. Death swirls around the Creeds from the very outset. Their daughter Ellie quickly becomes preoccupied with it because of the road just outside their house. She’s frightened by death of course, but she’s curious about what it means and how spirituality informs what becomes of the things we love after they pass away. She’s the only one in the entire film who develops a healthy concept of death, but her earnest anger and dread of it also acts as a catalyst, shedding light on how the adults around her have failed to properly accept death and loss themselves.
Her mother, Rachel, has an especially hostile view of death, because she watched her sister Zelda – a shrieking, groaning monster in the end – rot away from spinal meningitis. Although a doctor, Louis seems equally reluctant to face up to the finality of death. Consider how he fights to save Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), even when the young man’s death is already certain. This is important, because it reveals Louis’ internal conflict with mortality, even with strangers. And it’s because of Louis’ attempts to save him—despite the certainty of death—that Pascow reappears in spirit form. He tells Louis the barrier was not meant to be crossed, and returns—increasingly in vain—to warn him that to do it again will only make things worse. In this way, he’s a spectral manifestation of Louis’ own guilt and inability to accept death, and foreshadows the terrible events to come.
The burial ground offers the illusion that death can be bartered with. It’s not final, but temporary. Louis—and the many others, we learn, who have used it before—can take death back. It’s the darkest kind of wish fulfillment, but the false hope it provides only begets more suffering, because tapping into that power comes at a tremendous cost.
Despair is an empty grave waiting to be filled up and covered over. As Louis digs his shovel into that stony earth, again and again, to make space for more corpses, it’s clear it doesn’t matter anymore if the dead come back right or wrong, because the ground calls. While the novel makes it clear that the burial ground itself has a power all its own—and insinuates that, that power might be manipulating events even from the very beginning—the film is more ambiguous.
Instead, the ground seems like only part of the power here—it’s the senseless madness of grief unchecked that truly makes things grow. That’s why each man buries his own, so that with each stroke he takes a shovel to that part of himself that hurts and craves, and is crying out for one more chance to set things straight. He takes it and tramps the dirt down, so that his hunger seeps into the earth and coils around its contents like a garrote. The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, as Jud and Pascow both declare, but we know by film’s end that it’s his grief which tills the plot over and over, and that’s why he reaps what he sows.