Speaking of movies that ruined my childhood, the 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary is right up there.
The Creed family – man of the house Louis (Dale Midkiff), his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), their daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), and their son Gage (Miko Hughes) – move to Ludlow, Maine from Chicago, Illinois in the hopes of enjoying a simpler life. Almost immediately upon arriving at their new home, they meet their neighbour Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne aka Herman Munster) who seems genuinely kind and helpfully knowledgable about their new surroundings. Louis is a respected doctor, his wife loves him, and his kids adore him. Life is damn near perfect for Louis Creed. Except for the fact that everything is about to turn to total shit for the poor guy.
One of Louis’ emergency patients, a car accident victim named Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), isn’t able to overcome his injuries and dies. Clearly troubled by the young man’s near-death ramblings (“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier”), and the fact that Victor somehow knew Louis’ name, Louis dreams that he is guided by the young man to a nearby cemetary where Victor explains that “the barrier was not meant to be crossed” and that “the ground beyond is sour.” Surprise surprise, when Louis wakes up from this “dream” his feet and the bedsheets are covered in mud.
Rachel takes the kids to her parents’ for Thanksgiving, and while they’re away, Ellie’s grey cat Church (short for Winston Churchill) is run over and killed. Jud explains to Louis that there is a way to avoid having to break his daughter’s heart with the news that her cat is gone, but it involves a long walk and burying the cat somewhere other than the backyard. Louis vaguely remembers being warned not to go, but because he doesn’t want to see his daughter devastated, and because he’s kind of a dumbass, he decides to take the journey with Jud. The next day, something that looks like Church, but doesn’t act (or smell) much like Church, shows up at the house, and Jud tells Louis, “He’s your cat now.”
As the movie goes on, Louis suffers more painful losses than just his daughter’s cat, and for an educated man he makes some pretty poor choices. Not saying I don’t feel bad for him, because I sure do, but the dude doesn’t learn.
Pet Sematary is without a doubt creepy in all the successful scary movie ways – jump scares, haunting music, and good ol’ gore. But it’s more than that. It plays on our deeper fears, too – loss, death, grief, loneliness. If you lost the person you loved most in the world, your child or your spouse, and you had the opportunity to bring them back, even if you were warned that it wouldn’t quite be them or that something terrible could happen if you do… Well, it wouldn’t be such an easy answer. These are the things that scare me most – losing the people I love. This movie makes me think about that kind of thing and I don’t like it. As a kid, I was deeply disturbed at the idea of my sweet cat being hit by a car, and now as an adult, losing the people closest to me is what I fear most. It’s a hard thing for anyone to think about.
There is one scene in Pet Sematary that trumps all of that emotional mumbo jumbo though: the Zelda scene. If you’ve seen this one, you know exactly what I’m talking about and I’d bet money you’re right there with me. That scene still scares so much hell out of me that, I kid you not, as I googled images to include in this post, I accidentally saw Zelda, shrieked, and closed the window as fast as I could and sat there panting for a solid minute. I’ve been sparing myself that fear for 20 years but she snuck up on me tonight. Over the course of watching this movie 20 times or more, I’ve only been able to watch the Zelda scene once. Once was enough. Now I leave the room when it gets close, cover my eyes and ears, and wait for someone to come get me when it’s over. I chalk it up to childhood trauma, but maybe I’m just not as tough as I think I am after all.
If you want a classic I’m-gonna-pee-my-pants scare, watch Pet Sematary. But don’t, ever, under any circumstances, watch the god-awful sequel.