Book vs Movie: Pet Sematary

The movie Pet Sematary came out in 1989, which means I must have seen it a few years after when it was released on VHS or aired on TV. When I was growing up, going to see a movie in the theatre was a big deal in my house. I vaguely remember my dad taking me to see Batman, but other than that we pretty much only watched movies from our living room.

Even though I was young, I had already seen my fair share of horror movies by the time I watched Pet Sematary. I can actually remember how little this movie scared me. When I watched it again recently, I laughed at how corny it is in certain scenes, especially towards the end when Gage is a little too reminiscent of Chucky. And while the scene where he stabs the Achilles tendon is pretty gross, it’s mostly just funny because of the obvious puppet arm in the shot.

But despite how little the movie scared me then and now, I’ve always been a little hesitant to read the book because Stephen King himself considers it to be his scariest: “When I’m asked (as I frequently am) what I consider to be the most frightening book I’ve ever written, the answer I give comes easily and with no hesitation: Pet Sematary.” That quote is from the introduction to the 2000 edition of Pet Sematary, which is the one I picked up at the used bookstore one day when I was feeling brave.

Before reading the book’s intro, I had no idea that the story is based on real-life events that happened to Stephen King in the late 70s when he was the writer in residence and teacher at the University of Maine. In real life, when King’s son started off running towards the road while a giant truck sped towards him, the writer managed to catch him (or the kid tripped, he can’t actually remember). But then he did what many horror writers would do: he asked one terrifying question: What if? And that’s basically how the book ended up taking shape. He wrote it, left it alone for six weeks, and read it again. Then he put it in a drawer and didn’t do anything with it again until it was finally published in 1983.

In a nutshell, both the book and the movie Pet Sematary are about the Creed family. They move to a new house next to an unfortunately busy road and also pretty damn close to a creepy cemetery. I won’t give everything away, but let’s just say a cat dies and so do a young boy and some other people. Or do they? The answer to that question lies buried in that creepy cemetery nearby. The movie makes some changes to the original story, mostly around characters (e.g., Rachel is more annoying in the book, Norma Crandell, Jud’s wife, doesn’t exist in the movie). But overall it stays pretty true to the book, probably because Stephen King was a screenwriter on the project.

One of the reasons the book is much scarier than the movie is that in the novel, the cemetery is evil for a reason: the Wendigo, a Native American demon that basically controls what goes on there. Without this evil force, the cemetery seems like the type of place you could just avoid and not be overly concerned about. But in the book, you get the impression that there is a force luring you there somehow, and that you couldn’t escape it even if you wanted to.
But to be fair, there was one truly terrifying thing in the movie: Zelda. She is the stuff of nightmares. Not that she isn’t in the book, but the fact that she is played by a man in the movie somehow makes it so much worse. Here’s how Zelda, Rachel’s sister, is described in the book: “Her body seemed to shrivel…pull in on itself…her shoulders hunched up and her face pulled down until it was like a mask. Her hands were like birds’ feet.”
Definitely gross. But trust me when I say that the image of Zelda from the movie will stick with you well after you turn off your TV. Not to mention the sound of her voice: “Never get out of bed again.” *shudders*
Still, even with Zelda, the movie isn’t nearly as scary or interesting as the book. And while I’m curious to see what they do with the remake of Pet Sematary (out in 2019, according to IMDb), I wouldn’t be surprised if it too falls short. So much of what makes this book scary is subtle, and subtlety is hard to get across on film. From the same introduction to the book that I mentioned earlier, King says, “we can only find peace in our human lives by accepting the will of the universe. That may sound like corny, new-age crap, but the alternative looks to me like a darkness too awful for such mortal creatures as us to bear.” Pet Sematary is about that lack of acceptance, and about how it could slowly make you go mad. In the book, Stephen King builds that madness slowly enough that you are able to understand it. Movies tend to rush you through and just plop you down in the crazy as opposed to hand feeding it to you like King does on the page. Even though the book kept me up at night on more than one occasion, I’m so glad I read it. It’s one of my favourite Stephen King books, for sure.

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