How Stephen King Scared Himself With ‘Pet Sematary’
UCR: Movies and Culture
Like many Stephen King novels, 1983's Pet Sematary was drawn from the author's real-life experiences – including the terrifying near-death of one of his children.
“That book came out of a real hole in my psyche," King says in 2009's Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King. "If I had my way about it, 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.”
In fact, King originally shelved the novel for several years, only agreeing to publish it as a contract-fulfilling move to free himself from Doubleday publishing. Even then, he reportedly refused to do any publicity for the book. It has also been reported that this was a screw you to his soon-to-be-ex publisher in retaliation for their perceived lack of support for 1978's The Stand, among other things.
Perhaps wary of the dark themes embodied in Pet Sematary, King reportedly insisted that his own screenplay be followed rigorously for the 1989 movie version - and that it was to be filmed in his home state of Maine. He also may have been concerned by the somewhat spotty track record filmed adaptations of his books had generated in terms of box office and critical reception to that point.
Meanwhile, he continued to be haunted by a pair of all-too-real events which inspired the book: The first was the death of his daughter Naomi's cat, which was run over by a truck then buried by King in a nearby pet cemetery. The second was a scary incident involving his son Owen, who King saved from a near miss with another truck on the same highway. Together this was enough to lead King to grapple with the deeply ingrained customs of funerals and wakes. As any fan of the book or movie knows, Pet Sematary also dealt heavily with reincarnation.
"I just had the greatest time writing the book until I was done with it," King told Entertainment Weekly in 2019. "And I read it over, and I said to myself, 'This is awful. This is really fucking terrible.' Not that it was badly written, necessarily. But all that stuff about the death of kids. It was close to me because my kids lived on that road."
The book and movie focus on Dr. Lucas Creed, who moves his family to a house built on a dangerous roadway, and soon uses a nearby magical (but malevolent) pet cemetery to reincarnate first their family pet and then one of their own children after each dies in separate accidents. Naturally, horror and more death follows.
Creed's attempts to harness the life resuscitating powers of the pet cemetery are reflective of his refusal to accept death as a part of life. In the book, King writes, “there is no gain without risk, perhaps no risk without love” – an allusion to Creed's state of mind when he decides to bury his deceased son in the cemetery with the hope he will return from the dead – ignoring the haunting advice of his neighbor Jud Crandall: "Sometimes, dead is better."
See The Trailer for 1989's 'Pet Sematary'
Early on, King eyed George Romero (the two previously collaborated in 1982's Creep Show) as a possible director for the film version of Pet Sematary, and actor Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame for the lead role of Louis Creed.
King actually sold the rights to Romero in 1984 for "a handshake, a token payment of roughly $10,000, and a healthy share of any profits from the movie," according to the New York Times. But things didn't pan out for either Romero or Campbell. Instead, the director's nod went to Mary Lambert, one of the hottest music video directors of the '80s and '90s. Actor Dale Midkiff played Creed.
Lambert instantly fell in love with King's spooky narrative. "You can create a world that exists with its own set of rules. You can ignore physics, but the only thing you have to do is then adhere to those rules," the director later mused. "And 'Pet Sematary' does a great job establishing and following its own rules."
Still, a few things from King's book didn't make it into the film. Fans were particularly irked by the omission of the Wendigo, and its relation to the "pet sematary" itself. (The mythical man-eating spirit also shows up in King's 1999 book The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.)
In print, King takes great care in describing journeys to the Native American burial ground (aka the pet cemetery) once belonging to the Micmacs – an Algonquian Native American tribe. No detail is more unnerving than the appearance of the Wendigo, which served as the supernatural catalyst in the book for the cemetery's ability to bring back the dead.
Nevertheless, this and other inconsistencies in the translation to film didn't exactly keep people from seeing it. Pet Sematary won its opening weekend on the way to nearly $60 million in box-office receipts.
King always had a fondness for call backs to characters, places, and references from his stories, and this film is no different: Watch closely and you'll see a sign noting the distance to a location called Salem's Lot, the title of a 1975 King novel which was also adapted into a movie. Elsewhere, the print version of Pet Sematary features nods to two of King's other works, 1977's The Shining and 1981's Cujo.
Lambert was also close with members of the Ramones, especially Dee Dee (Douglas Glenn Colvin) who she described as one of her "best friends." With her help, the Ramones agreed to write and record a new title track for Pet Sematary, which became an alternative-radio hit and setlist favorite.
Lambert later signed on to direct a sadly forgettable sequel, 1992's Pet Sematary Two. Filmmakers then returned to Pet Sematary again in 2019, no doubt hoping to achieve the same kind of twice-baked success as the 2017 big-screen version of King's It.