Literature: Pet Sematary

Sometimes the dead walk. Sometimes dead is better.

Pet Sematary is a 1983 horror novel by Stephen King. It was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1984. It was later made into a film popular enough to warrant a sequel in 1992.

Louis Creed, a doctor from Chicago, moves to a house near the small town of Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel, their two young children, Ellie and Gage, and Ellie's cat, Winston Churchill ("Church"). Their neighbor, an elderly man named Jud Crandall, warns Louis and Rachel about the highway that runs past their house; it is used by trucks from a nearby chemical plant that often pass by at high speeds. A few weeks after the Creeds move in, Jud takes the family on a walk in the woods behind their home. A well-tended path leads to a pet cemetery (misspelled "sematary") where the children of the town bury their deceased animals.

Louis has a traumatic experience as director of the University of Maine's campus health service when Victor Pascow, a student who is fatally injured after being struck by an automobile, addresses his dying words to Louis even though they have never met. On the night following Pascow's death, Louis is visited by the student's walking, conscious corpse, which leads him to the "sematary" and refers specifically to the "deadfall", a dangerous pile of tree and bush limbs that form a barrier at the back. Pascow warns Louis not to "go beyond, no matter how much you feel you need to."

In the novel Louis is forced to confront death at Halloween, when Jud's wife, Norma, suffers a near-fatal heart attack. Thanks to Louis's immediate attention, Norma recovers. In the movie adaption Jud is single and the Creed's maid, Missy Dandridge, commits suicide in their basement and the Creeds help arrange her funeral. After Church is run over while the kids are visiting their grandparents with Rachel for Thanksgiving, Jud leads Louis beyond the deadfall to an ancient burial ground that was once used by the Micmacs, a Native American tribe. Following Jud's instructions, Louis buries the cat and constructs a cairn. The next afternoon, the cat returns home. However, while he used to be vibrant and lively, he now acts ornery and "a little dead," in Louis's words.

Several months later Gage, who had just learned to walk, is run over by a speeding truck. Overcome with despair, Louis has Rachel and Ellie visit her parents again, not telling them his intentions. Louis exhumes his son's body and buries Gage at the burial ground. Gage returns as a demonic shadow of his former self, able to talk like an adult. Ellie has terryfing visions about that, which eventually convince Rachel to go back to Ludlow, where she meets Gage... After learning that Gage killed Jud and Rachel, Louis kills him with a morphine injection. After that, his mind is pushed into its final stage of insanity. Louis, now completely insane and having prematurely aged, burns down Jud Crandall's house, then carries Rachel's body to the burial ground, saying that he "waited too long" with Gage but is confident that Rachel will come back the same as before...

King has said his goal was to write a novel too scary to be read all the way through, and many critics said he came uncomfortably close to accomplishing it. It's still regarded by many as the scariest thing he's ever written.

The 1989 film adaptation starred Dale Midkiff as Louis, Fred Gwynne as Jud, Denise Crosby as Rachel and Miko Hughes as Gage.

A remake of the film is in the works.


This book/movie provides examples of:

  • Ascended Extra: Pascow has a much bigger role in the movie. He wasn't exactly an extra in the book, but he only actually appears on-page twice: immediately after the accident that kills him, and once in Louis' dream. He later appears to Ellie in the same way, but the reader only learns about it from Ellie telling Rachel after the fact.
  • Arc Words: "The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis."
  • Adult Fear: Losing a child. Other parental fears are brought up as well, such as worrying about a child's first day at school, or having to explain the concept of mortality to them.
  • Ax-Crazy: Some of the animals (namely Hanratty the bull) resurrected by the burial ground become this, while resurrected humans are this trope times ten.
  • Biblical Motifs: Biblical excerpts about Lazarus of Bethany and the story of his resurrection by Jesus are quoted/paraphrased at the start of each section of the novel. For obvious reasons.
  • Big "NO!": Louis does this after Gage gets hit by the truck.
    • Also, Pascow does it in the movie at the end when Louis ignores his warning.
  • Black Comedy: Louis, when Rachel tells him that her father bought Ellie six new dresses when they visited for Thanksgiving, thinks angrily to himself: "He bought her six dresses, and I brought her god-damned cat back from the dead, so who loves her more?!"
  • Blond Guys Are Evil: Or in this case, as in the case of many horror films, little blond boys are evil. This is only true after Gage's resurrection of course; before, he was a perfectly normal non-evil little blond boy.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Book only. The last scene has the resurrected Rachel laying her hand on Louis' shoulder and saying, "Darling." What happens afterwards is left to the reader's imagination. The movie is less ambiguous - the final scene has Rachel swinging a knife toward Louis' throat before it cuts to black.
  • Came Back Wrong: The main conflict and the real reason why dead is better in this case.
  • Cats Are Mean: Louis didn't want to neuter Church, becaue he liked him "lean and mean", and thought that cats are "gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law". After Church was resurrected, he became downright sadistic, often killing and mutilating animals for fun.
  • Cat Scare: All over the damn place after Church's resurrection. Even in the book, where at one point Louis wakes up to find Church sitting on his chest and staring at him.
  • Cool Old Guy: Jud Crandall. Louis starts to feel like Jud is the father he never had.
  • Creator Cameo: Stephen King makes a cameo appearance as a minister who officiates at the funeral of Missy Dandridge in the film.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Pascow's undead appearance is unsettling, but in spite of it he's the closest thing there is to a Big Good, attempting to warn Louis and prevent the destruction of his family.
  • Dead Kite and Shoe Shot
  • Despair Event Horizon: Louis rapidly starts approaching this after Gage's death. Jud and Rachel's deaths and being forced to kill Gage all over again finally send him shooting right over it, destroying him and shattering whatever remained of his already broken mind.
  • Downer Ending: Like you didn't see this coming.
  • Dying as Yourself: Gage. "Daddy!" Makes it even worse.
    • Averted in the film: "No fair!"
  • Eldritch Abomination: Very possible explanation for what the burial ground is. It is most definitely an Eldritch Location.
  • Enfante Terrible: Gage when he comes back.
  • Eye Scream: It's implied Gage stabs Rachel in the eye with a cane, and later on in the movie Louis finds her with one of her eyes missing.
  • Filk Song: The Ramones provided one.
  • Foreshadowing: Almost to the point where everything is spelled out to the audience
    • It borders on spoiling its own plot, at times. See Oh, and X Dies below.
    • To the extent that it's obvious Gage's death is not meant to surprise the reader. From the moment the discrepancy between the two death dates of Jud's dog is revealed, it's clear that Gage is doomed.
  • From Bad to Worse: The entire second half of the novel, after Gage dies. Heck, it starts with this sentence: "It's probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience."
  • Genius Loci: The Micmac Burying Ground, in the sense that it is 'addictive' (people who have buried pets there keep making up excuses or finding reasons to use it again) and can project its will on people (it essentially drives Louis insane, and it makes Jud fall asleep so that he is too late to prevent Louis from going up there again to bury Gage). It's also heavily implied that it influenced the truck driver to hit Gage.
  • Good Parents: Rachel and Louis are genuinely good people who love their kids above all.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Unusually for Stephen King, this is utilized when Gage kills Jud and Rachel.
  • Harmful to Minors: It is revealed that Rachel was traumatized by the early death of her sister, Zelda, from spinal meningitis. And it wasn't simply that she died, but that she died while Rachel (eight years old at the time) was watching her while their parents were out; what happened was that Zelda swallowed her tongue and Rachel was unable to keep her from choking to death. What made this even worse for Rachel was that, deep down, she resented the fact that she had to help take care of Zelda, and part of her wanted Zelda to die, because due to her suffering, Zelda became deranged and malicious.
  • Haunted House Historian: Jud Crandall, who relates the history of the Pet Sematary and the Burying Ground to Louis.
  • Heroic BSOD:
    • The family starts going through one after Gage dies. Louis drifts off and keeps replaying those last few seconds before Gage is hit by the truck in his mind, Rachel can barely dress herself and breaks down in tears multiple times, and Ellie stops talking almost completely for a while and constantly carries a photo of her and Gage everywhere she goes.
    • Louis gets even worse later in the book. After killing the resurrected Gage, Louis crouches down in a corner, and sucks on his thumb for two hours. Unlike other examples of this trope, he doesn't get better, he's just insane now.
  • Hope Spot: Not long after Gage's funeral, the narrative abruptly shifts gears with "But none of those things happened", clarifies that Louis in fact did manage to save Gage from the oncoming truck, and spends a few pages powering through Gage's life until the point where he becomes a gold-medal Olympic swimmer... and then Louis awakens back into the reality where his son is dead.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Zelda is portrayed like this in the film. Also, anyone who was buried in the Micmac burying ground comes back as one.
  • Idiot Ball: Louis' poor thinking is understandable considering his deep trauma but Jud really has no excuse in the movie. He opens the door of a nefarious secret in the first place, even when he knows from experience that even if it's restricted to animals, it will go wrong. It may be justified somewhat in that the burying ground is able to influence people's decisions.
  • Ill Girl: Averted. The Goldmans knew exactly what was wrong with Zelda, and she doesn't endure her suffering gracefully, to say the least.
  • Infant Immortality: Completely averted.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Jud with the Creeds, especially Louis (and in the book, Norma also forms such relationships with the younger family).
  • It's Quiet... Too Quiet: During Louis' second trip through Little God Swamp, the approach of the Wendigo is signaled not only by the vibrations of its footsteps and the sound of cracking underbrush, but the fact that the constant chorus of peepers and frogs suddenly goes silent.
  • Jerkass: Rachel's father, Irwin Goldman. Though, to be fair to him, he is genuinely upset about his grandson's death when it happens. He also calls Louis later to apologize for his behavior, so he's not all bad.
    • The main reason Louis considers Irwin a Jerkass is because he tried to bribe Louis into not marrying Rachel, by offering to pay his way through medical school if he agreed to break off the engagement. The massive verbal throwdown this ignites is why Louis and Irwin loathe each other.
  • Just a Kid / Not Now, Kiddo: Ellie begins to have premonitions early on in the movie, but her parents shrug them off as simple nightmares.
    • Eventually, her mother believes her, but that just makes things worse: she goes back to Maine, and gets killed by Gage.
  • Last Disrespects: Rather than quietly grieving, Irwin Goldman uses Gage's funeral as an excuse to start a fight with his son-in-law.
  • Lies to Children: This trope is brought up when Louis is thinking about his cousin Ruthie, who died when Louis was very young. His mother lied to him about where babies come from, but she told the cold harsh truth when Ruthie died after being hit by a kid who had stolen the keys to a payloader and went joyriding. Louis resolves never to lie to his children in that way, and tells Ellie where do babies come from, and that her cat will die one day. But ironically he can't bring himself to tell the truth to Ellie when Church is killed in the road, and he soon finds that the burying ground ensures that he doesn't have to.
  • Life Will Kill You: Brought up in the narration, in the form of "Oz the Gweat and Tewwible":
    He was around all the time, he monitored all the checkpoints between the mortal and the eternal. Dirty needles, poison beetles, downed live wires, forest fires. Whirling roller skates that shot nerdy little kids into busy intersections. When you got into the bathtub to take a shower, Oz got right in there too- Shower With A Friend. When you got on an airplane, Oz took your boarding pass. He was in the water you drank, the food you ate. Who's out there? you howled in the dark when you were all frightened and all alone, and it was his answer that came back: Don't be afraid, it's just me.
  • Like Father, Like Daughter: When Louis convinces Rachel to take Ellie and go to Chicago to stay with her parents for a while (in order to get them out of the house so he can re-bury Gage in the Micmac burying ground), Irwin Goldman calls Louis and apologizes for fighting with him at Gage's funeral. Louis realizes that he's acting exactly like Rachel: whenever she complains about something and finally gets her way, she would come back and say, "I'm sorry I was such a bitch." Irwin's apology is genuine but he is also calling to say "I'm sorry I was such a bastard" after getting what he wanted, which was more time with his daughter and grandchild.
  • Locked into Strangeness: When Louis goes insane after killing Gage, his hair turns white.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Louis' decision to try and resurrect Gage despite the fact that Gage would almost assuredly come back wrong is a combination of this and More Than Mind Control on the part of the burying ground itself. He would do anything to have his son back and the burying ground offers that opportunity, and encourages Louis to take it.
  • Monster from Beyond the Veil: This is what happens to almost anything the burial ground resurrects.
  • More Than Mind Control: In the book, the influence of the whatever-it-is in the burial ground is implied to be responsible for Gage's death, Rachel not making it back in time to stop her husband, Jud's telling Louis about the burial ground in the first place, and Louis's Too Dumb to Live behavior is in fact a combination of its influence and the emotional wringer it's been putting him through.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Used with the Wendigo in the book. Louis sees the glimmer of its eyes, and finds evidence of its passage but never actually sees the creature itself.
  • Number of the Beast: In the film, the chemical truck Rachel rides back to the house is numbered 666 (the bottom half of the number is out of frame).
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Rachel's father disliked Louis from the beginning, and even tried to bribe him (offering to pay his tuition through med school) if he breaks up with Rachel. Louis told him to take his checkbook and plug up his ass with it. Not exactly a promising first step toward good relations with the future in-laws.
  • Oh, and X Dies: Two examples.
    • "[Norma Crandall] had recovered nicely from her heart attack, and on that evening less than ten weeks before a cerebral accident would kill her, [Louis] thought that she looked less haggard and actually younger." This is a fairly tame example, of course — since even before she was introduced, the shroud of natural death has hung over Norma, and she and those around her are quite comfortable with it. We know as readers that she'll die in the course of the story, probably peacefully before the horror begins, so Foreshadowing her death this baldly isn't a huge deal. It's nothing like the Wham Line toward the end of Part One, during the kite flying scene...
    • "And Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously." Later on in the very same page, King even explains that "marbles were really not the problem [i.e. the hazard that would soon take Gage's life], and chills were really not the problem, that a large Orinco truck was going to be the problem, that the road was going to be the problem..." A few pages and two months later, and Gage is dead.
  • Older Than They Look: When Louis first meets Jud, he thinks that Jud is around 70. He's actually 83.
  • Orphaned Punchline: A joke is mentioned about a Jewish tailor who bought a parrot whose only line was "Ariel Sharon jerks off."
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The Burying Ground's resurrectees are Revenant Zombies. They look and act alive enough, but it's fairly easy to tell that they're functionally dead. At best, they're just not themselves (most animals turn out like this) and are occasionally a fair bit nastier. Humans, however, return as sadistic, homicidal (and most likely cannibalistic) monsters with a fondness for Hannibal Lectures that contain knowledge that the resurrected could not have possibly had, making it obvious that it's not them but rather something using their body as a vessel.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The main theme of the book is how people deal with the deaths of loved ones; Louis Creed being unable to cope with Gage's death leads to the destruction of everyone close to him.
  • Parental Favoritism: Louis may have already had a little of this going on before Gage died, but after the accident all he can think about is how he failed to save Gage and how he might be able to bring him back. In his Heroic BSOD state he starts to neglect both Ellie and Rachel, despite Steve and Jud telling him that they need his support now more than they ever have.
  • Parental Substitute: Jud is a father figure for Louis who lost his own father at a young age. When Louis was a boy the most prominent male presence in his life was his uncle Carl, who was an undertaker and father of his beloved cousin Ruthie.
  • Rant Inducing Slight: When Missy Dandridge tries to console Louis (and probably herself as well) at Gage's receiving and says "Thank God he didn't suffer", Louis nearly explodes with rage, going through a long rant in his head, but he manages to control himself.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot - King mentions in On Writing that it is a parent's job to save your kid's life. His son bolted towards a road where semis blew by on a regular basis, and King caught him. What he couldn't stop thinking about was what would have happened if he hadn't. As he put it, he not only found himself thinking the unthinkable, but writing it down.
    • In a foreword for the Signet paperback edition, King mentions his young daughter jumping on plastic wrap bubbles and ranting "Let God have his own cat!" after the death of her pet, Smucky. This rant appears in the book, as does Smucky's grave ("He was obediant.").
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: Yes, the "sematary" instead of "cemetery" is intentional.
  • Sanity Slippage: Rachel and (especially) Louis go through this.
    He [Louis] could now feel his sanity beginning to give way. This was an actual sensation, a true thing. It was interesting. He imagined a tree overloaded with ice in a terrible storm would feel this way— if trees could feel anything—shortly before toppling. It was interesting... and it was sort of amusing.
  • The Scapegoat: Louis, for his father-in-law Irwin Goldman. He blames him for "stealing" his daughter, as well as Gage's death. However when Louis decides to send Rachel and Ellie to stay with Irwin and Dory after the funeral (so he can dig up Gage without their knowledge and place him in the burying ground), it makes Irwin realize that he's been an utter asshole and he takes it all back. His tearful apology almost convinces Louis to abandon his plan to resurrect Gage, but not quite, to the detriment of everyone involved.
  • Scare Chord
  • Schmuck Bait: Conversed. Everyone who has used the Micmac Burying Ground knows that no good can ever come from using it, but they always rationalize it away and keep finding reasons to, because the power there influences their minds. Louis has an internal debate with himself about what would happen if he used it to resurrect Gage, bringing up what any rational person would about the ramifications of such a thing, but in the end he goes through with it anyway:
    What happens the first time Missy Dandridge pulls into the driveway and sees Gage riding his trike in the yard? Can't you hear her screams, Louis?
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: In the early days, while they are dating, Irwin Goldman tries to bribe Louis to leave his daughter alone. He offers to pay his medical school. Louis doesn't accept.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Steve Masterton, literally seconds away from Louis when he's carrying Rachel's body to be buried, decides that whatever is going on in the Pet Sematary filled up his weirdness levels for the rest of his life and bolts away. By the time he gets to his apartment, he doesn't even remember going to the town in the first place.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Spirit Advisor: In a way, Pascow, as he tries to warn Louis and later Ellie from beyond the grave. He formed a connection with Louis because Louis was with him when he died.
  • Swamps Are Evil: Especially when they are as lousy with spectral beings as Little God Swamp. On the first trip through, the swamp is generally creepy, but they don't witness anything too strange aside from a white opaque fog that covered the ground like "the world's lightest snowdrift." Jud tells Louis about some advice given him by the town drunk, Stanny Bouchard, who was the person who took Jud up to the Burying Ground for the first time. Stanny said you might see St. Elmo's Fire, what sailors called "foo-lights" and to just ignore it. You might hear voices, but "those are just the loons down south toward Prospect. The sound carries. It's funny." And most of all, do not speak to anything, should it speak to you. On Louis's second trip, though, Little God Swamp is wide awake and humming:
    That was not St. Elmo's Fire.
  • Technology Marches On: In the book, a terabyte (and even 64 kilobytes!) is spoken of as an obscene and unthinkable amount of memory for a computer to have.
  • The Extremist Was Right: Irwin Goldman believed Louis was unworthy of marrying his daughter. He was right that the man was flawed...he was just wrong about just WHAT the flaw was.note 
  • Too Dumb to Live: Jud, for telling Louis about the Indian burial ground when he knows from first-hand experience just how bad messing around with it can get. Somewhat justified by the influence the burying ground has on people. Jud outright says, "You do it because it gets hold of you. You do it because that burial place is a secret place, and you want to share the secret, and when you find a reason that seems good enough, why..."
  • Town with a Dark Secret: The town being Ludlow, Maine, and the secret being the fact that if you bury a dead body in the Micmac burying ground beyond the pet cemetery, it will be resurrected, but it won't be quite the same as before. According to Jud though only a few people in the town actually know the secret.
  • Unholy Ground: It did not produce overtly undead resurrectees, but there definitely was something wrong and horrible to those who rose from it.
  • Wendigo: The book implies that one may be responsible for the burial ground's power.
    • The Wendigo is actually glimpsed in the book, but glossed over in the film. This leads to the above accusations of Too Dumb to Live, because the film shows what the characters are led to do, but doesn't indicate that their actions are not entirely their own.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: No mention is made in either the book or the film of what happens to Ellie in Chicago when the rest of her immediate family ends up insane or dead. Irwin and Dory, however, are still alive and it's established that they are very loving grandparents so it can be safely assumed they are going to take care of her as best they can.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Rachel's phobia about death (she doesn't deal well with even hearing the concept mentioned) leads into discussion of Zelda and has an effect on how some other plot events play out.
  • Your Cheating Heart
    • Norma Crandall, if the demon speaking through Gage at the end is to be believed, slept with all her husband's friends. It's debatable whether this is true or not. One one hand, the demon said the truth about people's secrets before. On the other hand, what he said about Norma was pretty outlandish, and he said it to make Jud angry and lose control. It's possible that there was truth in it, but the demon exaggerated. Jud is guilty of infidelity himself, so it's definitely something he would be sensitive to and lash out.
    • Jud Crandall visited prostitutes when he was younger and married to Norma, although her infidelity to him might have arguably been worse.


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