When I was about 4 years old, I walked into our family rec room at the back of the house one night where my older brother and his friends were having a sleepover and watching a scary movie. Mama and Daddy didn’t know I’d wandered down there, but they also likely thought when they rented a movie called Pet Sematary it was probably kiddish and kitschy and it would be fine for 13 year-old boys.
It was not fine for 4 year-old girls though. I slept in my parents’ bed until I was 8 from that night on.
The scariest characters that stayed with me long after I was in high school (and still not brave enough to watch it again), were Victor Pascow, the gruesomely deceased college student haunting Dr. Creed, and Zelda, Rachel’s terrifyingly sick and thin sister who haunted her childhood (whom I later learned was played by a skinny teenage boy, thus making it even scarier). I was only brave enough to watch it again in college with Ben and my best friend Hope by my side, but the result was the same. It disturbed me so deeply I had trouble sleeping for days and closed my eyes at some of the scariest moments.
I was scrolling through Twitter a few months ago when an Entertainment Weekly headline slid under my finger and made me bristle — “Pet Sematary remake coming April 2019.” It made my heart race a little, it made me want to put my phone down and forget I saw it. Nothing had ever frightened me so badly in my life and I wanted to put it to bed, to fully know the story inside and out so I could get over it and never think of it again. Because we were publishing our book with Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Stephen King, whose work I had never read in my life, I thought it would be a personal challenge to face my (irrational) fear of a fictional work and read the book, thus also finally reading something by Stephen King for the first time in my life.
In the preface, he says in a different world it never would have seen the light of day, but as his contract with his previous publisher was running out with one more book to fulfill, this story he kept locked in a desk drawer was published. He wrote it, inspired by events that occurred when he and his family lived in rural Maine while he taught at a college for a short time. He wrote it and felt he had gone too far, that it was the most disturbing work of his entire canon, the only thing he had ever written that truly, deeply, frightened him. The title is deceiving. It’s not about pets, it’s about grief and the loss of a child. It is devastating. There is nothing scarier than that for a parent.
I read the book at bedtime and my lunch break over the course of a week and couldn’t believe the places he’d go in his writing. It was the deepest, darkest, most horrible place and even though it gave me bad dreams for weeks afterward, I was glad to have it behind me. I had put it to bed and conquered my fear in a way. Even if it was the scariest thing I’ve ever read. The recurring thought that made me connect to the story:
How far would we go to take it back, to change it, if we lost Helen?
As I sat at my desk, in my studio, working on a house portrait for season 3, just two days after I’d finished and put that book on the shelf, an email from a woman named Catherine appeared in my inbox. Her email said she was a costume designer for a film called Pet Sematary and they were interested in sourcing our waxed cotton caps and flannels for John Lithgow and Jason Clarke to wear in scene. You could’ve heard the shriek I made in Hattiesburg. I immediately texted our framily and the film crew who couldn’t believe the coincidence of it. Neither could I. We just watched the first trailer for the film and saw John Lithgow (aka Winston Churchill! aka Harry & the Hendersons!) in our mammoth steel flannel button down.
All that to say, if you need a Halloween scare, the 1989 Pet Sematary is a scary one. And if you ask my mama why she let us watch that, she’ll tell you, “I don’t know! It was the 80s! I thought it was like Casper, but with animals!”