These Corruptible Vessels

Pet Sematary (1989) | art by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I

For centuries, philosophers have pondered whether the mind and the body are separate entities, or two inextricable halves of a whole.

The Buddha considered the so-called “mind-body problem” in 400 B.C.E. and decided that the mind and the body are separate but dependent—without one, the other as we know it can’t exist. Plato considered it around the same time and decided that the mind is an amorphous force existing only in abstract space, the body is an empty casing existing only in physical space, and never the twain shall meet. Descartes considered it in the 17th century and decided that the body is the vehicle, and the mind is the intangible driver (he also decided the body’s steering wheel was probably the pineal gland, a theory that’s been pretty much debunked). In the 19th century, Thomas Huxley pioneered the field of epiphenomenalism to suggest that mental events are caused by physical events (your heart doesn’t race because your mind is distressed, your mind creates distress as a result of your body’s need for a racing heart). In the 20th century, Karl Popper suggested maybe there are actually three aspects to a human being—the body, the mind, and the things that arise from their interaction—while David Ray Griffin coined the term panexperientialism to suggest that human beings aren’t two or three things but actually a compound of every single molecule, atom, and subatomic particle, all of which are capable of experiencing their own perception of reality.

Centuries of thought, all in the service of one pervasively disturbing question: what exactly are the rules in our relationship with this bag of bones that carries us around?

II

There are certain taboos in mainstream film, unspoken lines in the sand that an artist can’t expect an audience to cross willingly. Within that galaxy of taboos, there are the more conventional transgressions, and then there are the ideas so shocking a viewer would never even imagine seeing them on-screen.

Pet Sematary doesn’t just exist in that latter category, it revels in it. We spend half the film getting acquainted with the happy, healthy Creed family: attractive, loving parents Louis and Rachel, sassy daughter Ellie, and almost supernaturally adorable toddler Gage. And then, at roughly the midpoint, Gage is run down by a tractor-trailer. That would be bad enough, but shortly thereafter, Louis exhumes Gage under cover of darkness and cradles his son’s tiny corpse to his chest. Pretty tough to stomach, but not as tough as what happens after Louis has carried Gage’s corpse through the woods to resurrect him in a magic burial ground—long story short, Gage comes back as a deranged maniac and murders their kindly neighbor, Jud, as well as Rachel, all before Louis has to kill him, again, via a syringe to the neck.

This is not a movie that cares about your sensitivities. What this movie does care about, to the point of obsession, is bodies—the horrors that can befall them, their potential for decay, and the sickening fascination in what might happen if a body could rise after death but bring along something new and different inside.

Of course, horror is a genre uniquely focused on bodies and all the awful things that can be done to them. And Pet Sematary was released squarely within the age of the slasher film, with the preceding decade having seen the release of Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Child’s Play, along with their respective sequels and imitators. The violence committed upon bodies in those films—whether by knife, machete, or bladed glove—is visceral enough to make viewers pull their limbs close to reduce the risk of being sliced open, but ultimately, there’s a limit to their capacity for fright. Michael and Jason are basically unstoppable killing machines, but if they catch you, they’ll stab you, you’ll bleed, and you’ll die. Freddy haunts your unconscious mind, but if he catches you, he’ll slice you up, you’ll bleed, and you’ll die.

There are notes of that same wince-and-cringe violence in Pet Sematary, but at every turn, the film piles on inventions and transgressions to twist the knife (so to speak). Tiny, undead Gage doesn’t stab Jud to death with a kitchen knife, a choice that would be gruesome but familiar. He uses a scalpel to slice the old man’s Achilles tendon and then slash him across the mouth like Heath Ledger’s Joker, an inventive combination of injuries uniquely calibrated to make the viewer writhe in agony. And those assaults would be singularly awful committed by a typical slasher villain, but the sequence feels genuinely dangerous—not just frightening, but wrong in that queasy taboo-shattering way—in that they’re committed by a child we’ve spent the bulk of the film adoring and then mourning.

The nagging question, never truly addressed, is whether or not this killer really is Gage, and what it means to debate that issue. The consciousness of this tiny lunatic might be Gage’s, now traumatized and changed by the experience of death and rebirth, or else some demonic possessor might be using that body as a puppet. But the deeper question is: when we say “Gage” do we refer to the mind, the body, or the combination—at Gage’s funeral, when Louis and his father come to blows and knock over the casket, is the body revealed still Gage? It all calls into question whether Gage, or any of us, is defined by a consciousness or a physical form—a question that likely makes little difference when the tiny body is careening at you, hate in its eyes. If it walks like Gage and talks like Gage, then from an outside perspective, it’s hard to say it’s not Gage.

And does agonizing over what we mean when we say “Gage” make any difference in the awfulness of Louis’ task in euthanizing him? In possibly the most harrowing shot in a movie full of them, as soon as Louis plunges the syringe into Gage’s neck, the boy’s face briefly drops its hatred, and he becomes the sweet toddler he was in his first life. He touches his wound and gazes at his father with watery eyes and a quivering lip; either the demonic force is playing a cruel trick, taunting Louis with a parting look at his child once again whole, pure, and heartbroken, or else Gage has remembered himself enough to drop his rage and say goodbye to his father with a parting shot of pain and betrayal. Either interpretation is utterly devastating, and the ambiguity allows the transgressive image to exist in duplicate—you can watch the film back-to-back and experience two different heinous endings. “No fair,” whimpers Gage before he expires for good. To a devastated viewer, that’s an understatement.

There are clear parallels between Pet Sematary and Frankenstein—Louis is a doctor who defies reason and good taste by reanimating a corpse—but Mary Shelley subtitled her novel The Modern Prometheus in acknowledgment of that Greek hero who created mankind from clay and was punished by the gods for his disregard of their will. A more apt subtitle for Pet Sematary might be, The Modern Orpheus; like that Greek figure, Louis can’t stop himself from trying to drag those he loves back from beyond the veil, and in exchange he receives nothing but suffering. Even after the trauma of Gage’s resurrection, he returns to the secret burial ground with Rachel’s corpse, sure that this time will be different. And like Orpheus, who returned to the underworld one last time and was forced violently (by beasts or mad sirens, depending on the telling) to stay for good this time, Louis only gets so many chances to make the same mistake. Rachel’s body finishes the job that Gage’s started, and we cut to black on Louis’ final scream.

And as with the myth of Orpheus, our distress lingers long after that cut to black. Because we’re left with one more ghastly question: even knowing every consequence of Louis’ choices, would I do a single thing differently? I suspect I know my own answer.

Because when a loved one dies, they don’t just vanish. They leave behind this vessel, simultaneously them and not. And if there was any way, no matter the risk, that you could see that body move again…

III

For centuries, storytellers have explored what it might mean for a body to be petrified while the mind remained intact.

And so there have been stories of wrathful cryptids with paralytic powers, from the Maltese golfu’s scream, to the Ethiopian catoblepas’ breath, to the basilisk’s stare. There have been stories of vengeful gods, like the Olympians who turned Queen Niobe to stone, leaving only her ability to weep. There have been stories of devious magicians, like the one in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes who curses children to be mistaken for wax statues by onlookers who fail to notice the tears in their eyes, or the one in Roald Dahl’s The Witches who turns children to stone so slowly that they spend days in agony watching their own skin slowly turn hard and gray.

Centuries of stories that use metaphor and symbol to grapple with a horrifying truth: these bodies that so many of us take for granted can be stolen from us without rhyme or reason, becoming useless husks with our minds buried alive inside.

And this is exactly the horrifying truth that Pet Sematary forces us to confront in its most gruesomely plausible sequences.

IV

Strange as it may sound, the murderous undead toddler is not the primary boogieman of Pet Sematary. That honor goes to an ordinary young girl named Zelda.

Zelda is Rachel’s older sister, seen only in flashback and hallucination due to her untimely death of spinal meningitis. But her presence looms large in the film, and in the memory of anyone who’s seen it. In expressionist sequences almost too overpowering to watch, Zelda writhes on her bed, howling in pain, parchment-thin skin drawn so tight across her back that her twisted spine threatens to burst out. Though she’s nominally a teenage girl, Zelda appears more like an ageless, androgynous ghoul (partially due to being portrayed by an adult man in heavy prosthetics), gasping like a beached fish as she grips her blankets before finally aspirating and expiring, her head twisted garishly on her neck.

There is nothing supernatural about Zelda, but she receives the most overtly surreal treatment in the film. Undead Gage has the body of an average toddler, but when Zelda moves, her scarecrow’s frame grinds and creaks like a tree in the wind. And once she’s dead, she assumes mythic proportions, haunting Rachel and cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. As the film nears its climax, Rachel begins to hear a shrieked threat: “I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again!” Rachel cowers while Zelda repeats, in a mounting frenzy, “Never get out of bed again! Never get out of bed again!! Never get out of bed again!!!”

Rachel has spent decades wracked by guilt over what she believes to be complicity in Zelda’s death, but when she finally envisions Zelda’s vengeful return, it isn’t death that her sister threatens, but incapacitation. Rachel’s great terror is that she might be condemned to lose her connection to the world—a final, ultimate corruption of her flesh.

Even in a tale of threats from beyond the grave, this entirely possible earthly horror registers as equally frightening, and perhaps more so.

V

For centuries, naturalists have described cases of non-human creatures that, despite possessing none of our torturous powers of higher reasoning, engage in self-harm.

Aristotle wrote of a stallion that willingly hurled itself off a cliff, and the Roman author Claudius Aelianus wrote of an eagle that sacrificed itself on a pyre. In the 17th century, the poet John Donne declared pelicans emblematic of the “natural desire of dying” for their habit of tearing out their own flesh, while in the 19th century, the physician William Lauder Lindsay could rattle off reams of incidents, from a cat drowning itself to monkeys intentionally poisoning themselves, to herds of sheep rushing headlong into ravines. In 1875, the journal Animal World featured a cover illustration of a stag jumping to its death, while today, biologists have observed wild bonobos tearing off handfuls of their own fur, and birds ripping out their own feathers.

Even the most spurious of these anecdotes is resonantly disturbing for the way they point towards the pervasive larger human question: why in the world are so many of us compelled to needlessly corrupt our own bodies?

And while this may not be a question that Pet Sematary grapples with on the surface, self-harm hums beneath the film’s surface, the unconscious engine powering all these stories of corruptible flesh.

VI

When Stephen King wrote the screenplay for Pet Sematary, he was cripplingly dependent on drugs and alcohol.

“[I] began to scream for help the only way [I] knew how,” King recounted in his 1999 memoir On Writing, “through my fiction.” By the time that he was writing this script, he was “often working until midnight with my heart running at 130 beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.”

One of King’s stipulations in adapting Pet Sematary was that the film be shot in his home state of Maine, allowing him to be on set for much of production. King is a tall man, standing well over six feet; in photos from the ‘70s, he cuts a lean figure, while in photos from the ‘90s, he’s fast approaching his current gaunt physique. But in photos from the late ‘80s set of Pet Sematary, Stephen King looks, quite frankly, like hell.

It’s not terribly noticeable in his cameo as a minister, but his robes hide a bloated frame that’s all too visible in behind-the-scenes photos. When he poses with an arm slung around a crew member, or playfully throttling one for the camera, he looks swollen and unwell, a man visibly suffering from a disease of his own making.

The funeral that King presides over in his cameo is for the Creeds’ housekeeper Missy, who suffers from an unnamed stomach condition, one so severe that she takes her own life rather than continue enduring the pain. And it would seem like no coincidence that one of the primary side effects of alcohol abuse is a painful inflammation of the stomach. At the time that he was writing this screenplay, by King’s own account, he ended each night by pouring any alcohol left in the house down the sink, because otherwise he was compelled to get back out of bed and joylessly consume it. Meanwhile, he wrote a film in which the only character to die by their own hand is the one suffering the ailments he was most likely visiting upon himself.

The term for this type of addiction is “substance abuse,” but it’s not the substances that sustain the injury. It’s an abuse on our own bodies, and it seems like that punishment must reflect some kind of mind-body disconnect. Any addiction that wreaks havoc on the body—be it drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine—provides enough relief and satisfaction that we can justify the harm being done to our bodies, so that the body itself becomes secondary to the gratification of the part of oneself that lives within it. So many of us treat our bodies like cars that we can push to the limit, sublimating the awareness that this is one vehicle we can’t turn in once it’s totaled.

Following Missy’s funeral, the real world briefly intrudes on Pet Sematary when Louis sits in a darkened family room watching the news. “Atlantic white-sided dolphins have beached or stranded themselves along the eastern Maine coast,” the anchor announces, “and scientists don’t know why.”

What good reason could there be to destroy your body if you don’t have to? And yet the urge can be so irresistible.

VII

Throughout my most recent rewatch of a film that I’ve seen so many times I can quote long passages from memory, I found myself thinking of Dr. Duncan MacDougall, and his swiftly debunked but enduringly captivating 1907 attempt to prove that the soul had weight—specifically, about ¾ of an ounce, based on the change in mass that he observed between the last moment of his patients’ lives and the first moment of the rest of their eternities.

The one patient of Dr. Louis Creed’s that we see in Pet Sematary is Victor Pascow, the victim of a grisly traffic accident who’s dead by the time he reaches Louis’ examining table. But Victor’s spirit accompanies the Creeds throughout the rest of the film, their grotesque Jiminy Cricket. And when he refers to the accident (during a dream visitation to Ellie), he calls it not his death, but his discorporation. It’s a word that refers to leaving one’s physical body, suggesting a definitive answer to the mind-body problem. If an incorporeal version of the self can be virtually indistinguishable from the corporeal, then the body is, definitively, a vessel.

As the legacy of Dr. MacDougall’s experiment has demonstrated, there is a natural appeal to this idea that our souls are substantive rather than ephemeral. Our conception of the self is so bound to our occupation of physical space that there’s a comfort to the idea that in death, we can bring along some small piece—say, ¾ of an ounce—as proof that we still exist postmortem, that our consciousness does not exist, as Plato claimed, solely in abstraction.

It’s just one more of the myriad thought experiments that we use to process our brief time in a fathomless universe. They’re questions we’ve asked since the dawn of consciousness, and for now, it looks like none of us have much shot at a definitive answer on this side of the grave. So in the meantime, there’s not much to do but raise a glass and offer Jud’s favorite toast: to your bones.

For now, we’re stuck with them.