'Pet Sematary' is the Best Horror Story That Almost Never Happened

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A still from 2019's 'Pet Sematary.' (Paramount Pictures)

Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for Stephen King's 'Pet Sematary' and its 1989 film adaptation.

It's a tale that was never supposed to see the light of day; one so unrelentingly horrible, even author Stephen King considered it too dark to put out into the world. The only reason Pet Sematary ever got released was to settle a contract dispute between King and publishing company, Doubleday. "Otherwise," King recently told Entertainment Weekly, "it would still be in a drawer somewhere ... I was thinking, 'Well, Doubleday can go fuck themselves.'"

The story concerns Louis Creed, a doctor who moves his wife, young daughter and two-year-old son out of Chicago to a small town in Maine. When their pet cat, Church, is killed on the busy road by their house, rather than burying him in the nearby "Pet Sematary" built (and misspelled) by local children, a misguided neighbor takes the doctor to an ancient site beyond the cemetery and instructs him to bury the animal there instead. The next day, Church returns home, alive but changed for the worse. Some time later, when the Creeds' toddler, Gage, runs afoul of the same busy road, a grief-stricken Louis Creed moves his son's body to that same mysterious burial ground—with disastrous results.

Remarkably, the story was inspired very closely by events in King's own life. In 1979, he had moved his young family to a house in rural Maine that faced a busy road frequented by speeding trucks and backed by woods containing a pet cemetery built by local children. (The "Sematary" spelling was lifted directly from that location.) While living there, King's daughter lost her beloved cat Smucky to the traffic outside, and, utterly bereft, buried him in the pet cemetery. Horrifyingly, King's son Owen had a near-miss with a truck there, saved only when his father caught his arm and pulled him back from the road. Even Pet Sematary's well-meaning neighbor was based on the person that found Smucky's lifeless body.

Entire sections of dialogue in the novel—including things King's daughter said while mourning the loss of her cat—are lifted from family conversations. "And I read it over," King told EW, "and I said to myself, 'This is awful. This is really fucking terrible.' Not that it was badly written ... But all that stuff about the death of kids. It was close to me because my kids lived on that road."


Shortly after the novel came out and became a New York Times bestseller, Lindsay Doran, a studio executive and producer, was presented with the movie script for Pet Sematary, also penned by King. Doran loved it. "I thought it was one of the best scripts I had ever read," she says in documentary, Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary. When she presented it to both Embassy and Paramount Pictures though, the production companies passed.

"I kept trying," she continues, "but nothing happened until the [Writers Guild of America] strike in 1988 when suddenly we couldn't hire any writers. Paramount ... began to worry that there would be big holes in their release schedules the following year because there wouldn't be any movies in the pipeline, [so they] had to agree [to make it]." That WGA strike, then, is the only reason the original Pet Sematary movie got made at all.

When the director of photography Peter Stein was approached to work on Pet Sematary, he too said no, not wishing to get pigeonholed after having just made Friday the 13th Part 2. Fred "Herman Munster" Gwynne (the actor who would play the neighbor) approached Stein, explaining that he signed on to the project because he had lost a child himself and that the movie was not strictly horror, but simply about life and death. Amazingly, the chat worked; Stein agreed to come aboard.

Pet Sematary ended up being a surprise hit, taking in $57.5 million in theaters and $26.4 million in video rentals—not bad for an $11.5 million budget. Now, exactly 30 years to the month after the first one came out, we're getting a new adaptation of the now-classic horror film. This too feels like a minor miracle; Paramount announced this remake all the way back in 2010, but it took until 2017 to get greenlit.

So far, reviews are positive and fan hopes are high. "Pet Sematary is really a timeless story," Mary Lambert, the director of the 1989 version, says. "All the reasons people thought it wouldn't work as a film are what has made it into such a timeless piece. It's about ... the dynamic within a family, and the love that parents have for their small children, and the fear that people have of death. The desire through the ages that people have to confound death; to get around it."

Just like its subjects, Pet Sematary lives again.