By Danny Anderson
Is it going too far to call Pet Sematary an Easter movie? Hear me out.
First, let’s admit up front that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 adaptation of Pet Sematary doesn’t explore the depths of human grief that it’s source material does. Stephen King’s 1983 novel is a classic work of profound nihilism which retains its power in part because its horror emerges from an unflinching gaze into the abyss of mourning and loss. It is both scary and existentially profound. This latest update satisfies itself with the fright without bothering to develop the grief which is its foundation. To be fair, the film accomplishes what it sets out to achieve, but one wishes it had a bigger vision.
That said, the film still offers the theologically-curious viewer plenty to stew over. Douglas Cowan’s recent exploration of King’s fiction, America’s Dark Theologian, provides an in-depth exploration of how King’s work attempts to open seemingly settled theological questions and his reading of Pet Sematary is especially recommended for religious viewers of this film.
Here, I want to focus on this film’s inversion of a central aspect of Christian theology, the resurrection of the body, which makes the movie, flawed as it may be, an occasion for Christians to ponder theologies of the resurrection.
For the Christian, the anticipation of a post-mortem resurrection is both modeled on and provided by Jesus himself. His death and resurrection is for the Christian the event in which the world is redeemed from the Fall. John 11:25 records Jesus proclaiming that his example offers hope to all: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Paul incorporates this anticipation of resurrection into the emergent Christianity stating that Christ is both model and hope for life beyond death. In Philippians 3:8-11, he connects the two, writing:
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on Faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Here Paul lays out a faith in which one not only lacks a fear of death, but boldly and actively seeks the grave (following Christ’s example) with the hope and expectation of subsequent resurrection.
Pet Sematary, on the other hand, offers an entirely different treatment of death, let alone the resurrection of the body. For its materialist protagonist, Louis Creed, death is an incoherent paradox. It is simultaneously a small thing that is “natural” and an unacceptable tragedy which must be denied and resisted to tragic, horrifying ends. Early in the film, Louis’s wife Rachel attempts to comfort their daughter Ellie with a reassurance that departed loved ones are happy in Heaven. Louis interrupts and subverts this moment with his materialist doubt in the hereafter and his certainty that death is nothing more than part of nature’s way. Yet in the end it is Louis’s atheistic beliefs about death that turn out to be the naive, comforting fantasy. Upon Ellie’s death (the film’s major twist for King’s readers), his story about Nature’s Way, fails to comfort, and he ghoulishly digs up her body and employs the forces of evil to resurrect it, dooming everyone he loves.
The incommensurate nature of his views are worth considering. How can a rational man who understands the inevitability of death be so unable to accept it, grieve the loss, and move forward? Would that not be “natural?” What might the “supernatural” contribute to this discussion? A reading of the film grounded in Christian theology might attribute his confused response to death to his lack of hope for a transcendent resurrection. Unlike Paul, who not only accepts death, but rushes towards it like Christ, Creed’s confirmed atheism leaves nothing but grief upon the experience of death. Louis Creed’s fateful decision to resurrect his daughter in the “bad ground” of the possessed forest with the power of the Wendigo springs from the opposite of hope.
In this way, he shares much with the similarly material-minded Dr. Frankenstein, whose rejection of an afterlife leads him to create a monster. However, where Frankenstein employs science to give rebirth, here, resurrection is facilitated only by burying a body in cursed earth, a supernatural solution empowered by evil, and this is a profound act of hopelessness.
When confronted by Rachel with the gravity of his actions at the film’s climax, Louis offers the line that cements the film as a dark Easter movie. As if completely ignorant of the basics of Christianity, he rages that God should “kill his own f***ing kid!” This reference opens up an entirely new theological debate about soteriology and the complexities of penal substitutionary atonement, but the short answer is that the Christian believes in Jesus’s death. But unlike Louis Creed, the Apostle’s Creed asserts that “on the third day he rose again,” and it is in this assertion that Christian hope is located.
Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.