We take for granted how much we learn from our families. Through family, we learn about life, love, strength, absence, guilt, and death. Sociologists frequently categorize the family as a primary socialization group which builds the foundation for future navigation of the world around us. It is widely accepted that within our formative years, from birth to school age, as well as in our later life, we learn from observing this primary social group.[i] Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests that we learn consequence and reward by seeing the results of actions manifest in the lives of those around us. Considering the family as a core teaching mechanism of behavior and cognition helps me understand the film Pet Sematary (1989) in a new way.
In this Short Cut, I want to briefly examine death with a special emphasis on one video clip in Stephen King’s timeless film, Pet Sematary. (WARNING: there are spoilers) The Creed family consists of Louis (Midkiff), Rachel (Crosby), Gage (Hughes), Ellie (Berdahl twins), and Church (played by 7 blue British shorthairs). The first death in the family is that of Churchill the cat. Louis tries to shelter his daughter, Ellie, from the loss by resurrecting him via the pet sematary. One after another, Louis holds on to rotting replicas of the family to dangerous ends, as Gage and Rachel are buried in the same sour ground as Church. Louis Creed’s inability to let go puts the family in escalating danger.
Pet Sematary uses death as a means for Ellie Creed to evaluate life. She is able to investigate her belief system and through her experience with grief she becomes more insightful. Conversely the family that keeps death in the back room leads to a repressed and anxious woman in the mother, Rachel. In accordance with social learning theory, Ellie is able to observe and evaluate based on the consequences and rewards bestowed on others. In fact, I would suggest that Ellie learns from her parents’ poor decisions in regards to death.
I believe that the whole film is tainted by the repression of sickness and death in Rachel’s childhood home. Rachel absorbed the secrecy and shame of the death of her sister Zelda (Hubatsek).[ii] In one moment, Rachel was able to shout from the roof top that her sister had died, but then she quickly reels in her emotions and represses her feelings about death. Scarred by the experience with Zelda, Rachel does not want to even talk about the subject in public. Perhaps Rachel represses her emotions surrounding death because she was actually happy her sister died. In one of my favorite scenes ever, Rachel discusses her dying, twisted sister who was hidden from society as she faded away from spinal meningitis.
What I find so groundbreaking about this clip is Rachel’s exclamation of joy at Zelda’s death. This is not to excuse the family’s treatment of Zelda in life, but I cannot fathom the fear and exhaustion of a ten-year-old girl caring for this emaciated, spewing creature who was kept in the back bedroom. Rachel’s repression comes from hiding her sister as much as it comes from hiding her relief at her death: she cannot talk about death without remembering the pain of living with Zelda. Furthermore, societal expectations taught Rachel it is not appropriate to be happy about a sister’s death so she represses death for fear of her feelings about Zelda leaking out. Was Rachel punished by her family for acknowledging Zelda’s existence with her excited utterance, or was she punished by society for her reaction to Zelda’s death? Like no other film that comes to memory, Pet Sematary challenges the way we think about death and the circumstances surrounding it.
Rachel’s repressed emotions about Zelda’s death lead to a lifetime of sorrow for her family: Louis Creed, for instance, is tainted by his wife’s inability to discuss mortality. Indeed, her rigidity leads him to shelter Ellie from Church’s death, which opens the door for a disastrous domino effect. Louis’s continued effort to shield others from death (and prevent his family from experiencing Rachel’s childhood pain) shows how the experience of one family member (Rachel) can influence the patterns of behavior in others for years to come. In the case of Louis, he replicated Rachel’s repression of death—and we can only hope that Ellie learns from the negative consequences of her parents’ behaviors. Or will she? She is, after all, sent to live with the source of Rachel’s repression—the home of her maternal grandparents.
[i] Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development reflect that one of the core influencing social groups is the family. From birth to school age and again during adulthood, he posits that we formulate our ideas about the world through the lens of family relationships.
[ii] I must confess that Zelda Goldman is one of my favorite characters in the history of horror. Here is a piece I wrote on her http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/?s=pet+sematary Here is an friggin’ great post I found on the internet talking about the lasting impact of Zelda Goldman https://thefreshcracker.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/the-scariest-woman-in-the-world-and-how-i-almost-got-over-her-this-is-a-long-one-folks/