Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989) revives the Gothic literature trope of the madwoman in the attic. This is not to say that it has not appeared in other facets of popular culture prior to his film but rather that Mr. King’s representation is arguably one of the most memorable. There is discussion of the madwoman character in feminist circles that view her as part of the binary representations of women in Gothic literature (as either putrid or pure). This article sidesteps this dialogue to suggest a more basic argument that horror film families repress difference through this same character. In the case of Pet Semetary, difference and/or imperfection is represented through a proverbial “black sheep” in the family. This member challenges the status of the family and must be locked up like a literal skeleton in the closet.
Let’s start with the back-story. In Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre the unhappy husband Edward Rochester locked his bride away in an attic to forget his burden. His wife, Bertha Antoinetta Mason became the model of the madwoman in the attic but more importantly she represents a tradition of repression and family secrets. Rochester felt that his family duped him since both his father and brother withheld Bertha’s family history of mental health problems in order to solidify the upwardly mobile marriage. Rather than standing by her in sickness and health, Rochester chose to keep up his appearances and lock her away. Whether Bertha decompensated from Rochester’s constant accusations or from her mental health is to be determined by the reader.[i] Nonetheless, the implications are the same; families are frequently the site of dirty little secrets.
In Robin Wood’s renowned essay “The American Nightmare” he discusses the family as being the site of repression. His essay primarily focuses on how families limit expression of anything other than white, heterosexual, monogamous behaviors. Most clearly he talks about how the sexuality of children and women are regulated by having other forms of sexuality repressed. As an extension of his argument I suggest that horror film families reject most that which is not heterosexual, white, middle class, and performatively acceptable. What I mean by this is the “Keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome. Interlopers are ejected; people who don’t look right, act right, or just don’t “fit in”, are eliminated or hidden. Similarly in V.C. Andrews’ book Flowers in the Attic the children who are a product of incest are locked in the attic so their mother can secure her father’s fortune. Again, this concept is not new, however, I wholeheartedly believe the most visibly memorable representation of this trope comes to us via Pet Sematary’s Zelda Goldman (played by Andre Hubastek).
Zelda is, in my opinion, one of the most memorable auxiliary characters in all of horror film history. She represents a visibly unforgettable image, but also she reflects back to us how we worship appearances and what we think about family and obligation. She is the deadly lead paint coating the interior of our seemingly perfect homes. Zelda has spinal meningitis. Both her life and her illness are locked away from sight. On a visceral level, the audience is prepped to align with the “normal” sister Rachel. Rachel tells the tale of being an 8 year old girl serving as the caregiver to the twisted body of her screaming, soup sucking, degenerate sister. The audience sympathizes not with the secret child, but with the burden placed on Rachel. The fact that Rachel’s husband and the audience aligns with Rachel proves an interesting idea. Zelda serves as a mirror reflecting back what we see as horrific. It is not just her physical appearance, but it is her marring the perception of a perfect family, and her burden on others that makes her so horrifically memorable.
Zelda is a burden upon the family. She serves as the monster disrupting the family which is representative of normality.[ii] She does so by being physically repulsive, transgressing boundaries between human and animal, she spits and drools and even worse, hindered the rest of the family.[iii] Zelda had an illness that rendered her revolting and dependent. Zelda, like the archetype Bertha Mason, disrupted the American Dream by siphoning time, energy, and resources from the more productive members. Finally, Zelda served as a constant reminder of failure and the fact that middle class standards for the idealized family are unattainable. I say this because, despite all effort to hide the dirty truths, these madwomen always re-emerge.
Zelda is a literal representation of the “family secret”. Essentially her character is the physical embodiment of the things that families hide. For some it may be something as simple as a whole room dedicated to Harry Potter memorabilia (although I see no problem with this), for others it may be poverty, one family member’s sexuality or depression. Regardless of the family’s secret, Stephen King masterfully uses Zelda as a reminder of the repressive potential of the family.
[i] A physical description of Bertha as offered in Jane Eyre: “In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it groveled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1260/1260-h/1260-h.htm
[ii] From the script of Pet Sematary: Rachel to her husband– “We wanted her to die, Louis, we wished for her to die, and it wasn’t just so she wouldn’t feel any more pain, it was so we wouldn’t feel any more pain. It was because she was starting to look like a monster… she was starting to be a monster…”
[iii] In Philosopy of Horror, Noel Carroll suggests that things such as impurity and transgressing boundaries are quintessential to horror.