How Pet Sematary Changed My Life

(this was original published April, 2012)

In 1989 I was eleven years old and I was not fond of horror movies. I had seen horror movies but they scared me and I didn’t understand why a person would choose to do something that scared them. I didn’t enjoy the sensation of fear and there were things in my life that actually were legitimately scary. My childhood had its share of real monsters.

When I was three or four, I saw the movie The Wizard of Oz and was terrified of the flying monkeys. Even more so, there was one scene where Dorothy is in the Wicked Witch of the West’s tower prison and the image of her Aunt Em appears in a crystal ball. Dorothy calls out to the image and it transforms into the Witch’s mocking, cackling face as she barks “AUNTIE EM! AUNTIE EM!” at a sobbing Dorothy.

That image was burned into my brain and kept me awake at nights. A couple of years later my dad sat me down on the couch to watch a Beta tape of the movie Poltergeist, knowing full well that I was absolutely no where near capable of tolerating that level of horror. That movie was chockablock with horrifying, disturbing images that a child of five or so is not at all ready to process. The clown was scary, the tree was really scary, the swimming pool full of rotting corpses was really really scary and the guy pulling his own face off in the bathroom mirror fucked me up for life.

(the fact that those are Steven Spielberg’s hands in that scene is one of the many reasons that, as an adult, my heart swells with love when I see his smiling, bearded face)

Around the time I was in the third grade I started to view horror movies and things that scared me as a challenge. I’m not sure why, but I started to view it as a weakness. Something I was embarrassed of. I was still scared of those movies and painfully aware of the fact that I was simply incapable of watching some things. There were TV shows that scared me. SONGS that scared me. I was a very timid, scared child in some ways. But I desperately wanted not to be.

So I started forcing myself to try and take this stuff in. Luckily for me, I found a window. My mom brought home the movie Stand By Me. I was skeptical at first, because when I read the box it sounded boring to me (I was perhaps eight or nine at the time) but then she told me it was based on a story by Stephen King.

Now, I knew who Stephen King was. My mom was a huge fan. I was scared of the book jacket for IT. It had a creepy looking monster hand reaching out of a storm drain.

I wanted nothing to do with that. No sir. To me, Stephen King was an ominous, scary name that appeared in giant, imposing bold letters over images of women covered in blood and the slobbery, gnashing jaws of rabid dogs, and let’s not overlook that one of those horrifying images that so disturbed me as a very young child was of the master vampire Barlow in the TV movie Salem’s Lot.

So The idea of a Stephen King movie that was, perhaps, not THAT scary (or, as my mom correctly claimed, not at all scary) appealed to me. I saw it at as movie that could, perhaps, facilitate a transition into a stage in my life when I could cope with terrifying and disturbing images. That made sense to me at the time.

And it sort of worked. I absolutely loved Stand By Me. I loved it because it was a story about kids told with respect and dignity and not an ounce of condescension. Most of all, I loved the tone of the movie. That somewhat nasal, but undeniably beloved Richard Dreyfuss voice. I already loved Dreyfuss for Jaws (a horror movie that never particularly scared me but I loved with a passion) and Close Encounters, but his narration in Stand By Me was the voice that I most associated with an adult that I wanted to BE one day. A guy who could look back on a difficult and complicated childhood and be OKAY. It was the first time I felt comforted by the idea of growing up, and I tied that association to Stephen King’s words and Richard Dreyfuss’s voice. That first line “I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead human being” still brings chills up my back when I think about it.

Stand By Me succeeded in getting me past my fear of the name Stephen King. In fact, it made me quite fond of King. I immediately read the story that Stand By Me was based on, The Body and loved it. It was a lot of work (again, I was about eight or nine) and I’m sure a fair bit of it went over my head, but I loved the parts I could tie to the movie, which was most of it. Stand By Me is a pretty faithful adaptation of The Body. I was quite proud of myself. Not only had I watched a Stephen King movie, I had now read a Stephen King book (novella. whatever) and I was absolutely hooked on his voice. The way he told the story. It was so conversational. It didn’t feel like he was trying to impress me or make me work for it. It felt like I was laying in bed while this kindly man from New England was telling me a fascinating story about a group of kids in the sixties going to find a dead body. All in the voice of Matt Hooper from Jaws.

Unfortunately, none of that addressed my original concern, which was getting over my fear of monsters and scary movies. Sure, I was no longer intimidated by the name associated with so many horrifying images on my mom’s bookshelf, but those images still scared me.

Having surmounted The Body, I thought I’d try my hand at something else that looked a little less daunting than one of those behemoth novels. Cycle of the Werewolf. I had seen the movie Silver Bullet (based on Cycle of the Werewolf) a couple of years earlier, and while it was a little scary, it was also fun enough that it didn’t leave much of an impression. Perhaps the werewolf wasn’t scary enough, or maybe I found Gary Busey endearing (don’t we all?) but either way, I just saw it as kind of a fun movie. It wasn’t any scarier to me than The Goonies had been (which, honestly, was a little scary to me. They put the kid’s hand in a blender for christ’s sake) or Gremlins (also scary when you’re five) which is to say that I recognized that it was scary, but not enough to keep me up at night. Also, again, like Stand By Me, it was a movie mostly about kids.

I powered through the relatively short Cycle of the Werewolf (much shorter than The Body, and fully illustrated by comic book legend Bernie Wrightson) and proceeded to have nightmares for weeks on end.

Failure. Scared the ever loving shit out of me. That voice that I had found so comforting and pleasant made the horror that much worse, because King had found a way into my heart, and could drop the monsters directly in.

I believe that’s why Stephen King is as successful as he is, and why I’m such a fan. His style of writing is so personal, and so intimate and friendly, that when he starts telling you horrible, disturbing things, he’s already in your house. He’s already cozied up next to you in bed under the covers with a flashlight and a bowl of chips. That safe, intimate Richard Dreyfuss flavored narration puts you at ease while Pennywise the Dancing Clown climbs up out of the shower drain. People can debate whether or not King’s a good literary writer backwards and forwards, but I’d say he’s undeniably a master storyteller.

I didn’t give up. I was determined to get over my fear of horror movies. Now, on top of just a need to defeat my own weakness, I now also had this desire to read more Stephen King stories and I wanted to be able to do that without fear of sleepless nights with my knees pulled up to my chest, eyeballing the closet door. I was a Stephen King fan too scared to read Stephen King books. Or watch movies based on his books. Or look at the covers of his books.

When I was in the fourth grade I read The Shining and ended up not understanding what I was reading well enough to really be scared by it or particularly entertained by it. That was perhaps too mature a book for a ten year old Joe. I do know that I watched just enough of the movie to know that I wasn’t going to be sitting all the way through that one.

We lived on an air force base in Southern California called George AFB. My mother worked at the base library and I spent a lot of time at there, often after school waiting around, looking at art books or reading Encyclopedia Brown while my mom worked. One day I found that a new book that had been released in the form of a massive brick of cassette tapes. It was called The Drawing of The Three by Stephen King. It was the sequel to another book I had considered reading called The Gunslinger. I never read that one because I wasn’t interested in westerns and it looked boring to me at the time. The Drawing of the Three, on the other hand, dealt with time travel and interdimensional gateways and a bunch of other things that sounded right up my ally. Even better, it wasn’t a horror story. BEST of all, it was read by Stephen King himself.

I listened to that book at least three times. I was obsessed with it. Every night as I went to sleep I would listen to King’s nasally Maine accent (which was not entirely unlike Richard Dreyfuss’s nasally narration from Stand By Me) telling the tale of Roland, the last Gunslinger, as he wandered through some post-apocalyptic desert, dying of blood poisoning and jumping in and out of our world. It was amazing.

I went from being curious about Stephen King to becoming a devoted Stephen King disciple. A nine year old King fanatic who was too scared of his books to read them. It plagued me. I was ashamed and depressed about it.

One day I was walking home from school and I decided to go to the video store. The library had a second story that was where all the typewriters were (in 1989 people still used typewriters) and a little A/V room, mostly used for presentations and such. It had a pretty big TV and a VCR. So occasionally I would rent a movie or bring one from home and watch while I waited for my mom to finish work. By this time I was about eleven and still hadn’t gotten over my fear of horror movies, and of Stephen King stories that weren’t about interdimensional gun fighters.

So I’m at the video store and I see that the movie Pet Sematary has just come out for rent. I had seen the commercials and that was enough to know that this movie was far too scary for me. Hell, the cover of the book was enough to tell me that, what with the creepy looking zombie cat and the word cemetery right in the title. The worst part about it though was that the little boy that played Gage in the movie (a kid named Miko Hughes) was from the town adjacent to the base, Apple Valley. His being in the movie was a big deal at the time and he was something of a local celebrity. Because of that, a lot of the kids I knew had already seen the movie. They were talking about it constantly and I felt terrible because I knew I was too afraid to watch this movie that all these other kids apparently had no problem with.

I stood there looking at the box for the movie and the voice of Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, from somewhere inside me said “Cowboy up, kid!”. I decided right then and there that I was going to take this movie (that looked like the scariest movie ever made) and I was going to sit down and watch the whole thing. I wasn’t going to cover my eyes. I wasn’t going to turn it off. I was going to force myself to watch it. Jump into the deep end of the pool so to speak.

And that’s what I did. I took it back to the library. I didn’t tell my mom I was going to watch it. I just went up stairs, closed the door and put the tape in.

And that movie scared the ever loving shit out of me. It was absolutely horrific. The scenes where Denise Crosby is remembering her sister Zelda are still, to this day, some of the scariest moments I’ve ever seen in any movie.

But on top of that, it was also funny. And it was charming, and it was a well told story. Yes, it scared the bajesus out of me. Yes I had nightmares and when I closed my eyes at night, I saw that palsied, twisted woman cackling insanely. But I could see the value in the story. I could hear Stephen King’s voice, that same voice from Stand by Me and The Drawing of the Three, in the dialog and the storytelling. Fred Gwynne as Jud was funny, and sweet, and haunted and he was a purely Stephen King kind of character. Pascow, that poor doomed bike riding bastard was funny. Yes, he was scary, but he was also a benevolent spirit in the story. He was a force of good and he was funny.

Stephen King is a funny guy, and he injects a lot of humor into his characters. It came through in Pet Sematary (probably more so because he actually wrote the screenplay) and I connected with the movie because of it. That combination of funny and scary. Not a slapstick kind of funny, but in a realistic sort of way. Because life is funny and even when horrible, terrifying things are happening, life doesn’t stop being funny. Stephen King recognizes that and it’s a common thread through most everything he writes.

Because of that, I was able to connect to Pet Sematary in a way I had never connected to a horror movie before. It bridged the gap between the Stephen King voice that read my Gunslinger story, and that spoke through Richard Dreyfuss in Stand By Me, with those horrific images that had plagued me all my life. The wires were crossed and the whole works shorted out.

It wasn’t that I was suddenly not afraid of these images. It was that now I enjoyed being afraid of those images. I understood why people (or, at least, I) relished the sensation of being scared at the movies or reading scary books. I understood that a good story is a good story, and the enjoyment of taking in a good story supersedes the discomfort of fear.

A lot of people over the years had tried the approach of explaining that the things in movies weren’t real and there was no reason to be afraid of them. That wasn’t the problem for me though. I understood that. I mean, I wasn’t stupid. It’s just that I tend to experience a well told story very viscerally. I don’t know if it’s because of an overactive imagination or some sort of flaw (or gift) in my brain, but when I take in a story, I really take it in. If it’s a scary story, and it’s told well, I get scared. I’m a perfect rube for manipulative storytellers, and I’m not ashamed of that. The same was true when I was a kid. The difference is that when I was a kid, I couldn’t intellectualize it the way I can now. I was just open channel, taking in everything at full force.

What Pet Sematary did for me was teach me how to appreciate the experience rather than just letting the worst of it impose on my dreams. It gave me context for the experience. I was able to associate that feeling of being told a comforting, exciting story with fear in a way that made the fear digestible and even enjoyable.

Everything changed for me after that. I felt like I had missed all of these great stories and I began taking it all in. I started reading all the Stephen King books and watching all the movies.

By the time I hit fifth grade, I was a full fledged horror geek. Along with Stephen King, my particular obsession was Freddy Krueger. From that point on, I was deeply invested in horror. I love it. I love all of it. Because I love good storytelling, and when a movie can combine good storytelling with a visceral, horror experience, I’m just about as happy as I can be.

All because of that moment in the library, watching that movie, scared out of my mind and loving it. Hallelujah, praise the King.

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