pet sematary, frankenstein, and why playing god is scary

Last week, I think I watched more movies than I have in a month. Though some of this time could have been better spent (reading and/or writing, of course), it did produce some (hopefully) interesting results.

Two of the movies I watched were the new Pet Sematary and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which I think people forget exists because of things like I, Frankenstein, which we don’t speak of). And believe it or not, I saw a pattern begin to emerge… indeed, a pretty spooky correlation.

I know Pet Sematary is a book, another Stephen King novel, in fact, but once again I haven’t read it. I have, however, read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and would honestly read it again because it’s one of my favorite classics. Whereas Pet Sematary (2019) deviates from the source material a bit, the 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein actually stays pretty close to the book… up to a point. But for clarity’s sake, I’ll stick to comparing movie to movie because the themes are still there either way.

 

excuse me while i summarize

Pet Sematary is about a family that moves to a nice, rural town in Maine and find that in the woods near their house, there’s a cemetery for pets. However, beyond it, there’s an area that’s rumored to bring the dead back to life. The family’s pet cat gets killed, and the daughter is heartbroken. So Dad buries it in the place beyond the pet cemetery, and it comes back to life. Except now it’s mean and creepy.

Then, (spoiler alert,) the daughter gets hit by a truck and dies. Now, in the book and the 80s film, it’s her brother, a toddler, that dies. I’m not sure why they changed it, maybe as a sort of ‘what if’ scenario? Anyways, the rest of the movie plays out like so: he brings her back to life, she’s evil and creepy, and she murders everyone in her family and buries them in the pet sematary. Good times.

How does this have anything to do with the gothic horror classic/masterpiece that is Frankenstein? The answer is a lot, actually. In fact, I think that King had to be inspired by it at least a little, because what self-respecting horror novelist doesn’t know their roots? And while copy-pasting another author’s work is, of course, never advised, sampling from the greats is in no way a new thing nor a bad thing, when done right.

If you’ve read Frankenstein, you know that it’s more than just a monster story–it’s playing with some deep, dark themes about life and death that are super fun to tease out, especially if you’re a nerd (*raises hand*). And those themes get echoed in Pet Sematary (as well as a ton of other things, I’m sure).

Here’s a brief synopsis of the movie: Victor Frankenstein, a young, aspiring scientist, becomes obsessed with life and death after his mother dies in childbirth. He goes to college in Inglestat, where he argues with professors while working on projects in his attic lab. In the process, he unlocks the secret of creating life. (Whereas the book never specifies it, in the movie it’s definitely electricity.) However, as soon as he lays eyes on his creation, he realizes what he’s done and abandons the monster.

Frankenstein’s Monster ends up roaming around and getting chased out of town. (Indeed, literary know-it-alls like myself will be sure to correct you when you try to refer to the monster as “Frankenstein.” In the book, he’s never given a name!) He hides in a family’s barn, where he learns to read and speak. Yeah, that’s something your classic depiction of “Frankenstein” leaves out: he’s actually really friggin’ smart. Then, he travels to Victor’s home, where he murders his brother and tells Victor if he wants him gone, he has to build him a bride. Victor ultimately refuses, leading the monster to murder his own bride on their wedding night. Pretty gruesome. There’s more that happens in the movie, but for all that intents and purposes, this is a good stopping point.

 

are you there, god? it’s me, mad scientist

So what do these two different stories have in common? Well, aside from the obvious parallel of bringing the dead back to life, it appears that they’re also dealing with very similar themes. Brace yourself, because I’m about to go all high school English paper on this bitch.

In Pet Sematary (both the book and the movie), the main characters’ neighbor, an old man named Jud, says, “Sometimes dead is better.” That about sums it up right there, but indulge me while I use even more words to say similar things.

First, both stories pose similar sorts of “what if” scenarios: What if you had the power (and/or means) to bring your dead loved ones back to life? Would you do it? And then, since the answer in both stories is yes, the question becomes: What are the consequences? In both cases, the answer is, “Bad things happen.” Granted it’s the horror genre and bad things have to happen, it’s not just for the heck of it: there is justification.

Both stories have an emphasis on science versus the metaphysical. In Frankenstein, it’s very prevalent because it’s set in a time when science was starting to overwhelm and disprove the long-held assumptions of religion. It was the classic battle of Logic vs. Faith, and all that. Victor Frankenstein attempts to combine the two and to overstep the boundaries of science by doing things that science shouldn’t do–essentially, “playing God.”

In Pet Sematary, it’s actually a really similar thing (without the mad science): there’s even a conversation that the protagonist and his wife have where he claims there’s no afterlife (advocating for Reason and Science, you know), but his wife disagrees. Of course, he ultimately oversteps reason by burying the cat and his daughter in the pet cemetery, so in a sense, he does the exact same thing Victor Frankenstein does by trying to have the best of both worlds. As he eventually learns, it’s not really a good idea.

Both stories play with the notion that humans creating or reanimating life is unnatural, and that attempting to do so violates some kind of unspoken rule about humanity even though, in both stories, bringing the dead back to life is possible. There’s also a level of “obsession” or “compulsion” that takes place, something that’s driving the characters to do this unnatural thing, and this is conveyed as evil, or at least unhealthy.

Playing God is scary because humans can’t be God–humans are too imperfect and emotion-driven, after all, and they’re bound to do things with this power that they’re not supposed to do. In fact, now that I think about it, the alternate title for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus.” Prometheus, who gave humans the ability to make fire–something reserved only for the gods, apparently. Hm, you could probably go totally literary with that, since fire is actually really useful for humans… in Frankenstein and even Pet Sematary, who is the Prometheus, and what is the fire? Is the fire good or bad, and to whom? Alright, alright, I’ll stop. But I’ll tell you this much: I’m not answering any of those questions in this blog post because a) this isn’t a high school essay and b) I’m already at 1,200 words, which is quite long enough.

I’m sure I’ll look back on this post later and wish I said things more eloquently, but in the meantime, I turn the conversation over to you. If you’ve read and/or watched either of these stories, what did you think? What did you like or dislike about them, and do you think either of them are as deep and I seem to think they are?

Just remember, kids: sometimes, dead is better.

 

Image by Etienne Marais from Pixabay

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