Death, Loss, Fear, and that Stupid Truck
Exploring Stephen King’s “Pet Semetary.” We all talk about the fear of death as it applies to horror, and certainly, most people fear death. But I’d argue that most of us fear losing people that we care about as much or more than losing our own lives. If only for this fact: almost all of us have had people we love die, but I’m assuming the majority of the people reading this haven’t died quite yet and don’t know what it’s like. If any undead people want to speak up on their experiences, however, go for it.
What I find interesting about a lot of horrors is that the most frightening scenes don’t happen to our protagonist directly. When I think of stories like Pet Sematary by Stephen King, one of my favorite books, what’s the scene that always stands out to most readers? What is the scene that most fans of that book bring up that messed with them?
It’s the scene where Gage dies.
Gage died by getting hit by a truck while playing in the road. Tragedies like this one can and does happen to children, and that makes the scene stand out in a lot of people’s heads.
To me, Pet Sematary is a book about a family that falls apart because of a momentary decision. Jud, taking Louis to bury Church, knowing and possibly because of the Pet Sematary’s power. Every single decision that Louis tried to make to rectify it only causes more tragedies. At the novel’s conclusion, what happens to Louis, the character we’re supposed to identify with, is almost incidental. Because we do identify with him, and if a lot of us were in the same circumstance and survived, we wouldn’t know what to do. There’s no future after that.
That’s why it’s scary.
That’s also why it’s a good story. It’s hard to wrap our heads around our eventual deaths. Still, we can undoubtedly wrap our heads around the idea that minor-seeming choices can snowball out of control, leading to terrible consequences. We understand that because we’ve seen it happen, and we may have even experienced it. We also understand that losing a child is a horrifying thought.
Slasher movies also play to this, with varying degrees of success. We know that there’s a good chance that the main protagonists will live; the horror is in watching them watch their friends die.
The interesting thing about slasher movies is that, yes, we’re rooting for the protagonists not to go up the stairs, but whether protagonists lives or dies, their lives are pretty much destroyed regardless of the outcome.
It’s often on that level that they are sympathetic. Slasher movies often get criticized for having an unlikeable cast of characters that the viewer wants dead. However, I’m not sure that’s really where we’re meant to empathize with them.
Usually, the “jerk” part is played for humor. And no, I can’t sympathize with a lot of these character’s personalities. What I can sympathize with, however, is how terrifying it would be to survive a series of horrible events happening to my friends and loved ones and then have to wake up the next day. That sounds just plain unpleasant, that does.
Then you have to deal with the sequels, but that’s another discussion for another article.
1989 “Pet Semetary” Official Trailer