Despite the feral reanimated cat and the undead killer toddler, when a lot of us think about Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), the disturbing depiction of sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek) once again engulfs our minds. Nothing short of nightmare fuel, Zelda is one of the few non-supernatural elements of the film, yet hands down the most frightening. Thanks to Hubatsek’s characterisation, and Lance Anderson’s special effects makeup (which took 8 hours to apply), Zelda was successfully brought to life from Stephen King’s most beloved book to the big screen to terrify us all. Most importantly though, her character allowed us to question why we the audience thought she was terrifying in the first place.
Suffering from an extreme case of spinal meningitis; an infection causing her spine to contort and her face to become skeletal, Zelda is bedridden and locked away in the back room where her mental and physical health deteriorate tenfold. Out of sight, out of mind for her neglectful parents, who are unwilling to look after their sick child. They instead appoint eight-year-old Rachel (Elizabeth Ureneck) to care for her. Quickly, we find out that Rachel never felt sorry for her sister but instead was afraid of her and worse yet, she was tired of taking care of her. We see Zelda through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of a younger Rachel; everything from her creaky voice to her unearthly physicality tells us to be afraid as well as Lambert’s choice of camera angles which parallels Zelda’s jagged movements.
Hubatsek landed the role of Zelda after the initial audition process didn’t go as planned. The young girls who came to the audition were simply too charming to be scary and director Lambert seemed defeated until Hubatsek – a man in his twenties at the time – came with strong visions of the character, convincing Lambert to give him the role. No matter how small the role was though, the uncanny characterisation of Zelda was so off-putting that she not only remains one of the most iconic characters in Pet Sematary but in horror cinema itself. Instead of viewing her as a child suffering from a very real disease, we side with Rachel, sympathising with the burden of looking after her sister, seeing her as she does – a monster from a nightmare.
Not just seen as a ghastly antagonist, Zelda is also a disturbance of the American Dream. From the obsession with appearing perfect to outsiders, to the unattainable middle-class standards, Zelda rejects them all and instead disrupts them profusely. Requiring the time, energy, and the attention of her able-bodied family members, she obstructs their fantasy to be a postcard-perfect nuclear family. Deemed to have no valuable use, they lock her up in hopes that she won’t get in their way. It’s a bleak portrayal of disability and an even bleaker look into how often people mistreat others who require help. Without Zelda, they are the spotless flatpack white middle-class suburban family and Zelda is their ‘dirty secret’, as Rachel puts it. Zelda is essentially the All-American Nightmare. It’s a problem a lot of families are guilty of: keeping dirty secrets. Whether that be deteriorating mental health issues or escalating alcohol problems, families would tend to keep problems inward, subsequently harming their loved ones rather than putting pride aside and getting help. Zelda is a personification of all our dirty secrets and she dies a morbid and painful death. So what does that say about our own dirty secrets? If anything it’s a cautionary tale.
By today’s standards, the portrayal of Zelda in Pet Sematary is problematic for many living with disabilities. After all, Zelda isn’t scary because she’s supernatural, she’s made to appear frightening due to her disability. This has been a horror trope in cinema since people were able to point cameras and shoot 24 frames per second and continues to be used to this day. From Freddy Krueger to – well, almost all slasher villains, visible disabilities have been used as ways to marginalise a group of people who are already marginalised. Cinema almost innately makes us side with the able-bodied, and anyone who doesn’t fit the look is antagonised. Yet, one big difference between Pet Sematary and other films that use this trope is that Zelda is not a killer, nor is she a stalker. She’s a victim of neglect and abuse from her family and once we can view this through our own eyes and not Rachel’s we can see that. However, Rachel cannot and will not. She carries the fear of her sister into adulthood and for that, she is punished accordingly.
Upon moving to their quaint new home, it doesn’t take long for the Creed family to come across the pet cemetery (misspelt “Sematary”) – an ancient Mi’kmaw burial ground with the supernatural ability to reanimate the dead. After their toddler dies in a tragic truck accident, Rachel (Denise Crosby) and her husband bury Gage (Miko Hughes) in hopes that he will be reanimated rather than coming to terms with his death. Subconsciously, they seem to know he won’t return the same (the loving family cat, Church returns foul-smelling and vicious) yet they long to be reunited with their son. It’s one thing to cheat death by sheer luck, but another to pry it out of the hand of the reaper, and for that, the family pays a price for not only disturbing an ancient burial ground but for cheating the cycle of life.
The once beautiful toddler returns as a scalpel wielding murderer, morbidly slashing those in his path. Gage however doesn’t seem to have any striking physical differences to his living self, with only a scar running down his face. He still looks like a sweet toddler but internally he’s the polar opposite of that – demonic and evil. He embodies everything polar opposite to Zelda, who although may appear frightening on the exterior, was just suffering from her disease with no killer intentions. Gage becomes a perfect symbol for shameful judgment; our instincts tell us that Zelda is the one we should be afraid of because her appearance tells us so, but it’s Gage. A warning to not judge a book by its cover if anything. Yet still, we remember Zelda’s character as the more frightening of the two and so, it appears does Rachel.
For her, death reminds her of the traumatic memories of her sister and subsequently the guilt of watching her choke to death without any means of helping. Upon returning home, the feral Gage manifests into a vision of Zelda, forcing Rachel to confront her nightmarish memories. Instead of seeing her son, she sees Zelda which begs the question: would Rachel still be alive if she had tackled her prejudices against her sister’s illness? She sure would have noticed Gage a lot sooner if she had. “I’ve finally come back for you Rachel,” Zelda says, confirming Rachel’s deepest fears until the vision fades and Gage ends her life by stabbing her to death. Up until then, Rachel still views Zelda as a monster and so do we, her inability to see otherwise costs her her life at the hands of her own picture-perfect family. It’s a powerful but harrowing ending, forcing us to reconsider our own biases and beliefs. At that moment we believe Zelda has returned to finally harm Rachel, confirming our preconceived opinions about her yet that moment is snatched away from us, and instead it’s Gage who kills her.
Rachel returns disfigured, half her face is unrecognisable and covered in blood, her eye socket oozes from a black hole where an eyeball used to be. She now resembles the very thing that once used to repulse her – a monster from a nightmare. Unlike her sister though, who has the reassuring comfort of resting in peace, Rachel is damned to walk the earth a reanimated corpse. A macabrely fitting end.
by Meltem Yalçın Evren
Meltem is a filmmaker based in Manchester. Her favourite films are low budget 80s sci fi horror movies with gory but ridiculously exaggerated practical effects. Aside from filmmaking, she runs an online platform called Nekromancy, a place for horror fans to write about horror entertainment and culture. You can find her on twitter @belalugosismom
Categories: Anything and Everything