Welcome to Mother of Fears – a monthly column that will explore the various roles that mothers play within the horror genre. Mothers are a staple feature in horror movies, and yet, their stories, motivations, representations, and relationships with their children are so varied and complex that we never feel like we’re watching the same story twice. Every month I will take a look at a different mother from the world of horror, explore their story, and look at how they fit into the broader representation of women in horror.
Both the original Pet Sematary (1989) and it’s 2019 remake are a story about the way death and grief can affect people in different ways. And while the story centres on Louis Creed and his increasingly-terrible decision-making process, there’s no doubt that the story wouldn’t pack the same punch or make the same sense without his wife, Rachel.
Pet Sematary (2019) made a lot of differences to the 1989 movie, which is a pretty faithful retelling of Stephen King’s 1983 novel, and even Rachel’s pivotal role in the story didn’t avoid the remake treatment, giving us a very different version of the mother of the Creed family. To celebrate The Return Month on Nightmare on Film Street, we’re taking a comparative look at the way Rachel was portrayed in the 1989 and the 2019 versions of Pet Sematary to see how the slight tweaks and changes made a big difference to the more modern retelling of this tale.
On the Topic of Death
At its heart, Pet Sematary is a story about death. Even before the Creed’s lose a cat or a child to the carelessly fast trucks that speed by their rural house, death is a topic which lingers around the family due to the differing opinions on the subject of the two Creed parents. Louis is a doctor and is therefore rather matter-of-fact about death. He knows it is something which comes for us all, and there is no way of avoiding it. In the remake, they even go as far as to have Louis reject all notions of the afterlife, believing that once we die, there’s simply nothing.
Rachel, however, wants to think about death as little as possible. We’ll discuss the deep-rooted reasons for this fear of death shortly, but in an ideal world, Rachel would discuss death as little as possible. Remake Rachel is very keen to push the idea of heaven to her daughter Ellie. Rachel thinks death is scary and wants to shield her daughter from it, and so pinning all her hopes on the fact there is a heaven at least makes the eventuality of death seem a little bit brighter than Louis’ option.
A major shift in Rachel’s character comes in the remake when Louis decides to tell Rachel about their cat, Church, dying at the hands of the trucks on the road. In the original movie, Rachel and the children are in Boston visiting her parents when Church dies, and he’s already been reanimated by the time they return, and so Rachel is none the wiser to Church’s true state. Yet in the remake, this visit never happens, and so Louis is forced to share Church’s fate with his wife.
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“At its heart, Pet Sematary is a story about death.”
Rachel is adamant that they lie to Ellie and tell her that Church has run away, hopefully sparing her the grief of learning her cat has died. It’s this need to keep the death hidden from Ellie and Rachel’s worry of how her daughter will react that leads to Louis heading to bury Church under the cover of darkness with their neighbour, Jud. Of course, Jud takes Louis beyond the deadfall to bury Church, and we all know how that turns out.
So in the 2019 version, Rachel is a lot more complicit in Louis’ actions than she was in the original movie, even if she doesn’t have as full an understanding of events as her husband. In this version, Louis can almost blame Rachel, in part, for his actions, whereas in the original, Jud is the main driving force behind Louis making his first terrible decision.
While 1989 Rachel doesn’t get the chance to lie to Ellie, I’m not sure it’s something she would have done. While she encourages Louis to promise that nothing will happen to Church while he’s getting neutered, which Louis sees as a lie, this feels different from full-on lying to your child about what happened to their pet. Either way, Church is gone, and Ellie will be sad, so why remake Rachel thinks him running away is better than him dying is unclear. Especially when remake Ellie is considerably older than original Ellie, and is far more likely to see through the lie for what it is. Rather than trying to protect her daughter, remake Rachel seems keener to protect herself by shutting off the prolonged conversations about death which would surely come if Ellie knew the truth about Church. In the original movie, Rachel would rather let Louis handle the death conversations, but in the 2019 version, Rachel doesn’t want death in her house period.
Rachel and Zelda
We soon find out that the main reason for Rachel’s dislike of death is due to the trauma she experienced because of the death of her sister, Zelda. When Rachel was a child, Zelda suffered from spinal meningitis, causing her to become bed-bound and difficult to care for. Watching her sister slowly die and be twisted by the bitterness of death, Rachel has carried that trauma with her into adulthood.
In the 1989 movie, Rachel blamed herself for Zelda’s death because her sister died while they were alone in the house together. Zelda chokes after Rachel feeds her, and she believes her sister blames her for her death. However, 2019 Rachel is again more directly involved in events, when she insists on using the dumbwaiter she isn’t meant to touch to feed her sister rather than visit her in person. Zelda ends up falling into the malfunctioning dumbwaiter while trying to retrieve her food, killing her when she hits the bottom.
“Rather than trying to protect her daughter, remake Rachel seems keener to protect herself by shutting off the prolonged conversations about death […]”
Here, it’s Rachel’s denial of what is happening to her sister and her desire to avoid any direct contact with death which ends up contributing to Zelda’s death. If Rachel had fed Zelda in person, her sister would have survived for a little while longer at least. However, instead of learning from her mistakes and knowing that you can’t escape death no matter how hard you try, Rachel still chooses to completely block out death from her life, and the lives of her children. In both cases, death comes crashing down to meet Rachel in a violent way, showing that there’s no way to avoid death for too long.
In the 2019 movie, the Zelda reveal is brought out of the bag extremely quickly, with Rachel experiencing flashbacks/hallucinations/possibly genuine hauntings of Zelda from the minute they arrive in Ludlow. This is perhaps due to the remake going for a darker feel right from the outset, and the filmmakers wanting to get the most out of Zelda’s eerie visual as possible. In the original movie, it’s more of a slow burn, with Rachel finally deciding to address her full issues with death after the family’s helper, Missy Dandridge, dies. The rest of the family attend the funeral, with Rachel described as throwing up and unable to get out of bed.
It’s clear that Rachel has a deeper problem with death than first suspected, and the slow burn reveal of her guilt over Zelda’s death, teamed with her real fear that her sister wants revenge on her from beyond the grave, makes us understand Rachel far more than we did before. However, due to 2019 Rachel’s higher level of direct involvement with Zelda’s death, it makes us less sympathetic to her plight. Much like Louis, Rachel is doomed to repeat her past mistakes and doesn’t learn when death is involved.
Rachel and Louis
The relationship between Rachel and Louis is key to the Pet Sematary story, but we’re given very different versions of it in each movie. This is mainly down the changes in Louis’ character, and how Rachel has to adapt herself to him.
In the 1989 movie, Louis and Rachel are very much in love. They argue over some points but they always make up, with Rachel ensuring Louis doesn’t leave for work before they’ve settled their differences. However, in the 2019 version, Rachel is more motherly towards Louis. She is constantly asking after his feelings, though he very rarely reciprocates. During Ellie’s funeral, Rachel clings to Louis, and he stands stony beside her. He actively ignores Rachel’s phone calls in a bid to hide his secret from her. When they do speak to each other, she begs him to come to her parent’s house because she needs him, and he blankly refuses.
Instead of a loving family that is swimming in grief, with Louis threatening to pull the whole thing apart with his actions, as in the 1989 version, the 2019 version shows us a family that seems on the brink of falling apart on its own. It’s ironic then that death is what brings them together in the end, as they finally reform a cohesive family unit as a family of the undead.
The finale of both versions of Pet Sematary is where we see the two most different versions of Rachel, mainly because of the different series of events which have happened in each movie. This is also where 2019 Rachel is stripped of the best piece of character development, where she decides to stop running and stop ignoring the situation around her and return to Ludlow to face whatever is going on there. While 2019 Rachel does return home from her parent’s to check on Louis, there’s less urgency about it. She returns more because she needs his support and he’s ignoring her phone calls.
In the 1989 movie, it’s a team effort between Ellie, the ghost of Victor Pascow, and Rachel deciding to be brave that gets Rachel back to Ludlow. She fights with her parents, takes multiple flights, rents a car, survives a car crash, and hitchhikes to get back home, all to try and save her family. Due to the child switch in the 2019 version, Gage’s scenes with Pascow don’t land in the same way, and so Rachel just returns home out of desperation at her husband shutting off from her. There’s no building tension with Rachel rushing home playing out simultaneously to Louis digging up Gage like in the 1989 movie, because Louis has already resurrected Ellie, and there was never any hope of Rachel stopping him. The 2019 movie robs Rachel of being a vital part of the story, and a threat which is recognised by the forces behind the burial ground as they try to run her off the road as she travels home. Everyone knows that Rachel is Louis’ last chance and the only thing that can stop him. In the 2019 version, Louis is already way past saving.
“The finale of both versions of Pet Sematary is where we see the two most different versions of Rachel […]”
Because of Rachel’s passing knowledge of Church’s strange situation, Louis feels he can automatically explain the logic of the burial ground and its powers to Rachel as soon as she sets foot in the house. Unlike 1989 Rachel, who embraces Gage the minute she sees him, which leads to her death, 2019 Rachel knows that this version of Ellie is unnatural. While it’s not under ideal circumstances, facing the reanimated version of Ellie seems to make Rachel more at ease with death. “Don’t call me Mommy. You’re not my daughter. Ellie’s dead.” It’s not very often you get to sit down and have a chat with Death, but that’s basically what Rachel does as Ellie literally twists the knife in her mother.
While 1989 Rachel decides to put her fear of death and the unknown aside to rush across the country and try to save her husband, 2019 Rachel doesn’t get this chance. 1989 Rachel dies after a brief moment of happiness and relief when she sees her young son reanimated, but 2019 Rachel dies scared and face-to-face with what she recognises is an abomination. 2019 Rachel’s worst fears are brought to life when she’s buried and reanimated herself, despite begging with Louis “Don’t bury me in that place.” It takes a while to get there, but even Rachel eventually realises that sometimes dead is better.
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