Warning: The following contains major spoilers for Pet Sematary (2019) and Pet Sematary: Bloodlines (2023).
In the Master of Horror’s vast collection, few stories cast a shadow so dark as Pet Sematary. Stephen King’s 1983 novel follows Louis Creed and his young family as they fall victim to the grim shadow of death lurking in the woods behind their new house. When the family’s cat Church dies, their friendly neighbor Jud Crandall leads Louis past the charming Pet Sematary deeper into the forest to a burial ground where the dead don’t rest easy. As darkness creeps closer, Louis’s young son Gage becomes the busy road’s next victim and the grieving father attempts to harness whatever power lies beyond the Pet Sematary to reverse the terrible tragedy threatening to destroy his life.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer adapted King’s devastating novel in a 2019 film which reverses the story’s most shocking death. Rather than Gage (Lucas Lavoie), it’s Ellie (Jeté Laurence) who dies in the road then returns after Louis (Jason Clarke) buries her body in the sour ground. Otherwise faithful to King’s source material, Jud (John Lithgow) later expands on this awful power with the story of another grieving father.
In the new prequel to the 2019 film, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, director Lindsey Anderson Beer brings the terrible story of Timmy Baterman (Jack Mulhern) back to life, exploring a grim chapter that has fascinated Constant Readers for decades. Building on King’s novel and lore constructed by Kölsch and Widmyer, Beer fleshes out the horrifying curse haunting the tiny town of Ludlow, Maine.
Below, you can hear Jenn discuss her thoughts in the latest episode of The Losers’ Club:
Bill and Timmy Baterman
In King’s novel, Louis asks Jud if anyone has ever buried a person in the abandoned burial ground. Jud lies at first, but eventually tells Louis the truth to dissuade him from unearthing Gage’s recently interred body. In 1943, a man named Bill Baterman received word that his son Timmy had been killed while fighting overseas in World War II. After the military funeral, citizens of Ludlow began to see Timmy wandering up and down the road leading to his house. It seems Bill had reburied Timmy deep in the woods, hoping to resurrect the last member of his family. Days later Jud joined a group of Ludlow men intent on putting an end to the abomination. Bill rejected their offers to help, but days later set fire to his house, killing his son for the second time while dying alongside him in the cleansing flames.
Retrofitted to the 2019 timeline, Beer’s story shifts this tragedy to the year 1969. Jud (Jackson White), Timmy, and another Ludlow boy named Manny (Forrest Goodluck) used to be inseparable before the draft ate away at their bonds of friendship. Bill (David Duchovny) claims his son Timmy has returned from Vietnam a decorated hero, but the film’s opening scene tells a different story. In the darkness of the burial ground, Bill drags what can only be Timmy’s body, burying it in the rocky soil. Far from a stumbling maniac, Timmy appears more or less himself, albeit with a newfound fascination for animal cruelty and a callous regard for his former friends. Though many suspect the awful truth, Bill explains that his son’s eerie actions have been caused by the trauma of war. Like King’s novel, the Baterman house eventually goes up in flames, but only after Bill has died at the hands of his own undead son.
One of the first people to encounter King’s Timmy is a mail carrier named Marjorie Washburn. After spying the walking corpse on her route she claims to have had the fright of her life and holds on to the secret for twenty years, only sharing it with a close friend on her deathbed. She eventually describes a pale man with hair sticking up in the back who’s “eyes were like raisins stuck in bread dough.” Beer brings this unnerving anecdote to life with screen icon Pam Grier as the unfortunate mailwoman. She not only encounters Timmy on the road, but proves to be instrumental in protecting the town.
Beer’s Ludlow is guarded by a secret committee dedicated to watching for signs of the mysterious force’s return. Majorie notes the tell tale patterns of reanimation right away. With a disheveled appearance, Timmy greets her by quoting from her father’s suicide note and implying that she might be considering a similar fate. Though devastating, this uncanny knowledge is a clear indicator of the burial ground’s use. When King’s version of the committee confronts Bill, Timmy emerges from the shadows spewing awful secrets from each of the men’s lives. He taunts Jud with knowledge of his infidelity and hints at another town member’s illegal use of town funds.
A member of the secret council, Marjorie shares the interaction right away and insists that a new cycle of evil has begun. Unfortunately, this knowledge puts a target on her back. Late at night, Timmy’s undead dog confronts the horrified mail carrier in her home. The scene cuts away, leading us to believe she’s been ripped to pieces, but Marjorie later appears at an informal council meeting, scars lining the side of her face, and tells the group she was forced to kill Timmy’s vicious pet.
Donna and the Scalpel
Once he returns from the dead, Timmy wastes no time creating his own reanimated corpses. Like Kölsch’s and Widmyer’s Ellie, he buries his victims in the sour earth hoping to spread evil throughout the town. Though horrifying, this is a slight deviation from King’s source material. Gage may kill Jud and his mother Rachel, but it’s Louis who buries her body under a makeshift cairn. It’s possible that, given more time, the tiny monster would drag them through the haunting woods, but Louis kills his son a second time with a lethal injection before he has the chance. Unlike Beer’s walking corpses who can only be destroyed by “aim[ing] for the eyes,” Gage’s body has simply been reanimated. Like Church, he can be killed a second time just as easily as he was the first.
Beer’s Timmy seems to be building an army of the dead. He not only kills then buries his dog, but he hunts down Manny’s sister Donna (Isabella LaBlanc) and drags her into the woods. We later see this unfortunate victim chasing Jud’s future wife Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind) through the town’s hospital. Dirty with the earth of her unholy grave, Donna slashes through the hospital staff with Gage’s signature weapon: a scalpel. She later brandishes this tiny blade at Bill’s house, swiping at Manny’s legs in an eerie parallel to the iconic achilles tendon slice that will later lead to Jud’s horrific demise.
The Founding of Ludlow
King’s Jud spends hours telling Louis the history of Ludlow over beers on his porch. However, the elderly man only shares the burial ground’s true history after Church returns from the dead. A local man named Stanny B. not only shared the secret with ten-year-old Jud, but led him into the woods and guided him in burying his beloved dog Spot. It seems knowledge of the burial ground has been passed down through Ludlow for generations. Stanny B. learned it from his grandfather who heard it from the Mi’kmaq tribe themselves. A fur trader who dealt fairly with indigenous peoples, Stanny’s grandfather learned that the tribe had stopped using the ground, believing it to have been soured by the spirit of the Wendigo.
Beer embellishes the founding of the town with another gruesome tale. While investigating at the local church, Jud and Manny find a journal with information about the town’s first settlers. In a flashback to Mi’kmaq Territory 1674, we join an expedition party searching for a missing man named Ludlow (Noah Labranche) who’s been tasked with seeking out fertile land. The indigenous people are preparing to leave the area he finds after a brutal season of crop rot. Symbols resembling the burial ground we will come to know mark the trees along the expedition’s path and they eventually find Ludlow in what will eventually become the town bearing his name.
In a final message before his disappearance, Ludlow had written to his team that death is different in these woods; not the end, but a gateway to eternal life. Having died on the trip, his men apparently ignored the warnings from the tribal leaders and buried Ludlow in the spoiled ground. The expedition finds him covered with blood and feasting on the intestines of a dead man. The settlers eventually name the town for this doomed man, hoping descendants will learn from their mistakes. The founding families vow to keep watch for signs of the emerging evil, creating bloodlines that will protect Ludlow for generations to come. They construct the deadfall Louis will eventually climb hoping to keep people from venturing further into the sinister woods.
Animal Spirits and Spirals
The 2019 remake from Kölsch and Widmyer adds an interesting bit of lore to King’s original novel. Just days after moving into their new house, Ellie notices a procession of children beating drums and carrying a dead animal to the Pet Sematary. Each of the children wears an animal mask similar to the one an undead Ellie will later don before tearing through Jud’s home. In an expansion of this frightening image, Beer gives this tradition a practical purpose. Not only has Donna been creating these masks after seeing visions of them in her dreams, but her ancestors, the indigenous Mi’kmaq tribe once used them to call on animal spirits they believed would offer protection.
Perhaps this explains the location of the Pet Sematary that seems to guard the path to the sinister burial ground. King’s Louis considers it a sort of “advertisement” to evil, luring mourners close enough to hear a voice whispering to them from the woods. Beer posits that the spirits of Ludlow’s beloved pets have been interred here as a sort of boundary to ward against the spirit of the Wendigo drifting out to them across Little God Swamp.
King initially describes the graves in the Pet Sematary as forming “concentric circles.” However, Louis eventually sees the placement of the cairns and grave markers more clearly when he arrives with his son’s body in tow. “Here on top of this rock table, its face turned up to cold starlight and to the black distances between the stars, was a gigantic spiral …” Considering this formation earlier in the Bangor cemetery, Louis notes the power of this symbol, “The graves in the Pet Sematary mimed the most ancient religious symbol of all: diminishing circles indicating a spiral leading down, not to a point, but to infinity; order from chaos or chaos from order, depending on which way your mind worked.” Beer incorporates this symbol into her own version of the story, painting spirals in blood on sunflower blossoms and carving the circular symbol into the trunks of trees. Perhaps this is another attempt to ward off the negative energy, hoping the spiral of protective animal spirits will create order from the chaos of the Wendigo’s curse.
Beers on the Porch
Though King’s novel is undoubtedly terrifying, it’s filled to the brim with emotional depth. In addition to Louis’s idyllic family (before the accident that is), the core of the novel is his father-son friendship with Jud. Moments after meeting his new neighbor, the octogenarian invites the young man to join him on the porch for beers after dinner. Louis hesitantly takes him up on the offer and it quickly becomes a habit. The two men begin to spend most of their late evenings together enjoying the night air while sipping beers on Jud’s porch. It’s this bond that allows Jud to pass on the secret of the burial ground to Louis. Though his intentions may be good, the force lurking in the nearby woods uses their emotional connection to spark a new cycle of death in Ludlow.
Beer incorporates this enduring habit into her own lore, recasting these visits as a sort of watch. We learn that Jud’s father Dan (Henry Thomas) has a similar habit, spending a great deal of time smoking and drinking on the porch of the Crandall family home. With the Creed house not yet built, he has a direct line of sight to the path leading into the woods and his nightly vigil is a watch designed to guard the entrance to the sour ground. Dan has been trying to convince Jud to leave town, hoping to save his son from this cursed tradition. Unfortunately, Dan dies while attempting to destroy the undead soldiers in the Baterman house. With his father no longer able to watch the trail, Jud abandons plans to join the Peace Corps and vows to carry on his family’s legacy. The film’s final image is of Jud taking his father’s place on the porch, waiting and watching, decades before he would share this ritual with Louis.
While this nightly vigil is a sweet tie to the novel’s central friendship, it does leave us with an ominous question. As far as we know, Jud and Norma don’t have any children. He and Louis form a close bond because they are both filling holes in their otherwise happy lives. Were things to turn out differently, Louis might someday take up the watch as a surrogate son to carry on the Crandall bloodline. However, the destruction of the Creed family ensures that there will be no one left alive to set up watch and keep the evil from escaping the Ludlow woods once again.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is now streaming on Paramount+.