The Hills Are Alive: “Pet Sematary” and the Horror of Indigenous Sovereignty and Black Freedom




AT THE EDGE of the forest lurks a threat. Wolves, witches, and water hemlocks are menacing enough, but the hills are also rife with forces itching to remind humans how insignificant we are. They host murder and mayhem, mutation, backward criminality, and, simply, blackness. This space beyond the edge hosts flora and fauna not yet and perhaps never to be fully subservient to the logics of settler colonialism, the plantation, and capitalism. From another perspective, the hills are the refuge of those who never agreed with the project of Western modernity. In countless books and films, the Negro, the Indian, the inbred hillbilly, the toothless hag, and so on, scratch scratch scratch at the idealized American family’s windows.

The message of much of US horror storytelling is that no world is more terrifying for a white man than the one that decenters him, and, as such, destroys him. The very concept of (white) Man came to exist only in relation to others: indigenous peoples hand over their lands then disappear, white women extend Man’s property, and blacks multiply it through physical labor, including black women’s reproduction. The concept of an ideal subject of the Western world comes into being only through this structure. Without it, Man might be forced to face what Calvin Warren calls “the horror of nothing.” The Western world order alchemizes nonwhite subjects into tools for Man’s (and many white women’s) cobbled individualism. Unfortunately for Man, these appendages or objects have always had a life of their own.

From the outset, Man assumed that the soil, emptied (literally or figuratively) of its original inhabitants, is fecund and pliant, as is the enslaved labor that turns this soil into profit. But the intertwined histories of settler colonialism and slavery are also always about fugitivity; the first enslaved Africans brought to the Americas fled into the mountains of Hispaniola, already home to indigenous maroons. Landscapes inhospitable to white settlers became the refuge of nonwhite fugitives. Amoral, the soil not only gave fruit and profit to whoever exploited it, but also yielded the tools of rebellion: poisonous plants to halt a forced pregnancy or, perhaps, to kill the master and rapist; herbs to heal wounds inflicted through work and punishment; and zombies to turn against humans.

Soil — evil from one perspective and sheltering from another — emerges as a central trope in the original 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary (1983), directed by Mary Lambert. Following Hollywood tradition, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer released a remake in April of this year. While the new version hews fairly close to the original adaptation, it removes the scenes that transformed this otherwise shlocky horror fare into a film worth considering in relation to settler colonialism and slavery. Inspired by the uninspired remake, I revisited the 1989 version and was newly awed by how much the film revolves around white patriarchal anxiety over land. White male children die before they can become the heirs necessary to maintain Man’s project in the Americas. Even worse, they return as zombies intent on destroying their fathers.

Pet Sematary centers around the Creeds, the Platonic ideal of a white American family with a strapping young doctor, Louis, presiding over his Nordically attractive wife, a Pisces-mooned little girl, and a doomed boychild. Church, a talkative and rotund cat named after Winston Churchill (of course), is the real star in the film. Wanting to spend more time with the family, Louis leaves a busy practice in Chicago and accepts a new job as a doctor in rural Maine. They move into an old, colonial-style house fronted by a sunny lawn and surrounded by untamed woods beyond. A cheery and homey musical score accompanies the nesting family as they settle into their new digs. But soon enough the film begins to chip away at the already frail veneer of WASPy family comfort.

Filmed from below to emphasize their weight and speed, cargo trucks barrel down the country highway by the front yard at what seems to be hundreds of miles per hour. A creepy little “sematary” full of ancient pets loved and lost sits just beyond the house. And then there’s the housekeeper who hangs herself in a basement. Things go truly awry when, spoiler alert, both cat and boychild are killed by speeding trucks. Jud Crandall, a friendly local who lives in overalls, leads a despondent Dr. Louis to a hilled part of the woods beyond the pet cemetery. The rocky hilltop, Jud informs Louis, comprises an old “Micmac Indian” burial ground that contains the power to animate former life-beings. Described as “sour” by several characters in the film, this soil yields zombies instead of crops.

According to Jud, the original inhabitants — the Mi’kmaq Nation — willingly fled their land because an evil force haunts it. Both the novel and the new version of the film name the force the wiindigoo, a terrifying creature that appears in many North American tribes’ stories. The wiindigoo — and the Mi’kmaw’s willful escape — elides the violent history of the removal of indigenous people in what is now called the United States, and their continuous struggles for sovereignty. In Jud’s retelling of the cemetery’s lore, the town’s subsequent white settlers avoided the evil hilltop because taking advantage of the soil’s powers of animation had resulted in disaster. But the residents are not terrorized by the hilltop, per se, but by the outsized speeding trucks. Put differently, the Creeds and other white locals are terrorized by the capitalist mechanisms of modernity, on the one hand, and what I like to call the hills, on the other.

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In the Caribbean, where I was born, the hills, el monte, or les mournes represent black and indigenous freedom, especially through marronage. Monte spirits, benevolent and otherwise, populate Caribbean written and oral storytelling. But do not call these stories “magical realism,” a marketing invention that presumes that those spirits are less concrete than a house with a zinc roof. Indigenous and afro-descendent subjects’ conversations with the land and its energies, regardless of the demands of so-called modernity, are real. Must we shapeshift in abortive attempts to become Enlightenment’s Man? It might be best to welcome the lurk.

Blackness, indigeneity, and whiteness — as imagined categories made real through law and violence — are unevenly entangled in the Americas and have worked out quite well for white settlers: stolen indigenous lands minus indigenous peoples plus black (and, in other ways, Asian) labor equals white property. Musing on land in Mother England, a bratty John Locke wrote: “Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place […] become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body.” Of course, Mother England had just begun enfolding most of the world, including what is now the United States and much of the Caribbean, into her capacious stranglehold. The multispecies inhabitants and energies of the hills are an active rejection of Locke. Out of sync with Enlightenment common sense, its soil holds the memory of unsettled debts. “Ghosts,” writes Renée Bergland, “are the things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried.”

Horror stories, especially those that recycle the tropes about shifty-eyed Negroes and spectral Indians, hinge repeatedly on the anxieties that plague the property-owning white man. The questions looming over the narratives, which often remain unspoken, are themselves translations of even more suppressed and unspoken worries. “Will that black man rape my white wife or daughter?” disguises a worse potential: “Does my white wife or daughter prefer to have sex with that black man?” And it most certainly sublimates the reality that this country was founded in great part on white men’s rape of enslaved black women. The worry that “we have moved into a house built on Indian burial grounds” obscures the needling thought that, perhaps, the entire edifice of the Western world order is built on stolen land.

The telltale heart booms beneath the floorboards.

The eyes on that painting follow your every move.

The call is coming from inside the house.

Horror narratives not only remind the main characters that objects speak, to invoke Fred Moten, but also that they (we) are not special. The best horror tale I have read in the recent past is black feminist thinker Denise Ferreira da Silva’s essay “On Heat.” “How to unthink the world?” she ponders. “How to release it from the procedures and tools that presume everything that exists or happens is an expression of the human?” She then provides an experimental response: “Thinking with heat, I find, displaces Universal time (the time of the Human) toward a non-anthropocentric account of what exists or what happens. With heat, it is possible to figure change not as progression but as material transformation.” Materially, “we” would remain, but in the form of an energy that unleashes and coheres differently than it does now. Terrifying. And not farfetched.

Early in Pet Sematary, Victor Pascow, a local college student, is hit by one of the terrorist trucks and dies in spite of Louis’s and the nurses’ care. Mere seconds after his death, Victor — whose brain remains exposed throughout the entire movie — starts warning Louis about the area beyond the thick wall of branches on one side of the pet cemetery. “The barrier was not meant to be crossed,” pleads the friendly ghost. “The ground beyond is sour.” Poor Victor warns Louis not of the speeding trucks that have killed him and will soon kill cat and son, but of the hills. The violence of a “mean road,” as Jud calls it, that produces daily multispecies roadkill does not a good horror narrative make. The horror lies, instead, beyond the edge of the woods.

This attention to the beyond, in this case to the trope of the Indian burial ground, obfuscates not only indigenous peoples’ continuous displacements, but also their active presence in the present. Citing Ric Knowles, Monique Mojica remarks on the tension between “Indigenous hyper-visibility, ‘Indians’ marked as exotics, and our invisibility: a deliberate concealment and erasure of the evidence that marks our sustained presence on the landscape and in societal consciousness.” The hills do not represent a long-lost past; that idea is comforting within a telos of modernity. The hills represent an alternate living present, which thrives after, alongside, and in spite of settler colonial ruin.

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Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo is assistant professor of English and American Studies at Brown University. Her first book, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present, was published by New York University Press in 2018.


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