Pet Sematary Zelda hero

The fear of disability and Stephen King's Pet Sematary

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Sep 4, 2018, 3:30 PM EDT

When I'm asked to name the scariest movie I've ever seen my answer is a head-scratcher to many: The 1989 Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary. The Mary Lambert-directed feature has a cult following but it's far from a horror film classic. However, it's a landmark feature in my development because of the character of Zelda, the deformed deceased sister who haunts the film's female protagonist, Rachel Creed. Zelda is a lodestone for the fear of disability, both by those with disabilities themselves as well as the able-bodied audience terrified of being crippled themselves.

Zelda is the living embodiment of the existential dread of being disabled, yet that representation is different if you are disabled yourself. Physically, Zelda is depicted as a "monster," her back a spiny ridge, her face gaunt — a fantastic combination of makeup and Andrew Hubatsek's acting. As Rachel says, she's a "dirty secret" who lives in the back bedroom, a victim of spinal meningitis who is deemed "clinically insane" by the end of her life.

As a young child with brittle bone disorder, who didn't look like everybody else to begin with, Zelda hit me in a deep, frightening place. Not knowing the distinction between a disease like meningitis and my own medical diagnosis, I believed this was the route all disabilities took. I believe that, eventually, I would become a hideous thing like her. Zelda also touches on the fear people with disabilities have regarding losing control of their bodies and their minds. Would I be driven mad some day by my disability?

Pet Sematary is about the fear of death and avoiding the existential dread that there's nothing waiting for us on the other side, but Zelda presents the fear of disability in life as well. While Judd Crandall says "dead is better," there's no sweet release for Zelda. Her death is presented as gruesome, frightening, and sad, though because the audience's relatable focal point is meant to be Rachel, the sadness of Zelda's cold, lonely death isn't touched upon. This is because Zelda reiterates the idea that disability, which can come with old age, is the true reason to escape death. Like most disabled narratives, which present disability as something to pity or avoid, Zelda is the prime example of what makes disability so terrible.

But unlike A Christmas Carol's Tiny Tim or other narratives that situate death as a way of "releasing" people from disability — a concept commonly brought up in the wake of Stephen Hawking's death — Zelda doesn't lack that option. She is an albatross around Rachel's neck, not only manifesting Rachel's inner torment but her terror at her sister's affliction. Conversely, Zelda's death isn't a deliverance from her plight, but retained because of her inner jealousy for her sister; she threatens Rachel with twisting her back "so you'll never get out of bed again," fueling ableist beliefs that disability is a death sentence, must be expunged at all costs, and leads to resentment from people with disabilities towards their able-bodied (hence, better) counterparts.

Zelda is more of a presence in the novel on which the feature is based, but in both versions, her demise is inextricably bound up with the Creed's young son, Gage. After Gage's death, Rachel sees Zelda, who tells her "Gage and I will get you." Later, when Rachel sees her son, reanimated by the sour ground of the Micmac burial plot, he's dressed in a top hat and cane, not unlike a portrait in Rachel's parent's home of a younger, healthier Zelda. Zelda's jealousy of her able-bodied sister carries over towards resenting what Rachel has: a family and children. This connects to other ableist beliefs about people with disabilities not having children or being perceived as unsuitable for parenthood. It also creates something unique towards people with disabilities who watch it, that maybe Zelda's connection to Gage is the inherent fear of passing on one's disability?

As an adult, I watch Pet Sematary and see Zelda as how I initially thought of myself, as a deformed girl who'd grow bitter and resentful of what others didn't have. As an adult now, Zelda affects me on a level associated, but not because of the ableist stereotypes it falls into. If an able-bodied person's fear is that with old age comes disability, how does that work with a person already disabled? If Zelda, who, though it's never directly referenced to but indicative in the painted portrait in Rachel's childhood house was able-bodied before her condition, could lose control of herself so completely, will that happen to me? Furthermore, will I come to have resentments about the things my disability has taken away from me? All of this from a character Stephen King wrote to act as a scare tactic for the able-bodied.

For 1989 these tropes were indicative of how Hollywood saw people with disabilities, and though there are still big changes that need to happen, we've gotten better. That being said, Zelda is a double threat, producing fear on a sliding scale for both those with disabilities and those without. I still freak out when I watch this movie, and I probably always will, but the fact I'm still thinking about the character almost 30 years later says a lot for her enduring power.