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In “Us” And “Pet Sematary,” History Is The Scariest Thing Of All

In Jordan Peele’s new movie and the latest Stephen King adaptation, the real bump in the night might be decades of suppressed trauma. Spoilers ahead!

Posted on April 10, 2019, at 4:08 p.m. ET

Lupita Nyong'o in Us.
Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures

Lupita Nyong'o in Us.

W.W. Jacobs published the short horror story "The Monkey's Paw" in 1902. It's still a banger, fusty Orientalism aside, over a century later — the source of endless adaptations, references, and parodies. In it, an older English couple come into possession of a grotesque keepsake (the titular paw) that grants three wishes in the most perverse possible way. They wish for £200, and that's the exact settlement their son's employer offers them after the young man is killed, horribly, at work the next day ("He was caught in the machinery," they're informed). Then, long days after the funeral, they wish him back to life, and something comes knocking at their door late that night.

"The Monkey's Paw" is a "be careful what you wish for" classic. But if horror often operates by a moral calculus in which people get what they (allegedly) deserve, there's always been something intriguingly off-balance about what happens in Jacobs' story. His characters contend with such outsize ramifications for their pointedly modest aspirations — £200 is the amount left to pay off the family home. Their sin is not greed, which invites you to wonder what they are meant to be on the hook for.

Do they suffer symbolically for some larger transgressions — maybe having to do with the industrialized economy that literally grinds their child in its gears, maybe, or the colonialism that results in the grotesque object, brought from India by an army friend, ending up in their cozy parlor?

Two recent horror movies — Jordan Peele's Us and Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer's new Pet Sematary remake — can both be read as contemporary riffs on “The Monkey’s Paw.” They're movies about being terrorized by monsters who look like loved ones, but both play less like cautionary tales about people trying to thwart fate — the explicit lesson of Jacobs' work — and more as explorations of a deeper, more amorphous, and collective dread. These are stories in which the central characters face horrifying consequences for choices they may not have been involved with directly, but nevertheless bear responsibility for. The devil’s bargain they've struck — without realizing it — ends up being middle-class American ambition, and now the bill has come due.

Pet Sematary, which is the second movie adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel, owes the more obvious debt to "The Monkey's Paw," what with all the dead children coming back from the grave. The story centers on Louis Creed, a doctor, husband, and father who discovers that, deep in the woods on the property of the family's new home in rural Maine, there's a patch of ground that will bring anything buried in it back to life (or something like it). This, obviously, has worked out terribly for everyone who's tried it, which doesn't stop a neighbor from showing Louis how to reanimate the family cat after it gets run over. When a similar accident claims one of his children, it's only a matter of time before Louis makes another very bad decision.

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) in Pet Sematary
Kerry Hayes / Paramount Pictures

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) in Pet Sematary

This fresh take on Pet Sematary makes a slew of late-breaking choices to diverge from the previous attempt and from the source material, none of which are actually improvements (which doesn't change the fact that, fumbled onscreen or not, King's fevered premise remains thoroughly terrifying). What the new movie does do, in sometimes accidentally amusing ways, is throw its main character's pursuit of simple living into starker relief; it becomes the story of a man's increasingly disturbing attempts to spend more time with his family.

Louis (Jason Clarke) talks about the desire to “slow down” with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) as though it's been their shared mantra. They've left Boston and his emergency room shifts behind for something better, more real. And they clutch the trappings of the good life they've been seeking — the friendly neighbors, the house in the woods, the work at the clinic — to their chests, even as it becomes clear that it's all wrong, down to the ground itself, which Louis has been informed (by an advisory ghost) is "sour." The couple has a particular vision of happiness planted so firmly in their minds that they can't relinquish it, even as warning signs and portents pile up, and as Rachel insists that their new life "doesn't feel right."

In King's book, the area was the site of an indigenous tribe's burial ground (a staple of ’70s and ’80s horror). In the movie, the land’s supernatural aspects predate the tribe, but remain tied to the figure of the windigo, a creature from Algonquian folklore. So if Pet Sematary's horror is rooted in denial, it's a twofold variety — one the shaky basis for preserving childhood innocence (the Creeds choose not to explain to their daughter Ellie what actually happened to her cat, which leads to trouble) and the other the broader kind of denial that allows for inconvenient or ugly history to be shunted aside to make way for modern life. The family’s emotional avoidance seems to reverberate with the idea of the area's own paved-over past, as though the small mistake of letting their daughter remain in blissful ignorance awakens something in the ground.

When Louis asks his neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) about how far back his new property goes, he's told "farther than you'd ever care to go," a statement that could apply both to the physical space and to its past. The Creeds never stood a chance, because they're attempting to build their happiness on land still tainted by larger traumas, whether they're acknowledged or not.

Ellie (Jeté Laurence) in Pet Sematary.
Kerry Hayes / Paramount Pictures

Ellie (Jeté Laurence) in Pet Sematary.

There's tainted land in Us too, and it's everywhere — the whole country riddled with tunnels inhabited by “the tethered,” our dark doppelgängers, raised on raw rabbit and resentment. The film is Jordan Peele's second (his company is called — wait for it — Monkeypaw Productions), and revolves around an allegory that's more elastic and resistant to parsing than the one in his 2017 megahit Get Out. The tethered, according to Peele's own reading, are a representation of our fear of the other, and how "maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face."

These doubles are briskly explained to be products of an abandoned government mind control experiment, but they are, in their coveralls and sandals and speechlessness, more compelling as an all-purpose metaphor for everything that the United States, as a nation, has opted to bury rather than face — a few hundred years of racial and economic violence, swept underground but not forgotten.

Where Pet Sematary wears its "Monkey's Paw" influences on its sleeve, Us reveals its own only eventually. Eventually, we realize that this isn't just a variation on a zombie apocalypse, but a story of the huge repercussions from a bargain one of its characters struck for herself, long ago. The tethered aren't Pet Sematary's undead, exactly, but they're not that far off, either — figures with familiar faces and demonic intentions, antagonists who know every shameful secret and vulnerability of the people they're tormenting. And the main action in both films starts at the same place: a family on the road, on their way to a new start, or the start of a vacation that's nevertheless shot through with unease.

Us is a better-directed movie than Pet Sematary, and it has a more interestingly complicated relationship with its characters' complicity. The dearth of horror that's centered on black families makes the film's focus on Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two kids a political point in itself. At the same time, Us stresses that the Wilsons — with their white frenemies, college sweatshirts, and secondhand boat — are active participants in suburbanite striving, dedicated to keeping up with the Joneses and pushing their children to be standouts. They're invested in success, which takes on a very grim irony when we eventually learn the truth about Adelaide in the movie’s final minutes: that she was once a tethered double who pulled herself out of the darkness, leaving Red in her place down below.

The Wilson Family's "tethered" doubles in Us.
Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures

The Wilson Family's "tethered" doubles in Us.

So Santa Cruz isn't just the source of a dark childhood memory for Adelaide, it's the scene of her defining crime. And the late-night knock on the door, in the “Monkey’s Paw” framework, is Red, the revolutionary who's actually aware of what she's been denied, leading the tethered into the light. Adelaide was willing to step on others, including her surface twin, in order to secure a place for herself in the sun, with all its privileges and comforts. But the end of Us, pulling out to reveal a line of tethered, stretching out hand in hand to the horizon, refuses to let her be alone in her accountability or her ruthless climb. Obliviousness is not a justification for neglecting all the people Red carefully describes as fellow Americans — and everyone on the surface faces the same potentially gruesome fate.

Us and Pet Sematary are both fables fueled by a sense of culpability for things that aren't always explained. It's not an accident that they both hinge on the same formation of a nuclear family, the much-mythologized unit around which this country was supposedly built, and one that is, in both movies, menaced from within. They're films that suggest that the American dream its characters pursue, out in the Maine forests or on a Northern California beach, is itself a wish made on a cursed object, with the consequences only now coming due.

Horror, as a genre, is well-suited to channeling feelings of collective guilt, and what marks these recent entries is a refusal to let generational distance excuse its characters, even the children. There's all sorts of history that hasn't been reckoned with, and in these movies it comes bubbling out of the ground in a way that no white picket fence could stop. ●

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