Sometime in mid-’90s, when I was about 11, I noticed a paperback copy of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary on my mother’s nightstand, a shrieking cat’s green eyes calling to me from the cover. I was discovering “adult books,” and my mom let me have it, as long as I didn’t tell my dad. That was bad enough. Some months later, she rented Mary Lambert’s utterly terrifying 1989 film adaptation as a “treat.” By the time a giggling undead toddler sliced into Herman Munster’s ankles on a staircase, I was forever scarred.
But I’ve come to believe that Pet Sematary left me with a deeper scar, a psychic affliction more profound than the one from the flashbacks about the emaciated sister, or from the cat’s multiple deaths, or from “No fair! No fair! No fair!” The damage is in the title itself: Sematary. An obvious misspelling, maybe—most of us probably know the real word starts with a C. But can you spell the rest? It’s not cematary or cemetary. It’s cemetery. And it is a word I will never be able to write with confidence because of my fateful early exposure to King’s gruesome vision (of his characters’ spelling abilities). I have since learned I’m not alone. Like Ludacris and The Santa Clause after it, Pet Sematary has polluted the minds of a generation, 1983 to present.
Already, the new film adaptation, due in theaters this weekend, has inspired confusion new and old:
This horror is real. And it is international. In France, where children should be writing the word as cimetière, posters are telling them it’s Simetierre. In Portugese, it should be properly be written Cemitério, but posters are advertising Samitério de Animais. (Strangely, Germany and Spain seem to be spared. I guess some countries still care about their young people.)
In Pet Sematary, we learn the sign on the titular cemetery is misspelled by the children who created it as a resting place for their fallen pets, an error replicated by King in the title. (In the new version, an 8-year-old girl, somewhat implausibly, points out the misspelling.) But should you be inclined to grant one of the great horror writers, I don’t know, “artistic license,” I submit he knew exactly what he was doing. Please note this parenthetical, later in the novel:
Rachel would call the vet this morning, they would get Church fixed, and that would put this whole nonsense of Pet Semataries (it was funny how that misspelling got into your head and began to seem right) and death fears behind them.
Hmm! It isn’t hard to find others who suffer from this infirmity. When I asked my colleagues—people who write and proofread for a living—whether they shared my troubles, it was clear it is a widespread issue. Some spelling-bee types proudly rattled off cemetery, but never mind them. Most people got the C and first E correct but were flummoxed by the final vowel and went with an A, perhaps because of words like secretary, or because it just sounds like it should be an A. Or—perhaps!—because they spent their entire lives staring at the word spelled incorrectly on their mothers’ bedside stands and in scary-movie roundups. As one correspondent admitted to me, “Now that I look at it, maybe the ‘atary’ at the end of the title has affected my memory. I definitely looked at the cover of that book as a teenager more often than I looked at any real cemeteries.” Indeed!
The cycle is about to begin anew as the stylish new version of the story arrives in theaters, perpetuating a curse that has infected too many already. Disgusted, I decided to reach out to King directly to see if he had any words of explanation or contrition. He sent a quick reply to my email message. It read, in full:
Peter Straub, the novelist, called me after he got the manuscript. In a very diffident tone, he said, “Stevie, you misspelled cemetery.” I laughed and told him to read the book.
Sure, read the book. See the movie. But don’t say you weren’t warned.