Generally speaking, societies across the world agree that our beloved dead ideally belong in a certain, final resting place, and that place is out of sight. The idea of people who are dead–or who should be dead–remaining among us is a consistent source of horror. In this episode I talk about our fear of dead bodies that aren’t at rest, either because they never were buried or, in the case of Timothy Baterman, from Pet Sematary, because they returned to us.
Sayer, Chloë. The Day of the Dead: A Visual Compendium. Laurence King Publishing, 2021.
“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera, https://www.diegorivera.org/dream-of-a-sunday-afternoon-in-alameda-park.jsp.
Romelus, Yvana. “Your Favorite Haitian Lwa – Baron Samedi | Thee Voodoo Family.” Chronicles of a Zoe, YouTube, 28 Nov. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIgxo45ApGQ.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Grey Smoke” by Mocha Music licensed through Shutterstock
Some time ago, I saw a reasonable exchange on Twitter, of all places. Mind you this is from memory so the accuracy is probably a little iffy. One person posited a perturbing hypothetical: if we accept the uncanny valley as legitimate–the uncanny valley being the concept anything humanlike that imperfectly resembles actual human beings provokes discomfort or even revulsion in humans–if that’s legitimate, then it’s there, built into us intrinsically, for a reason. Which, according to the initial post, implies that there was something in humanity’s past that tried to pass itself off as us, just barely missing the mark, and that we had cause to be wary of.
Very quickly, someone else pointed out that this thing that is close to human but doesn’t quite look like us, certainly doesn’t behave like us, and that should inspire concern, could simply be a corpse. And in fact if you were to do so little as to just view the Wikipedia entry for Uncanny Valley, you would see a chart that puts a corpse in the second deepest dip of the valley. The only thing below it: a zombie. Now that chart isn’t exactly peer reviewed or anything. Near as I can tell it’s just the creation of a Wikipedia user, but that doesn’t lessen its usefulness or general accuracy, in my opinion. And we do have natural cause to be cautious of a corpse, or, more specifically, cautious because of the presence of a corpse. It’s not necessarily about fearing the dead, but fearing what made them that way. Keeping your head on a swivel, in case the killer is still around.
Having said that, by and large, we aren’t exactly fond of looking upon the deceased. Yes, there are exceptions, and I’m not here to judge anyone’s morbid fascinations–so long as they’re harmless and not disrespectful–you guys hear the topics I cover, I’m certainly in no position to judge even if I wanted to. And living in certain environments, or being of a certain disposition, can desensitize you to the sight of death to the point that you’re, at most, casual around corpses. I wager the average person listening to this, however, would not be cavalier if, let’s say, they were walking down the street, even in broad daylight and among friends, and saw someone leaning against the wall who looked like they were just resting. Until you got close enough to realize they weren’t leaning, they were propped. And they were not anyone anymore. They were what someone used to be.
In the previous episode I talked about premature burial. A living person being where the dead should be. It’s unsettling, to say the least. But what about when the dead are not where they are supposed to be? What if we discover a dead person among the living?
Many stories of revenge from beyond the grave exist across several mediums. Indeed, I just spent part of last episode focusing on live burials in golden age horror comics, and I could also use comics from the same era as the focal point of stories in which corpses rise to murder their murderers. Before Romero-style zombies roamed in droves, attacking anyone they came across, the walking, decaying dead might arise just one at a time with a singular purpose. Find the person who wronged them, and end them, preferably in a way that matches or inverts the crime they committed.
Decades after the golden age, another comic would grant the world one of its more famous modern revenants. Eric Draven, The Crow, a character created by James O’Barr and further immortalized by the late Brandon Lee. The pale vigilante, with his black lips, black eyeliner and black hair, is a classic painted corpse, resembling the goth makeup influenced by the character Cesare, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Cesare’s image appeared on the cover for what is considered by many the first gothic rock single, “Bela Lugosi is Dead” by the band Brauhaus. And it’s worth noting here that Cesare himself is not actually a living corpse, but a sleepwalker controlled by a corrupt mentalist. Nonetheless, his “death-like sleep” has lasted 23-years according to his handler, Caligari, and the confines he’s kept in are less cabinet than coffin.
Draven’s slightly more stylized appearance also calls to mind a not quite finished or more minimalist version of “sugar skull” make up that appears on so many faces during “Dia de los Muertos” festivities. The sugar skull itself is inspired by the figure “La Catrina,” created by artist Jose Posada, and further popularized by Diego Rivera. Catrina, in her original appearance, was part of Posada’s series of critical and satirical illustrations. She debuted in a piece titled “Remate de calaveras alegres y sandungueras,” translating very roughly to “the auction of happy skulls and party girls.” In this, as well as her later appearance in Rivera’s mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Park,” and on through any later depictions, Catrina looks like a corpse trying to disguise itself with fancy garments. Which was point initially. Per the book, The Day of the Dead: A Visual Compendium, by Chloe Sayer, Posada’s cartoon targeted certain servant and working class young women who pretended to be of the wealthier class by wearing clothes they really couldn’t afford. Worth noting here as well was the application of skin-lightening makeup, meant to hide indigenous ancestry, appealing to a standard of beauty rooted in the idea that paler skin–even white as bone or an exsanguinated corpse–reflected the status of someone who didn’t have to go outside and endure the darkening effects of sunlight, unlike working people. The piece’s accompanying poem capture’s Posada’s opinion of these efforts, that they are futile, as they are, like all of us, destined to become “deformed skulls,” and will take with them into the grave “finery and blouses, heeled slippers and corsets.”
Posada introduced Catrina–then nameless–as a grinning, somewhat malformed skull sporting a large hate choked with extra décor, and she even has a few frills adorning the sides of her skull for good measure. Later, in Rivera’s “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon,” she’s front and center, the sole skeleton standing among the living, her splendid hat atop her head, a large, colorfully feathered rattlesnake boa draped behind her neck–a reference to the Aztec god Quertzlcoatl, per DiegoRivera.org. She has a gold belt buckle that also references Aztec astrology, and a chain for her eyeglasses that hangs down to where her knees should be. Many people dress up as some facsimile of La Catrina for certain occasions, but in my admittedly limited research, I didn’t see anyone try to replicate this exact look. I wonder whether it’s a matter of that kind of replication not being the point, or if that specific appearance is sacred to some degree, or if it’s just a matter of people not feeling like they could quite pull that one off.
La Catrina and the associated sugar skull face paint are interesting for myriad reasons, but for the subject of this episode they are particularly interesting as examples of living corpses that are now meant to be embraced and celebrated, and are part of a tradition meant to help people cope with and understand death. And listen, I’m not the right guy to get into even an ankle-deep history of Day of the Dead, its importance and meaning, but I know enough to understand that La Catrina’s appearance, morbid to some though it may be, was never designed to frighten anyone. That said, if you look closely at her image in the “Sunday Afternoon” mural, her fangs are prominent, whereas in the original picture they were non-existent. And along her bottom row of teeth, where her bottom lip would be were she not such a stark representative of the undead, I’m pretty sure that’s blood.
From Spanish influences that merged with and were taken from native cultures in the new world, we go to the French influence upon people taken from their native land into the new world, where we find another well-dressed corpse. Or at least a spirit wearing a well-dressed corpse costume. Baron Samedi, the vodou lord of the dead and the cemetery, among other things, is a skeletal form–although sometimes he’s more fleshed out and just has a skull or half-skull for a face. He wears a top hat, black tail coat and pants, and is sometimes seen with a cigar or some liquor, or both. A divine being who enjoys the standard vices of the living, smoking, drinking, and sex. This is good to know, since he might require payment of you to keep your body rotting in the ground, as opposed to letting it rise to become a mindless zombie. Some rum, some good food, or even some coffee might suffice, but his moods are unpredictable. While he’s not as outright hostile as his colleague, Baron Kriminel, his power is fearful enough on its own. He even calls the shots in determining who actually gets to die. If Samedi refuses to dig your grave, you don’t die, which some might view as the ultimate blessing, but could easily be a terrible curse.
The idea of someone who should be dead remaining alive does not always involve a reanimated corpse returning to life. Sometimes people are refused the opportunity to die. The torment of this is sometimes presented as psychological in fiction. An immortal person outlives their immediate family–their own children and grandchildren and beyond–to say nothing of friends and lovers, and this takes a toll. They outlive their desire to live, become so bored with what the world can offer them that they long for death, but can never experience that escape. This shows up in fiction and lore with various characters who are cursed to wander the Earth forever. Recently, the underseen film He Never Died explores this well. The nineteenth century gave birth to the folk tale of “Jack of the Lantern,” the man who was too sinful to go to Heaven, but whose deception of the devil ensured that Hell could never have his soul either–which isn’t how the whole Heaven and Hell dynamic is supposed to work, but just go with it. Barred from both eternal paradise and damnation, Jack is left as a restless, undying nomad, searching the world for a place that will have him, so he can finally rest.
I find these stories fascinating in part because a part of me thinks I wouldn’t run into the issue of getting so bored with life, or feeling so restless from roaming, that I would lose the healthy fear of death. I do think the negatives I mentioned would be unpleasant, but man, I feel like it would take an extraordinarily long time for me to really feel like I’ve not just done it all, but also done it all so often that I find the alternative to living more appealing. I do think the film He Never Died does a good job of at least making the character ostensibly several thousand years old at least, as opposed to the few-hundred years or less that’s enough to drive some of these characters to find death desirable. I think they should probably just open their minds up a little, find some more hobbies. They probably haven’t come close exhausting all the cool and interesting things there are to do in the world. They also might want to count their considerable blessings. It could be much worse. At least whatever stuck them with immortality also pressed pause on their aging. In the most overtly horrific examples of the ever-living, that isn’t a package deal.
In Greek mythology, Tithonus, the mortal lover of the goddess Eos, was granted eternal life by Zeus at Eos’s request. Unfortunately she did not ask that he never age, and Zeus, never missing an opportunity to be king of the jerks, gave her exactly what she asked for and apparently didn’t allow for any modification to the request. Tithonus lives and ages until, “he could not move nor lift his limbs,” and was then left in a room by Eos where he “babbles endlessly.” In some later tellings he is finally granted the mercy…of transforming into a cicada, in which state he continues to beg for death.
In Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels, the eponymous traveler comes upon a race of people called Struldbruggs. These unfortunate souls are also incapable of dying, and fully capable of experiencing the inevitable ravages of aging. In their nation, when they turn eighty, they are declared legally dead, all of their possessions are passed on to heirs, and they are forbidden from having a job or doing anything to earn income. If they are still in a marriage, that is automatically dissolved. They are not allowed to own property. If they’re not members of a wealthy family, they become charges of the state’s inadequate welfare system, and typically have to resort to begging. Depression at their circumstances understandably sets in. As they continue to get older they become susceptible to “all the follies and infirmities of other old men.” In other words, their mind and body starts to deteriorate–losing sight, losing hearing, losing their teeth, losing their memory, losing every piece of their health–and there is zero hope of things ever reversing course, or of their lives ever stopping.
Amazingly, my next example of this state is less depressing and horrifying than the previous two, due to its brevity. For all we know, had the mesmerist not granted him the release of death, Mister Valdemar–the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s story–might have never, mercifully, dissolved into a disgusting mass of decomposition seven months after he should have died. In the intervening period of unnatural, prolonged “life,” Ernest Valdemar no longer breathes, or bleeds, and thankfully seems to be in a somewhat unconscious state through much of what happens after his intended death. When he is awakened one last time, however, the voice he manages to push through lips and jaws tightened by rigor mortis is urgent. “For God’s sake! I say to you that I am dead!” In the midst of this declaration he pleads to be put out of his misery one way or another, either placed back into a state of unawareness, or awakened in a way that sets him free, and lets his body catch up on all the rotting it hasn’t been permitted to do for over half a year.
Dia de los Muertos, as mentioned, is in part a celebration designed to help us accept and cope with the idea of death, whether its our own mortality or that of our loved ones. And also, as mentioned, Baron Samedi has, among his rights and duties, the ability to either grant you death, or allow you to be returned to life, enslaved and powerless. Baked into each of these things is the idea that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. It is indeed natural and healthy to fear death, but the idea of becoming undead, in one form or another, is one that goes back to ancient times. Irrational though it may be–given that it’s never been a realistic threat or option for any of us–it is nonetheless something that seems to have been on our mind for about as long as stories have been told about things we should be afraid of; the fear of being denied a peaceful end. As much as many of us would love to prolong our lifespans beyond what is known to be possible–I’m raising my hand to be counted among those many–we’d all like to do this on the most ideal terms. None of us would like to be like Tithonus, or the Struldbruggs, or Ernest Valdemar. I’d love to live a mythically-long life, but not if the bulk of it is spent in hideous suffering, trapped in a vessel that is cadaverous at best, and at its worst something that would make you long for the days when you were at least a relatively fresh living corpse and registered somewhere on the uncanny valley, instead of being completely off that graph. To say nothing of the idea of being brought back as a shell of yourself, or less, stuck in a stinking, sack of spoilage that should have stayed buried.
Compared to that fate, well, as a wise old Mainer once said, “Dead is better.”
Pet Sematary is one of Stephen King’s scariest novels, which is saying something. It is hardly wanting for horrifying moments and characters. For me, even more than anything else in the book, including the resurrection of Baby Gage and all of its aftermath, the short story-within-the-story recounted in Chapter 39, is what I think of when I consider the worst that could happen when a dead person is brought back to life. The story of a reborn Timmy Bateman.
The ultra-truncated version of Timothy Baterman’s story that appears in the first film adaptation of Pet Sematary comes nowhere near doing it justice. If you’ve never treated yourself to the novel, I encourage you to bookmark your spot in the podcast now and come back to it later, after reading the book. Go buy it at your favorite local bookstore, or borrow a digital copy from the internet archive’s online library, presuming it’s not on one of your shelves already. You can even just skip straight to the aforementioned chapter 39 and just read that if you want. It works decently as its own short story, especially if you already have a general idea of what Pet Sematary is about, so that you’re not confused about the whole dead-man-rising phenomenon within that world. Or, if needed, you can read Chapter 38 as well to set the stage.
As part of the novel, the Baterman tragedy is somewhat superfluous. The character isn’t mentioned by name until more than halfway through the book, by which time it has already been established that any formerly living thing buried in the cemetery soil beyond the deadfall, land which has been evil since even before the Native MicMacs lived there, will be brought back to life. And it will be changed in a terrible way.
Louis Creed buries his daughter’s pet cat there, Church, to spare her the pain of losing her beloved companion. The cat clearly comes back different. “A little dead,” is how Louis describes it later. It smells of death, the aroma so strong and off-putting the little girl won’t let it spend the night in her bedroom anymore. Worse, though, the formerly loving and lively, now hostile Church has taken to killing birds and rodents. Not to eat them, just to torture and mutilate them. As if for sport. This isn’t exactly behavior unbecoming of a cat, but it is behavior unbecoming of this cat.
Other omens make it apparent throughout the story that burying a human being in the forbidden, demonically influenced section of the pet sematary will go just as bad, if not worse. So, whether for the reader’s sake or for the sake of the characters, the Baterman story isn’t strictly necessary. It’s much too effective to leave off the page, however.
Timothy Baterman died in World War II. His body was shipped home to a grieving father, already heartbroken from having lost his wife. No sane, loving father is equipped to unexpectedly lose their son to violence, particularly a son who was legally a year too young to be enlisted in the armed forces, but if it’s possible to be among the least equipped to handle such a loss, Bill Baterman would qualify. Even if his history before his son’s death didn’t make this evident, his actions after Timothy’s death would.
Judson “Jud” Crandal, the fatherly neighbor trying to talk Louis Creed out of even considering using the cemetery to resurrect his youngest child, Gage, tells the story of Timothy Baterman because, to his knowledge, Timothy is the only person who has been buried in and revived by the cemetery. Although, as it turns out, Jud doesn’t think Timmy is really the one who came back. He thinks something else inhabits the young man’s body. There seems to be no way he isn’t at least partially right about this. Timothy is not the same after he comes back. And we’re not talking about a minor change. Bill Baterman tries to convince himself Timmy’s changes are a product of shell shock, but as devastating a condition as that can be, it can’t really explain the ways in which his son has changed. The way he moves. The way he speaks. The secrets he knows.
Let’s start with the way he moves. As with certain other undead characters, it isn’t disquieting enough to have the dead simply return to life. The state of the dead often punctuates the horror. Romero style zombies tend to be stiff and lurching. Even the earlier bastardized-Voodoo style of zombie from early Hollywood, comic books and radio serials had a lifelessness that led to the word zombie becoming a useful metaphor for someone who appears to be in a mindless stupor. Timmy Baterman is no exception. He moves strangely and awkwardly. In a way that, when you think of it, should make him less menacing, in a practical sense. The simple act of turning around almost caused him to fall over on one occasion, and he looked, “like a drunk man trying to do an about face,” according to the sole witness. If it came down to it, I’d rather fight or try to flee from a guy who moves like that than one who’s more agile, at least in theory.
The problem is, first, having to figure out the nature of the threat. The scariest thing about most modern movie and literary zombies isn’t that they’re on the attack, it’s that they can spread their condition to others. The zombie bite isn’t so frightening because it might rip out your throat, but because if it just breaks the skin on your pinky finger, you’re dead anyway. Fortunately, Timothy is not that style of zombie. Unfortunately, he might be something worse.
Many zombie stories have to exist in a world where nobody has heard of zombies before. I’ve seen some people get some mileage out of likening the coronavirus pandemic to a zombie apocalypse, indicating that humanity has proven themselves to be as unprepared, foolish and selfish as the characters in zombie movies. I get the point behind that, but the thing is, I’d still rather an attempted zombie apocalypse jump off than what we’ve gone through since 2020. Not accounting for the possibility of many of us potentially losing our minds at the sight or even idea of the dead returning to life, or a zombie virus turning people into unthinking killing machines, from a practical sense, I think we’d fare better because zombies don’t have the insidious benefit of being unseen and hard to detect like an airborne virus that can be spread even through asymptomatic carriers does. Romero-style zombies in particular, while terrifying, really seem like they’d have a tough time overrunning the world, or even a city, in my opinion. Maybe it’s because I live in the states, and in particular Texas, and we’ve got an absolute embarrassment of guns and bullets and would probably kill more people in the crossfire than the zombies could hope to kill during their attempted rampage, but I think even places that don’t have much in the way of guns would probably have a lot of success keeping the zombie threat contained, in no small part because we’ve all been exposed to ample amounts of zombie fiction, and unlike, say, aggressive aliens with advanced tech, they don’t have any traits that make them superior combatants. I don’t want to derail the conversation here too much by getting into more specifics, but feel free to do a search for reasons why a zombie uprising would fail, check the arguments and counterarguments, and feel free to agree or disagree with me.
Anyway, I think Timothy Baterman–or whatever was wearing his body–also understood the limits of a conventional zombie attack, and so he doesn’t try to fight. He’s not a simple zombie. As Jud says, there’s something going behind his eyes. Jud doesn’t want to call it thinking, possibly because he’s just afraid of the idea of this dead thing plotting and scheming, but it’s definitely processing information in some capacity. And it has more information than it should, and knows how to weaponize this for petty glee and psychological torment if nothing else.
Baterman, in a sense, is like the modern version of a troll, saying cruel, hurtful things to emotionally injure people, and maybe even to see those injuries turn physical as byproduct of what he says. The big difference between Baterman and the average callous fool on the internet, however, is that he’s actually telling indisputable truths. As damaging as lies can be, or as damaging as intentionally misused facts can be, a litany of horrible truths might have more power. This is ultimately what Jud and his friends confront when they come to tell Bill Baterman that his resurrected son is an abomination, and that he has to do something about him before things get really bad. When Baterman tells one man, George Anderson, that his beloved, adult grandson doesn’t actually love him, he’s just waiting for the old man to die so he can get his inheritance, it’s mean, but if it was a lie it wouldn’t be any more than that, just mean. The fact that it can be taken as truth makes it far more cutting. And how is it known to be true? Well such a thing is really unknowable, or at least can’t be proven. But when you take that statement with the things that can be proven, that Timothy says even though he should not know them, such as the fact that the George Anderson has no inheritance to give because he lost it all in 1938, well that makes it hard to shrug off anything he says as a trollish lie.
Jud’s marriage would have been tested had Timothy been able to tell Jud’s wife Norma about his secret, that he visited sex workers from time to time. Had she known that truth, she would not have left, Jud believes, but some significant part of her would have died inside. Baterman does the most damage, however, when he tells Jud’s friend Alan that Alan’s wife, several years his junior, is sleeping with one of her coworkers. Something Alan possibly should have known, given it was town gossip, but hearing it directly from someone he knows is telling the truth is different than perhaps catching a whisper of it before people notice you’ve entered a room and stop talking about it. He reacts to this news by committing the indefensible act of domestic violence, and it’s easy to believe this is what Timothy Baterman wanted.
This is the power he has because he’s not just a mindless zombie. He’s at a deeper, more disturbing place in the uncanny valley. If you told me my city could either be overrun by a hundred shuffling, groaning, undead flesh-eaters, or a hundred Timothy Baterman’s telling everyone’s dirtiest secrets to everyone else within earshot, I think I’d take my chance with the conventional zombies. Again, I just don’t think they’d be that hard to deal with in reality, especially where I live. Something like Baterman, a thinking thing, might be able to do more harm indirectly and without even touching anyone, in just a handful of seconds and sentences.
In the end, I think Baterman represents one of the biggest reasons why civilizations have long opted to dispose of the dead in a way that puts them out of sight. Bury them, burn them, anything so we don’t have to look at them. You know, we don’t necessarily have to hide them from sight to sanitarily dispose of the dead. Preservation and display is an option, one exercised by the Capuchin crypt in Rome. There, the remains of approximately 3,700 long-dead human beings are arranged and available for all to see. Unsurprisingly, such exhibition hasn’t caught on with most of the rest of the world. Very few of us would want to see such a thing on a regular basis. Because, ultimately, the one truth that any dead body tells anyone who sees it is that this fate awaits us all. Regardless of just about any belief system you may have, if nothing else, this is very likely what’s to become of your body, at least for a moment. And I hate being the morbid guy, I felt a little pinhead of sickness from just writing those last two sentences; contemplating mortality is among my most hated things to do. But it’s nonetheless a truth that people like me–at least–treat almost like a secret, and that a corpse tells us we’ll have to someday face despite how much we may not want to.
And, as uncanny as can be, a dead body can tell us all of that without opening its mouth, taking a breath, or saying a word.