Stephen King’s career in Hollywood is nearly as long as his career as a published novelist, with dozens of his books and stories being adapted for both the big screen and the small – but his registered impact on pop culture definitely doesn’t stop there. Because his works have inspired generations of filmmakers, you can not only find familiar themes all over the place, but movies and TV shows going back for decades are filled with Stephen King references, homages, and spoofs.
It would be logistically impossible to catalogue every single reference audiences have seen going back nearly 50 years, but what I can do is highlight some of my favorites, and that’s what you’ll find below. I had to give myself some limitations – including one reference per film/series, and only one reference per book – but that has just resulted in a list exclusively filled with fun nods that Constant Readers can appreciate. It feels right to begin with something a bit more obscure, so let’s start with the Season 2 premiere of Rick and Morty…
Rick And Morty – “A Rickle In Time”
My self-imposed rules dictated that I had to choose between “A Rickle In Time” and Season 1’s “Something Ricked This Way Comes” – which is basically a parody of Stephen King’s brilliant novel Needful Things – but I decided to go with Rick And Morty’s callback to the author’s story of insatiable meatball monsters that devour expired time a.k.a. The Langoliers. The animated show doesn’t specifically feature King’s nightmare creations, but looking at the fourth-dimensional characters pictured above (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) the inspiration is obvious. One of them shows up after Rick, Morty, and Summer accidentally break time with their indecisiveness, and while they may have arms, and they may be sentient time/space police instead of voracious abominations, there’s no mistaking the influence of the novella from the collection Four Past Midnight.
South Park – “Majorine”
Like Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone have repeatedly demonstrated their affection for the works of Stephen King, making this a tough pick. I ultimately had to go with “Marjorine,” though, because it features a hilarious and insidiously dark reference to Pet Sematary. In the episode, the fourth grade boys of South Park convince Butters to fake his death so that he can wear a costume and go undercover among the girls – but what Butters doesn’t count on is his “death” nearly destroying his mother and father. After getting advice from a stranger who looks and talks exactly like Fred Gwynne’s Jud Crandall, Butters’ dad buries what he thinks is his son’s dead body in an Indian burial ground hoping that he will be resurrected. Unfortunately, things don’t go so great when a very alive Butters returns home after completing his mission, as his parents think he is evil and lock him in the basement.
Hannibal – “Sorbet”
There is an argument to be made that Hannibal is one of the most gorgeous shows to ever play on network television, and at least a minor fraction of the credit has to go to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, as the series features a number of visual homages to the film (creator Bryan Fuller is an avid fan). The premiere, “Aperitif,” notably has a scene featuring Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) in a bathroom exactly like the one in the Overlook Hotel once occupied by Jack Torrance and Delbert Grady – but I’m instead choosing to highlight the reference in Season 1’s “Sorbet,” which finds the main characters come together at a crime scene that is designed to look like the bathroom in the notorious Room 237.
There are countless films and shows that reference Carrie in either a prom setting, or in the discussion of a picked-on introvert taking revenge, so I figured I would use my pick to go in a different direction – and found Wes Craven’s Scream waiting for me. The whole shtick of the 1990s slasher is that the killers are inspired by their favorite horror movies, and the first ever Stephen King adaptation was definitely on their watch list. After all, Billy (Skeet Ulrich) specifically notes that the fake blood he used to fake his death was just colored corn syrup – just like what Brian De Palma used on the set of his 1976 classic.
The Critic – “Miserable”
There wasn’t any classic movie that was safe from The Critic when it aired its two remarkable seasons in the mid-1990s, with the animated series constantly produced A-level spoofs (especially those that wound up predicting future projects). Many of the most memorable are the fake clips that the series protagonist Jay Sherman airs on his television show, but others were woven directly into the storytelling. One of the best is featured in just the second episode, “Miserable” (a play on Misery) and features Jay falling prey to his “number one fan”… though things don’t exactly go the same during his kidnapping as what happens in the Stephen King book/Rob Reiner movie.
Lewis Teague’s Cat’s Eye is a delight for any Stephen King fan, as it not only features two great short story adaptations scripted by the author himself, but also a third, wholly original story, and a pair of fantastic references to past classics. As far as the latter goes, you can spot them very early in the movie when the protagonist feline, General, is introduced. A stray, General begins the story just wandering down the streets, but that wandering becomes a full sprint when a rabid St. Bernard starts giving chase (clearly a reference to Cujo – which Teague also directed). The pursuit continues along sidewalks and streets, and at one point the two animals are nearly hit by a red 1958 Plymouth Fury – one that sports a bumper sticker that says “Watch out for me, I am Pure Evil, I am Christine.” As captured in the still above, it’s a great two-for-one moment.
Pet Sematary (2019)
With Cujo having already been mentioned, I’m bending my own rules here, but I feel compelled to mention the way that the story of the rabid dog is featured in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary. It’s not something you’ll catch unless you’re really paying attention (or if you have closed captions on). During the scene featuring the birthday party for Ellie Creed (Jeté Laurence), there is a brief moment where you can make out snippets of conversation being had by guests, and you can distinctly make out Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) talking about a St. Bernard that killed four people. It’s definitely the most subtle reference in this list, and one of only two titles mentioned that are themselves Stephen King adaptations, but I love it just for its shared universe suggestion, which has long been a part of King’s work.
The Last Man On Earth – “Skeleton Crew”
Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption is a film frequently mentioned in The Last Man On Earth from the very beginning of the series, as it proves to be one of the things in common between Todd (Mel Rodriguez) and Melissa (January Jones) that fuels their romance. That being said, the references hit a new gear in Season 4 when the group needs to find a new place to live out the rest of the post-apocalypse. Being the Shawshank fans they are, Todd and Melissa are over the moon when the group decides on Zihuatanejo, Mexico… but it doesn’t exactly turn out to be what they expect. In the episode “Skeleton Crew” (which may or may not itself be a Stephen King reference), the characters finally arrive at what they think is going to be a paradise, but are rather horrified to discover that the beach only looks white because it is littered with white body bags.
Scrubs – “His Story II”
Nobody who has ever read IT will ever forget the scene where the fate of young Georgie Denbrough is sealed – thanks to Pennywise The Clown lurking in the sewer during a storm – and Season 3 of Scrubs puts a great comedic spin on it. In the episode “His Story II,” Donald Faison’s Turk is freaking out about mailing the invitations to his own wedding, and not helping anything in the slightest is a fantasy of his fiancé Carla (Judy Reyes) inside the mailbox calmly trying to lure him… before full on grabbing his arm and yanking. Carla isn’t quite as scary as Tim Curry or Bill Skarsgard, but she gets a reaction out of Turk that is priceless.
Clerks: The Animated Series – “The Clip Show Wherein Dante And Randal Are Locked In The Freezer And Remember Some Of The Great Moments In Their Lives”
Clerks: The Animated Series didn’t last long (only six episodes to be precise), but it squeezed not only a hell of a lot of funny into that reduced run, but also a fantastic Stephen King reference. The second episode is in general a great spoof of clichéd clip shows from sitcom history, but most notably for our purposes ends with a great reference to the classic ending of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me – featuring all of the characters heading to their respective houses while a Richard Dreyfus-esque voice-over reveals what happened to them in the future. It’s exceptionally goofy, but also super funny, and features a bizarre punchline with a mustachioed Jay.
Do you have a personal favorite from all of the references highlighted in this feature? Respond to the poll below with your pick, and if you consider yourself a King fan, and you’re excited to learn about all of the developing adaptations of Stephen King books, be sure to check out our fully refurbished Upcoming Stephen King Movies guide to discover what is currently in the pipeline.