What Carrie Means to Us
I read Carrie at a pretty early age, early enough that I didn’t know what was going on in that shower scene near the beginning. I remember distinctly feeling an empathy for Carrie White, though. Almost a kinship. Certainly her outsider status and palpable misery came to me often as I grew up and we moved from town to town and school to school. One of the first short stories I ever wrote featured a kid – bullied and ostracized – who gained psychic powers and used them to exact revenge. Carrie was probably on my mind when I wrote that, though my own status was an impetus as well. (And nowadays I’d probably be suspended. As it was I got an award.) When I finally saw Brian DePalma’s film version I remembered being disappointed – it was the typical “grown ups playing teenagers” and no one looked as I imagined. But… damn if Sissy Spacek didn’t completely replace my head Carrie. And damn if she didn’t exude that horrific misery and self-hate and loss I remembered so well. The movie is rightly considered a classic – and that ending is so great even Stephen King thinks it’s better than his. And when I think of Carrie – and I still think of her surprisingly often – it’s Sissy Spacek’s sweet smile I imagine on her face. And her rage.
–Bob Cram Jr
Brian De Palma is probably best known for Scarface or his Hitchcock-esque thrillers but I still contend that his only true horror film is still his best work. (Or second best. Blow Out is fucking brilliant). Based on Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie tells the story of probably the worst treated teenage girl in cinema history. She gets bullied at school, tormented at home and even her own body is betraying her by leaking copious amounts of blood from her lady parts. It gets to a point that you start to believe that there was a real Carrie White that made fun of Stephen King’s penis or something because this poor woman can not catch a fucking break. High school is hell. That’s a universal truth but this high school is made up of nothing but demons (including a baby faced John Travolta) and keeping with the hell metaphor, her mother is the devil…..And then she gets baptized in blood? I’m a gamblin’ man and I’m not afraid to double down on a metaphor but that was clearly snake eyes. They ain’t always going to be winners folks. Carrie stands the test of time because at its center it’s a revenge story, and there’s not a teenager alive that didn’t wish they had the power to get a little comeuppance. Plus that ending is an all timer. It gets me every time.
An Era of Cynicism
Based on Stephen King’s first novel of the same name, Carrie tells the tale of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a bullied 16 year old teen who taps into dormant telekinetic powers to take revenge on her tormentors and her abusive, religiously fanatical mother after being humiliated in front of the entire school at her high school prom.
That’s the plot, and at 98 minutes, Carrie works very well as a bare bones, straightforward revenge horror flick. The way director Brian DePalma and writer Lawrence D. Cohen have constructed the narrative, you don’t need to think any more deeply about it to enjoy the movie. If you have a pulse and are a normal human, you’ll empathize with Carrie as you see her bullied by her peers and her mom, and you will be exulted and then horrified when she slaughters not just her persecutors but the entire gymnasium full of teens, school staff, and chaperones at the climax of the film. It’s a visceral film and it works at the level of pure emotion.
But Carrie was released in 1976, right at the tail end of an era of deep cynicism in film. With Watergate and the Vietnam War still fresh in the country’s mind, Carrie taps into a growing national mistrust of government, social, and religious institutions as we witness every support system in Carrie’s life utterly fail her.
One of the through-lines in Carrie is a question of faith. Should we have faith? And if so, what should we place our faith in? God? Authority? Institutions? Friends? Peers? Love?
Carrie asks these questions, and unlike a lot of films that ask complex questions like these, I think it gives us an answer. But let’s come back to that.
When we first meet Carrie White, we witness her get her first period in the locker room showers after gym class. Because her mother regards anything related to sex as sin, she neglects to explain the biological realities of womanhood to Carrie, and as a result, she thinks something is seriously wrong with her. Her classmates brutally bully her to the point that Carrie becomes hysterical. Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) finally comes to her aid and puts a stop to the harassment. Realizing that Carrie has no friends and no real support group at school, she takes it upon herself to try to help Carrie, to get her to open up and try to make friends. Carrie is hesitant at first and because she’s never truly had anyone in her life act in her best interests, she struggles to place her trust in Miss Collins. Eventually, though, Carrie comes around and her and the older woman strike up an uneasy friendship.
At the same time, one of Carrie’s bullies, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), feeling remorseful, asks her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to ask Carrie to the prom in the hopes that Tommy’s popularity will change Carrie’s status as persona non grata and allow her a pathway to become a functioning part of the student body.
Sue, Tommy, and Miss Collins’ intentions are sincere, but bully ringleader Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), who has been barred from the prom by Miss Collins, plans to use the opportunity to rig the election for Prom King and Queen, get Carrie and Tommy on stage, and dump pig’s blood on her in front of the school.
At the climax of the film, Carrie has rejected her mother’s faith in God, faith in the institution of school, faith in love, and faith in society.
But where has she placed it?
About halfway through the film, we witness Carrie discover her telekinetic powers. She uses them to push back against her domineering and abusive mother. And at the film’s penultimate moment, she uses them to take revenge.
What’s the film’s answer to the question: What should we put our faith in?
Doesn’t get much more cynical than that.
What Carrie Means to Me
I watched Carrie as a refresher for this post. The movie gutted me. I’ve seen it several times, so I was kind of blindsided by the emotions it managed to dredge up. And not for the reasons I would have expected.
Carrie is basically about bullying. Like many other people (probably most people), I was bullied at one point in school. But that’s not what made this rewatch so difficult. In fact, it was the opposite.
In my little town, there was a family of misfits who lived in a ramshackle singlewide in a ratty little trailer park on the outskirts of town. The parents were weird, and they had several kids. One of which was in my class. His name was Willie. As you can imagine, he was bullied pretty often. In fact, his whole family (siblings and parents) were the subject of regular scorn from kids and adults alike.
Willie was bigger than me, and one day, probably hoping to feel empowered for just once in his life, he decided to pick on me. A scuffle ensued and I ended up punching him in the eye. I got licks for my part in that fight, and I should have learned a valuable lesson that day. I should have put myself in Willie’s shoes and asked myself why he was doing what he was doing. I should have tried to understand. Him. The situation. I should have walked away. Instead, I used it as an excuse for violence and in the process, disempowered someone who was already nearly powerless.
I never actively bullied Willie. But I never discouraged it either. I didn’t do the right thing.
As my classmates and I moved from adolescence into early adulthood, most of us left that sort of shit behind. Throughout most of high school, bullying wasn’t much of a thing. Some people remained on the margins, but no one really went out of their way to make their lives harder, and as graduation and the real world drew nearer, I guess most of us matured enough to be able to empathize and begin treating everyone as human beings with inherent value. As much as dumb ass teenagers can, anyway.
But that shit has stuck with me. And I guess it was just lying there, waiting for a time when my defenses were down to remind me of the time I failed to be a decent human.
I think about those misfits sometimes. I wonder what kind of hurt they’re carrying around with them. I wonder if they’re ok now. I feel regret. Mostly, I just feel sad when I think about it. For them and for any kid who has to endure that shit.
And I’m reminded of Red’s speech from another Stephen King adaptation:
I look back on the way I was then, a young, stupid kid […]. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are, but I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that.
You said it, Red.
What are your thoughts on Carrie? Share them in the comments below!