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The Cruelty of "Carrie"

I’ve only recently discovered how common this experience was, but I grew up reading Stephen King books starting at a fairly young age. I had been pretty exclusively a TV kid until I was 10 or so. I could finish an age-appropriate book at that age, but it wasn’t something that would ever occur to me to do voluntarily, or for fun. Starting in fifth grade, though, we started having "D.E.A.R." time as part of the school day, where we had the option to either "Drop Everything And Read," or do schoolwork. Now, schoolwork was generally to be avoided at all costs, so I was strongly motivated to find something, anything, to at least pretend to read during D.E.A.R time. When I got home after that first day, I went straight to my parent's bookshelves and grabbed the biggest book I could find, which happened to be a 1,100+ page copy of Stephen King’s It. I brought that book to school with me and, rather than just sit and stare, I began to read.

Unexpectedly, I deeply bonded with that book, and I’ve had close to thirty years to try and puzzle out why. To this day, I’m not otherwise a horror person. I avoid anything genuinely scary, but I plowed through It over a period of months, despite how heart-poundingly frightened it made me feel at times. What I think I’ve finally landed on is that there was something about how King writes his characters, specifically how he writes kids and teenagers, that strongly resonated with me at that time. He didn’t write generic scared little kids. He could viscerally capture what being scared, embarrassed, overwhelmed, or intimidated feels like to a kid.

Early in King’s career, kid characters featured prominently in his work, with his pulling inspiration from his own childhood memories, his experiences as a father, and notably his experiences as a teacher. Horror lends itself to the school-age experience because it’s a way to engage with some of the stereotypical realities of those times - being bullied, not fitting in, being scared all the time, feeling like you’re being ignored or mistreated by adults - while allowing the tropes of the horror genre to convey how heightened and intense the lived experience of those feelings are when you’re a boiling-over hormonal adolescent or teenager with underdeveloped impulse control, feeling like you’re white-knuckling your way through life.

The titular character in Carrie is Carrietta White, a sheltered and socially outcast high school senior girl, who lives alone with her unstable, ultra-religious mother. We’re led to believe that Carrie’s experiences at school are sad but unremarkable to this point. She’s already an outcast when we meet her in the first scene but in a garden-variety sense. Like the characters in King’s novella, The Body, which became the film Stand By Me, or like the kids from It, these kinds of kid characters have been King’s bread and butter, and Carrie was the first one. King often writes kids as strange in some way, or as outcasts, but ones who are enduring the way most kids manage to do with the circumstances they find themselves in. In the case of the kids from The Body or It, they largely survive the ordeals they’re confronted with because at least they have some kind of friend group to support them. What makes Carrie importantly different is that King doesn’t really give her anyone.

In the first scene, we have with Carrie, we see her being mocked at the end of gym class for causing her team to lose at volleyball. We feel sorry for her, but this just feels like a kind of low-level daily trial of her life. From gym class, though, we move into the girl’s shower where the rest of the story is put into motion. In the film, it’s fascinating how Brian De Palma chooses to film this scene, and probably impossible at almost any other time. Ostensibly, we’re looking at naked, frolicking high school girls. They’re filmed in slow-motion, with soft focus, with a delicate score playing along with them. It’s artfully done, but the only thing keeping it from being skeevy is what De Palma is setting up. The camera moves through the other girls and finds Carrie in the shower. It lingers on her body in the same way as she washes. At this moment she’s the same as the other girls, right up until the moment when Carrie feels herself start to bleed. The delicate score cuts out altogether, and all we hear is running water as Carrie tries to make sense of her bloody hand. With the next cut, it’s like a spell has been broken and Carrie looks almost like someone entirely different. The way De Palma frames her makes Carrie suddenly seem small, vulnerable, and years younger. Cutting back to the other girls, they’re all dressed and feel older than Carrie and a little far away. The rest of the scene plays out like a nightmare. Carrie stumbles into the girls begging for anyone to help her. She doesn’t know what’s happening and thinks she’s hurt. The other girls think Carrie is being ridiculous, maybe even childish, and tease her with tampons, backing her into the shower, pelting her with them, and taunting her to “plug it up.”

How Carrie is treated at this moment is important for how the rest of the story plays out, but it’s not everything. It’s easy to imagine that if she had any sort of friend group or any support at home, maybe things would unfold differently. Maybe the gym teacher, Miss Collins, doesn’t feel the same motivation to punish the other girls the way she does, which pushes Chris to enlist Billy and others to help her get revenge. Maybe Sue Snell doesn’t feel motivated to try and make it up to Carrie by telling her boyfriend to ask Carrie to prom. But Carrie doesn’t have anyone. When she gets home, not only does her mother not sympathize with her, but instead locks Carrie in a closet to pray because of a belief that anything as bodily or carnal as menstruation is sinful.

Carrie is completely isolated, not just in her shame over this embarrassing incident and her own ignorance about the natural changes her body is undergoing, but also the supernatural changes her body is experiencing as well. The book plays this element up a bit more, that along with her first period, and all that means for the development of her body, she also feels this great and potentially destructive telekinetic power growing within her. The book takes more time than the film to show Carrie’s experiences as she is beginning to feel out and cultivate her abilities. As her power seems pretty clearly meant to be a metaphor for her growing sexuality, it seems much more empowering in the book that Carrie is consciously feeling her way through her power, rather than almost exclusively being overwhelmed by it in the film. It’s not like her control isn’t present at all in the film. We do see that she’s able to use her powers to reassemble the mirror that she breaks, but that’s not quite the same as Carrie intentionally trying to flex her power in the book by seeing what things she can lift or move, or how long she can keep an object in the air.

Because of how the film ends and is viewed from our contemporary vantage point, it feels impossible to me to engage with Carrie without seeing it through a particularly dark framing: that of a school shooting. Carrie is an isolated and bullied kid with no support system; she is struggling through one of the most developmentally challenging periods in life. Unlike the typical school shooter, she makes no plan to get a weapon and hurt people - she just happens to be a weapon in the moment of her greatest humiliation. This framing seems all the more obvious to me knowing that prior to Carrie, while Stephen King was a senior in high school, he wrote a novel about a school shooting where a high school boy takes his classmates hostage, outsmarting all of the other kids and adults along the way, before finally being shot himself. That book, Rage, would be published in 1977 as the first novel published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. After King was outed as the real author behind the Richard Bachman pseudonym, it was collected in a large volume with four of the other Bachman Books, and published under his own name. King would go on to let the book go out of print during the late 90s though because it kept popping up in connection to perpetrators of actual school shootings. The problem King found in writing Rage, is that he had inadvertently created a dangerous fantasy that troubled, young men identified with and wanted to emulate. Contrarily, in the case of Carrie, King created a character that people could sympathize and identify with, but with a story so deeply rooted in humiliation and loss of control, that nobody winds up wanting to be Carrie.

The opening shower scene is a bit of a bait and switch: De Palma initially depicts the young naked girls in one way, until everything changes, revealing that there was something else going on all along. The whole story of Carrie is a bit of a bait and switch as well because we are made to feel such great heartache for this young girl throughout the story, and are right there with her when she is again standing bloody in front of a room of people, but this time, instead of watching her beg for help, we watch her lock every exit to the gym and burn it down with everyone inside. It may be possible, with effort, to have compassion for a school shooter, but never sympathy. Yet, Carrie is sympathetic. Part of that may be gendered. Historically, perpetrators of mass shootings or violence are almost exclusively male, so it may not actually be intuitive to see Carrie through that framing. Part of it may be that we see her have some kind of mental break at prom that indicates that she’s not truly in control of her actions. Part of it may be that we see that she may be afraid of or intimidated by, her classmates, but we never see her exhibiting any kind of malice towards them, which makes us less inclined to hold her responsible for what happens.

It’s challenging to frame how to feel about Carrie at the end of the story. The damage caused by Carrie is horrific, but her vacant eyes while it’s happening make it harder to lay specific blame for what happened at her feet. What Chris and Billy do to her is terribly cruel, but that can never actually excuse Carrie indiscriminately killing everyone in that building. On one hand, we know that in this gymnasium there are many of the kids that bullied Carrie, specifically the girls that were taunting her in the shower at the beginning of the story, but we see Carrie being treated well early in the prom and everyone there is sincerely cheering and clapping when her and Tommy are voted King and Queen. Also, with very few exceptions, specifically Chris and Billy’s co-conspirators, no one is actually laughing at what happens to Carrie. She will see it differently, but DePalma takes the time to make clear that the people in the gymnasium are on the same page as the audience of the film in being appalled by what has happened to her.

From the moment Carrie is doused in pig’s blood, the tragic ending feels inevitable. De Palma makes sure that we understand there is no victory for Carrie at this moment. When she comes to her senses, she will make her way home and try to wash herself clean; she will go to her mother looking for comfort, and our hearts will break for Carrie as her mother stabs her in the back. Carrie kills her mother, giving her the martyrdom she seems to have wanted all along, but she then pulls her mother’s body close to her as she pulls the house down on top of them both because, even now, she still doesn’t have anyone else.

Carrie, both as a book and a film, is a story well told, but it’s hard to watch because of how terribly cruel it is. Not just in the things that happen to Carrie, but in the way the story itself treats the audience. We know it’s not going to work out, but all we want for Carrie is to be able to live in that moment forever, crowned prom queen, standing next to the boy she likes, while all of her classmates clap and cheer for her. Being a kid is hard, especially for her, and we want her to have finally found her people, but that’s not the story we’re being told. Carrie White is a good-hearted kid who deserves better right up until the moment she isn’t. It’s brutal to see what is so cruelly taken from her, and worse still to see what she then takes from everyone else.


Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.



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