Sin never dies.
As a Maine resident trying his hand at literary horror, it shouldn’t be surprising that Stephen King would gravitate towards a New England topic such as witchcraft so early in his career. Carrie was his fourth novel (first to be published) and showed the potential for the skewed gaze on common tropes he possessed. The titular character isn’t a witch per se, but a young girl with newfound telekinetic powers and an abused background with which to foster a seething rage beneath her shyly sweet demeanor. Rather than move towards mutants by letting her powers make her an outcast, King grounds her in reality and lore. He brings in a close-minded Puritanism of old to combat a new generation’s overt sexuality with one tragic girl standing between them.
This sense of religious rigidity being tested by sinners proves to be the aspect that screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and director Brian De Palma focused on most in the adaptation process. There’s a blatant visual and thematic juxtaposition of these two worlds colliding right from the start as the camera pans through a high school locker room full of naked girls having fun before lingering on Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). She’s the outsider known thus far as awkward on the volleyball court—hardly a reason for her classmates to despise her so. De Palma moves in for a voyeuristic gaze, fetishizing her body as though we’re about to discover she’s the most sexual of them all. And then the blood arrives, her face contorting into abject terror.
The result is nightmarish: Carrie cowering as the other girls laugh and chant, “Plug her up!” while throwing tampons. It’s disorienting because, like their gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), we believe it’s escalated from something so universally human. We’re unable to comprehend that this girl doesn’t know what’s happening. How had no one ever taught her about menstruation? Suddenly our knee-jerk desire to chuckle along with everyone due to the absurdity of the situation is rendered cruel. We discover that while these girls do whatever is possible to lose their virginity, Carrie’s mother (Piper Laurie‘s Margaret) has taught her that sex is a sin. So rather than receiving comfort at home, her mother screams. Blood means the loss of innocence. It means her daughter has forsaken God.
So these two forces begin weighing down upon her. There’s a mother telling her the devil has taken control (an idea that’s augmented once she’s privy to Carrie’s powers) and her peers ready to do whatever it takes to earn payback (or forgiveness) for something of which they have no one to blame but themselves. The former demands fidelity to God—the main trait cementing Carrie’s status as a pariah. The latter begs for her to join the “fun” and conform. But no one is providing her room to be what she wants to be. Miss Collins tries, but in doing so only reinforces society’s “approved” norms. The same goes with Sue (Amy Irving) and Tommy (William Katt). Allowing the chance for assimilation isn’t the same as acceptance.
All she hears is laughter and promises outside her home, paranoia labeling both as evidence of treachery within. Carrie is forced to choose and in doing so forced to be devastated. If she chooses her mother she relinquishes any chance of survival beyond self-imposed imprisonment. If she chooses the potential for friends she risks betrayal. One always pushes her closer to the other in a never-ending cycle set-up to tear her apart. Only instead of buckling under the constant abuse of others, she has the ability to stop them in their tracks and be the abuser. The film’s suspense doesn’t therefore lie in our anticipating what “mean girl” Chris (Nancy Allen) and her dumb boyfriend (John Travolta‘s Billy) are planning. Our trepidation lies with Carrie’s unimaginable response.
Its brilliance is in simultaneously making Carrie protagonist and antagonist. She’s who we pull for despite being the looming threat facing everyone else. We want Sue’s decision of having her boyfriend Tommy ask Carrie to prom to be altruistic, to—no matter how rooted in charity it might be—give this tortured young girl an avenue towards confidence and empowerment against those who’ve spent their entire lives making hers a living hell. We want it all despite the possible fallout from Chris and Billy’s movements under the cover of night. The hope is that Miss Collins and Tommy being there can help her through whatever happens. When her power takes hold, however, such precise demarcations separating the kind from the vicious disappears. Self-preservation rules as emotions warp truth.
Carrie puts all the themes the X-Men series has stretched over multiple mediums into one brisk 98-minute film. We move from fear to strength to out of control mayhem and the inevitable, punishing remorse the aftermath manufactures. We see the product of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse steeped in the damagingly black and white rhetoric philosophies as vastly different as Catholicism and teenage popularity hold as weapons to demand a conformity that willfully creates collateral damage on an incalculable scale. It’s tough to watch during our current era of school shootings because the parallels of these real life horrors to King’s prescient novel are undeniable. Parents lament how their child couldn’t be a murderer because it’s easier to hold onto delusions than accept their part in his/her actions.
That’s the lesson here. It’s not about who survives Carrie’s wrath or who succumbs. It’s not about delineating the good from the evil as though anyone is so pure or damaged to fit a single box completely. De Palma’s film moves so swiftly from scene to scene because he’s interested less in motive than consequence. Every step must be read two ways because no one acts solely for the interests of another. Those who help Carrie do so out of guilt born from the moments when they refused. Those snickering in the background are just as culpable in what occurs as those pulling the literal strings that unleash a terror from within their target. We’re all to blame as society devolves into a cesspool of entitlement and greed.
The selfish brats devoid of compassion are no worse than those who laugh until that example of their true nature is called out. Sex and immorality are no more to blame than religious piety since excess is no worse than repression. Both are an extreme response to the other, both a path towards zealotry rendering the opposite evil. It’s all sin. Everything we do is a sin in some way, shape, or form to someone. We combat those we’re against with a false sense of superiority, hiding behind the pain and regret of circumstances outside our control until everyone around us becomes the enemy. Eventually everything that was good turns bad, tools for survival transforming into weapons of destruction by the hand of mass hysteria masked as safety.
Watched in conjunction with Season Four of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.