And you thought your prom night was bad. Had it happened in real life, the tale of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) and what she did after a horrible prank during her big moment at her prom would have become an urban legend to scare high school students for generations. Fortunately it is only a work of fiction envisioned by horror master Stephen King and first brought to the big screen by Brian De Palma in 1976. It is an undoubtedly scary film, but also one that deals with important themes such as bullying, kindness, and acceptance.
This is one of those stories where I really did my homework. I have given myself the goal to read all of Stephen Kings’ oeuvre and Carrie is one of his earliest novels. In addition to seeing De Palma’s adaptation on Netflix have also seen the 2013 remake directed by Kimberly Peirce with Chloe Grace Moretz in the Carrie role. Both movies tell pretty much the same story with different budgets, but I must conclude the original is bleaker and much more in the horror vein. It is also very difficult to beat Piper Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s overly deliriously religious mother Margaret.
Religious extremism is one of the sources of fear in Carrie’s bloody tale. When she has her period in the shower Carrie has a panic attack and is ridiculed by her fellow high school students. Her mother never gave her any basic sexual education since in her deranged mind menstruation is caused by sinful thoughts. When Carrie gets home humiliated, instead of receiving comfort from her mother she is forced into a closet and told to pray for forgiveness. One can only imagine how Margaret White would feel about a gay or transsexual daughter.
The inciting incident in the shower is disturbing and infuriating, but also foreboding as it leads to something intriguing for Carrie. As she grows angry she begins to be able to move objects with her thoughts, first an ashtray in her principal’s office and later a boy’s bicycle while on her way home. Unfortunately the boy is on the bicycle at the time. Normal kids of Carrie’s age take classes on sexuality and puberty in order to cope with the changes happening with their bodies. Over time Carrie finds herself drawn to books about telekinesis in order to teach herself about the changes happening with her mind.
Carrie’s growing powers could be her way out of her abusive relationship with her mother and a way into a happy life, but King reminds us children can be cruel. One student, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), feels sorry for the way Carrie was treated and convinces her popular boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to be Carrie’s prom date. Unfortunately Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) feels Carrie should be further humiliated and plans the mother of all pranks. It will involve a bucket of pig’s blood, a sabotaged vote for prom queen, and having Carrie stand at just the right place at the right time. Talk about a mean girl.
I guess there is no spoiling what happens in the film’s third act. The image of Spacek standing in front of students and staff covered in blood, wearing what used to be a beautiful white prom dress, is one of the horror genre’s most iconic images. What makes De Palma’s version more horrific than other adaptations is that Carrie shows no discrimination in her wrath afterwards. She even kills kind gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) who only wanted to help. The pig’s blood and humiliation transform Carrie into a walking natural disaster with no pity for whom it swaths.
I believe one of the reasons why the story of Carrie White has spawned not only a classic movie adaptation but also a sequel, a TV remake, a big screen remake, and even a musical, is that the conditions that lead to her outburst still exist today. Bullying is on ongoing problem in schools across North America, with social media making it extremely easy to taunt and ridicule students anonymously. Of course telekinesis is at most a myth, but some students still react violently to bullying either by hurting themselves or others.
It is easy to paint Carrie as the monster in Carrie, but you cannot forget who created her. There are the students who chose to laugh at her, the school staff who did not do enough to help her, and of course the mother who saw her only as a product of the devil. Whether you read the great book or watch any of the movies (start with the original), you end up asking yourself: who is the real monster?