Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre. Psycho Drive-in is joining in by sharing articles – some classic, some new – celebrating the greatest women in the genre!
I was Carrie in middle school. When I first started at O’Brien Middle School about a week into the fall semester, I found myself in my first gym class ever. I reported to the teacher, who tossed me some brown shorts and a yellow shirt from her lost and found supply and told me to change. Painfully embarrassed by the fact that my parents’ poverty meant I didn’t have a proper bra and my underwear were ripped, I ducked into a bathroom stall and quickly changed my clothes, ignoring the strange looks I got from a couple of the girls as I emerged. I tucked my clothes under one of the benches and joined the group in the gym. For three weeks or so, this was my routine, and I was able to handle the embarrassment because, despite those issues, I was a really athletic girl and once out of the locker room, I could excel. Let the girls chatter as they showered and changed, let them treat me as less-than, let them whisper insults about my clothes and my hair and my social awkwardness. Out on the court, I bested them regularly. It was my daily victory.
But every day, as class came to a close, I had to go back into that locker room. Sometime in that third week, I walked into that terrifying room to find one of our two gym teachers—and they were largely interchangeable—standing in the center of the room, holding my street clothes and demanding to know whose they were. Oh, that the cold concrete floor could have swallowed me whole. But I admitted, in a quiet voice, that they were mine, and Ms. Cascio exploded. Why the fuck wasn’t I using my assigned locker? Who the hell did I think I was to use her locker room like my own personal pig-pen?
I moved a little closer and explained that I didn’t have an assigned locker. I had never had one.
Don’t lie to me, she bellowed, grabbing my arm and yanking me into her office. She loudly—expressly so she could punish me by making me more of a spectacle than I was—told me to stand there so she could get her notebook of locker assignments so that she could prove me a liar. I stood there helpless, risking the occasional glance at the other girls, who had all stopped getting dressed so they could enjoy that spectacle, thus making it clear that there was no sympathy to be had from that quarter. She finally, after what seemed eons, found the notebook and demanded to know my name—despite the fact that “L. Akers” was clearly written on my shirt and she’d seen and heard many of the other girls tease me about being a Lakers’ fan. I whispered it to her.
She scanned the pages. And then again. And a third time. I was not in the book. She whirled around in anger. Why the hell wasn’t I in her book?!?
I opened my mouth to answer, “Because you never assigned me a locker,” but shut it just as quickly when she continued her harangue about how I obviously didn’t think I needed to act like the other girls, how I knew that everyone had a locker, and I was somehow a defiant holdout. Why, she demanded, her finger wagging furiously in my face, hadn’t I told her before that I needed a locker?!?
Again, I stood there, dumb. Because the answer was too painful to say aloud: Because you–and the adolescent girls you lead in choruses of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” during changing time–have made it daily clear to me: I am undeserving of what the other girls take for granted. I would have never consciously brought such attention to myself. I would be happy to merely be left alone because attention meant cruelty.
Rest assured, this ugly duckling found her swan form, and now leads an amazing life full of friendship, love, and accomplishment. But in 1979, three years after the release of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), in ill-fitting clothes and my eyes permanently fixed on the floor, she and I were kindred spirits–minus the telekinesis, of course.
Why is any of this important?
Well, like so many others, I discovered Stephen King’s work in high school and devoured it. I had always been a reader, so there was nothing odd in that—except that I had never really read horror, not beyond Poe, anyway. While the girls around me were reading Flowers in the Attic for titillation, I had my nose buried in James Blish’s Star Trek novels and the works of Anne McCaffrey. But my dad had left a copy of Firestarter on a table at home one day, and I was out of reading material. So started my love of King.
It would take another decade or so, when I had an English Literature degree under my belt, to really understand what it was about him that I so enjoyed. To this day, I know of no writer who comes close to matching the prolific ability King has for characters. Killer spider-clowns, demonic cars, zombie pets—in the end, they are all just background for what I felt, and feel, King really writes about: the human condition in all its complicated, contradictory, and often tragic glory.
This may be why many of his most successful films aren’t based on his horror novels. Without the supernatural window-dressing, works like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption are more easily understood by the Hollywood machine as character-driven dramas. Almost without exception, however, his horror novels fail in being adequately adapted to the screen because many directors—at least many of those who have been given his works to translate to screen—think “horror” means making people jump in their seats, not recoil from what is ugly in the human condition.
It is ironic, then, that director Brian de Palma, a director known for his visual style and spectacle, would do Carrie justice. It is not an easy book to bring to the screen since it’s not simple narrative prose. The entire novel is written as a flashback of sorts—a pastiche of records of government investigations, news reports about the events in Chamberlain, excerpts from books on telekinesis, and snippets from Sue Snell’s memoir tell the story in largely chronological order, looking back at what happened at the prom and the weeks leading up to it. This is all mixed together with sections of semi-omniscient narration which dip selectively into the minds of Carrie and Sue.
It’s an experimental book, this first novel by King, and it works because he knows what he’s talking about. His years as a public school teacher taught him the same thing I learned in that middle school locker room: there is no greater horror than what we–and specifically in Carrie, what we women–do to each other.
Much has been made, for example, of that opening scene in the locker room. Not just the part where the girls pelt the title character with sanitary napkins and tampons and chant “Plug it up!” but the establishing shot that sets up that cruel incident. The camera scans the steamy locker room in slow motion, showing the girls in various stages of dressing, laughing, tossing towels about, and generally enjoying each other’s company. Some critics, especially in more recent years, have attacked the scene for the way it supposedly caters to the male gaze. But this reading is far too simplistic. The message of the scene is actually about the supposed camaraderie of that all-girl space. We only learn this at the end of the shot: as the camera continues through the crowd of young women, it ends up discovering Carrie, a figure mostly obscured by the steam, still in the shower. Whatever thrills some men may get from the glimpses of female flesh are secondary to the impact of that juxtaposition: Carrie is an outsider, a non-entity to the other girls, someone—something—that only comes into focus in order to inflame the dark corners of their psyches.
Even when the scene tightens on her, and we are given footage of Sissy Spacek (who would be nominated for an Oscar for the role of Carrie–and deservedly so) slowly soaping herself up, hands rubbing against her breasts and thighs, any titillation is again just a setup. Spacek’s figure is enough to tempt, and that draws you in, inspires desire. Until menstrual blood begins to slide down the inside of her thighs, that is. It is a kick in the balls to that male gaze, as the body that was desired suddenly becomes monstrous, unclean, untouchable.
But it is not men who we see revolted by and attacking Carrie because of that blood. It is women–for whom such blood is a regular fact of life–who take the opportunity to terrorize her. Even, as we see in the reactions of both good-girl Sue Snell (Amy Irving) and otherwise kind teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), those women whom we assume should know better.
That Carrie could get to the age of 17 ignorant of menstruation at first seems unbelievable, as Miss Collins and Principal Morton discuss in a very revealing scene where they try to figure out how to handle both Carrie and her attackers. They blame this on her crazy religious mother who has failed to teach her the facts of life. What they ignore is that the very revulsion with which other women reacted to the sight of menstrual blood suggests a better explanation: Carrie may be isolated but she still lives in the world, and the world itself doesn’t talk about this natural part of the experience of womanhood with anything other than disgust. Only last year, there were multiple stories of men expressing their anger at women needing tampons in the first place, telling them–with a breathtaking ignorance of the mechanics of the bodies of their wives and daughters and sisters–to simply hold their bladders. More often, there is simply silence: Seven out of ten girls in India don’t know about menstruation until they get their first periods. Even my own dad, when informed by my mother that I had gotten my first period responded, “I don’t EVER want to see any evidence of that fact. Make sure you keep everything clean and out of my sight.”
Cut off from the other young women around her, kept ignorant by her mother, and living in a world where something that happens to almost every woman, every month for most of her life, is a vastly misunderstood or outright taboo subject, and Carrie’s innocence on the topic becomes completely credible. But just that much more reason to ostracize her.
From the evocation of menstrual blood, any confusion about de Palma catering to the male gaze becomes impossible. The film quickly breaks down into a fight between four women to “do something” about Carrie.
Nancy Allen’s Chris wants to punish Carrie for the sin of having gotten her in trouble–by being the victim of Chris’s cruelty. That Chris is a bitch is obvious from pretty much the first time we see her. Her ugliness only grows over the course of the film as she cajoles her boyfriend Bobby (with John Travolta in his first film role) into helping set up the bloodbath at the prom.
Carrie’s mother, played by Piper Laurie (who was also Oscar-nominated for her role in the film) wants likewise to punish her daughter for the “sin” that lead to her getting her first period. She wields religion like a cudgel to keep her daughter close, having lost her husband to another woman. She does it not out of love—there’s little evidence that Carrie was ever loved—but out of a desire for control.
Sue Snell, on the other hand, wants to make up for her part in the assault on Carrie by trying to give the outcast a normal high school experience—the prom. Her insistence that Carrie take her place with Tommy seems driven in equal parts by a desire to punish herself and to make amends. And is meant to establish her as one of the “good” women.
And Miss Collins wants to pull Carrie out of her shell—but not too far. She tells Carrie how she could make herself prettier, seem more normal. But objects when she discovers what Sue has planned.
It’s not news to anyone (except MRAs) that women are bombarded with conflicting messages about who and how they are supposed to be, and we see this pretty clearly in the messages that these women represent: for Miss Collins, Carrie’s goal is to fit in and the key to that is her appearance. For Sue, it is male attention that will do the trick. Margaret White, on the other hand, requires Carrie to be an unblemished and undesiring little girl, just to be worthy of God’s love. And if you don’t see in Chris our society’s insistence that women hate each other, you really need to rewatch the film. She’s the patriarchal poster child for woman-on-woman hate.
But if these women are all fighting over who Carrie is (and thus what she means), Carrie herself is not without agency. Most synopses of the film highlight the way Carrie is mistreated by others, the abuse building up until she finally and lethally strikes out at her abusers. What they ignore is that Carrie is not simply the hapless victim until the last twenty minutes of the film.
De Palma and Piper do an excellent job in establishing the terrible power that Mrs. White wields. Just barely tolerated by her community (as we see in the scene between her and Sue Snell’s mom, played by Amy Irving’s real-life mother, Priscilla Pointer), she takes her frustration and self-loathing out on Carrie, subjecting the girl to physical and verbal abuse, complete with locking her in a closet with a terrifying glowing-eyed statue of Saint Sebastien. And yet, despite an entire lifetime under this suffocating psychic violence, when Carrie goes home from school after getting her period (and an off-screen explanation of some of the facts of life from Miss Collins), she does not accept her mother’s insane religious explanation of menstruation. She is not willing to wear the cloak of sin her mother wants to cover her in. Instead, she rejects it utterly and uses her new-found knowledge to respond with some anger: “You should have told me, Mama.”
Nor does she let the constant rejection or physical and verbal abuse from both fellow students and her teachers silence her. When Tommy’s poem is read aloud in class and the teacher asks for feedback, only one voice answers. “Beautiful,” Carrie responds quietly but clearly in the otherwise silent classroom. If you were one of the few kids who were never bullied, let me tell you what those of us who were all know: It takes a special kind of courage to do what Carrie did there—especially considering that the teacher makes fun of it in a way that assures us: this is the usual reaction of Carrie White’s teachers.
Nor is Carrie the dumb cow that the girls accuse her of being. She very quickly picks up on the evidence that she is the one responsible for the ashtray flying off the table, the light exploding in the locker room, and the other strange events around her, and goes to the library to try to figure out what is happening to her. She reads up on telekinesis and again, in a way that almost shocking for a victim of the years of brutality she’s suffered, Carrie not only embraces her powers, but refuses to let her mother rewrite them as demonic.
Even before that, she rejects her mother’s prohibition against her going to the prom, and when, on prom night, her mother tries again to stop her, we see Carrie use her newfound power consciously for the first time in order to keep her mother from interfering.
Much is made of the 20 minutes of carnage unleashed at the prom and afterwards, but less is said about titular character’s final scene where, literally stabbed in the back by her mother (whom she then kills in mimicry of Saint Sebastien), Carrie drags her mother to the hateful closet, initially seeming to be trying to escape the house coming down around her. But Carrie knows that she is the one destroying the house—it’s not even the first time she’s damaged the house. If you read the book, she’s aware she caused a rain of stones when she was three. Carrie’s not trying to escape. She’s shown more than enough evidence of her consciousness of her powers and her ability to direct them.
Even in her pain and terror, Carrie knows a complicated and terrible truth: There is no place in the world for her. Not because of her powers (as suggested in the novel) but because her very existence is untenable. She cannot be the victim for Chris (and her ilk), the pretty girl of Miss Collins, the rescued princess for Sue, and the virgin for her mother. Pulled in too many directions at once and ultimately blamed by all–even by the women in the film who are supposed to represent kindness and redemption–for her own victimhood, it is easier to take hold of her own fate and pull the world in on herself.
And the truly horrifying thing about Carrie White, and Carrie, is that this is not fiction. Today, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people in the US, and half of those deaths are related to bullying. Thirty percent of kids are actively involved in bullying either as victim or perpetrator. And 160,000 children stay home from school each day to escape it. Others–tragically but perhaps understandably–take a more permanent out.
But the bullying continues every day. Every school day, hundreds of thousands of children, like Carrie but without her unique defense system, battle through the day, trying to escape the attention of their attackers, the inattention (or worse) of their teachers, while often hiding the true nature of their despair from parents and others out of a misplaced shame. It’s no surprise that we lose too many of them.
As with so much of King’s work, Carrie isn’t about what it is most known for. It’s not about a girl who destroys the town that dumps pig’s blood on her. It’s about a hundred smaller moments that play themselves out in schoolrooms, and on playgrounds and city streets daily. It’s about children who leave behind a dysfunctional world within the home for an equally damaging one without. It’s about the constant pressure of trying to meet often ridiculous expectations when one is simply trying to survive. It’s about fighting back for as long as you have strength.
It’s about me at 12. And hundreds of thousands of other children. It maims. It kills. And it does it quietly in corners, but often in full knowledge of those who could stop it, but don’t.
What greater horror is there than that?