Full disclosure: I didn’t intend to write about this movie. My reasoning in avoiding it was that it’s been discussed several times on the site, including by myself, and I thought that I’d said all that I had to say about it when I wrote about Piper Laurie’s role a few years ago for a “Great Horror Performances” piece I contributed. But I think the real reason I was avoiding writing about this movie is because it makes me very uncomfortable.
Carrie is the movie where Sissy Spacek plays a high school student who has been sheltered--not only from the world, but also from her own body--by an overbearing mother who has caused massive amounts of damage to her daughter under the guise of spiritual diligence. When “the rage” comes at the climax of the film, every cruel prank that’s been played on her, every prayer muttered from the confines of a closet, every misunderstood basic human emotion or function, is fuel for the fire when Carrie unleashes what’s been kept inside for so long. Carrie’s wrath is what I’ve always thought the movie was about. I thought we, the audience, were Carrie. We spend the entire running time building to that moment when the blood falls at the prom and everything goes red, and something new and powerful is born. I’ve read the movie to be about our own power. And maybe that’s true.
When I began to see the real enemy in Carrie as society, that’s when I started to realize how special the movie is. There were lots of horror films in 1976; we’ve discussed The Omen, which postulates that the son of the devil himself is walking the Earth. In Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, science and racial injustice combine for a tragic cocktail. In Land of the Minotaur, a cult preys upon tourists to appease supernatural forces. Grizzly depicts the struggle of man versus wild. In Creature from Black Lake, a Sasquatch torments a small, southern town. In Devil’s Express, an inner city martial arts hero must battle the forces of darkness that threaten to invade his streets. In The Town that Dreaded Sundown, a masked slasher tortures and kills from the shadows.
Of course, Carrie is based on a Stephen King novel, and Mr. King always roots his horror in the human condition. Some of the most atrocious characters in all of fiction and filmdom come from the mind of Stephen King, which is a testament to his understanding of the faults and foibles of humanity. He gives us a great villain in the form of Carrie’s mom, Margaret White, and he echoes this character in his 1980 novella The Mist with another religious fanatic named Mrs. Carmody, played to maddening perfection by Marcia Gay Harden in the 2007 film adaptation from Frank Darabont. What these two women have in common is that they are both absolutely fanatic about their spiritual beliefs, and they both use those beliefs to force their will on others, blind to (or more likely, unconcerned with) the harm they are causing.
Of course, what makes them ultimately horrifying is that we can see their own hypocrisy. In the case of Piper Laurie’s Margaret White, we can see that she’s running from pain and the mistakes in her own past and has filled the hurt she carries with ritual (not religion). She’s swung so far into the extreme that she’s blind to the pain that is literally all around her and inside her. The ultimate tragedy of Mrs. White is that she started down the path that she’s on because she was trying to do the right thing. Her excess of good intentions have set the stage for the fireworks that are soon to come.
That’s what sets Carrie apart from other horror movies. We made Carrie the monster that she would become by being monsters ourselves. There are no mad scientists in this movie, and there are no full moon séances or deals with the devil. This story is populated by you and me, flawed and damaged characters going about their own lives unaware of the rage that is building day by day, waiting to explode. This is why Carrie was ripe for the remake it received in 2013 and could probably stand another remake for the Twitter generation, because social media sows the seeds for new Carries every day. The pig’s blood of 1976 now takes place in 280 characters or less. The bullying is the same; only the methods have changed. I realize I haven’t spent much time talking about the actual movie itself. Sissy Spacek is great as Carrie, though it’s impossible to buy her as a young girl who is just reaching menstruation. The actress was in her mid-twenties, and we have to buy into the idea that she’s at least ten years younger than she actually is. Piper Laurie is amazing, of course, and it’s always fun to see a young John Travolta, who was a TV star during this period thanks to Welcome Back, Kotter. We get to see his Boy in the Plastic Bubble co-star and Halloween actress P.J. Soles as well as Nancy Allen (Dressed to Kill, Amy Irving (Traffic), and the future Greatest American Hero, William Katt.
Brian De Palma film and stands as one of many highlights in his filmography.
The thing that made me want to avoid writing about Carrie ultimately proves to be the thing that makes it worth writing about. It’s not a comfortable sort of horror movie, with an iconic baddie that you can put on a lunch box or market to adult action figure collectors. Instead, this movie shines a light on humanity itself and the damage that we do just by being ourselves. Like Frankenstein’s monster or the Wolf Man, Carrie didn’t ask for the metaphorical powers that manifest from her helplessness, an evolutionary attribute that evens the odds (and then some). She’s the victim, and society—her mother, her friends, her teachers and leaders—is the real horror. Making things even more horrific is the fact that over four decades later, this movie still hits uncomfortably close to home.
Get more Heath Holland at his blog Cereal at Midnight!