Brian De Palma’s ‘Carrie’ Celebrates Our Teenage Monsters
The book came first.
At some point in my teenage years, outgrowing Mary Higgins Clark and Christopher Pike paperbacks, I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie. My interest in horror was slowly budding, as I emerged from the cocoon of my parents’ overprotectiveness, first with viewings of It, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show at sleepovers, Blockbuster rentals of The Craft, and finally sealed with rowdy screenings of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer at the local multiplex. Teenage girls like me were always represented in horror; scream queens and final girls ruled the genre. But there was something about Carrie that seemed even more intriguing and terrifying: the prom queen as a monster.
When I was younger, around 12 or 13, I’d found a book in my parents’ bedroom called Teenage Girls: A Parent’s Survival Manual that I found hilarious and offensive. On the cover was a photograph of a young girl, backlit in red light, her face in darkness, staring down the camera. In my memory, she has glowing red eyes, though that idea seems ridiculous now (she in fact, does not). I was simultaneously amused and horrified that my parents were reading a book that positioned teenage girls as seeming this evil and scary, something to be “survived.” Were we monsters? But more importantly, could we be monsters, the ones everyone else is afraid of?
This idea was a fixation into my early 20s: my undergraduate thesis project was a short slasher about a cheerleading squad, a sort of Bring it On meets Halloween, in which the killer is a disgruntled squad member, titled, as a play on the concept, “The Final Girl.” It was messy and imperfect both on purpose and by accident, but there was something that I had to get out, some expression of powerful feminine violence in a highly gender-codified, hierarchical environment that had been brewing, bubbling with every viewing of the Scream movies, Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority House Massacre, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and of course, the patient zero, Carrie.
In high school, once I had read Carrie, I had to see the movie. I watched it with my best friend Kristen at, of course, a sleepover, and the split-screen moments in the prom scene were my first real “cinema!” moments, when the combination of image, sound, and rhythm grabs you with visceral, recognizable power. Prior to this, what I loved about movies like Scream and Clueless was the writing; I was somewhat unconscious to the ways they moved and looked and felt. But Brian De Palma will never let the audience forget for a second that the most important way a movie speaks is through the image, and its construction in time and space.
I became obsessed with Carrie. Obsessed with the line readings, especially anything that came out of Piper Laurie’s mouth – and especially the line, “I can see your dirty pillows” (my friend Gena embroidered a pillow with the phrase for one of my late 20s birthdays). I was obsessed with the ‘70s gym shorts and high socks, and P.J. Soles’ hat and the way Miss Collins wallops Chris across the face. Obsessed with the hazy cinematography and editing, the split screen and split diopter shots, the camera whirling around and around Tommy and Carrie as they dance at the prom. The extreme closeups of Nancy Allen’s mouth with her crowded front teeth as she licks her lips, tugging on the rope attached to the bucket of blood; the long, long, long slow-motion shot as Sue discovers the rope. I was obsessed with the way Carrie, covered in blood, whipped around in a crouch, her hands locked in stiff claws, and the camera rapidly jump-cutting in on her pupil as she sends the car flipping over and over itself. I was obsessed with recognizing a visual parallel in Margaret White’s crucifixion and the creepy Jesus figurine.
My senior year of high school, I decided to go as Carrie for Halloween. I found a cheap pink satin gown at a thrift shop and wore it all day at school, carrying a bouquet, wearing a tiara. That night, at a Halloween party, I made everyone gather in the driveway for my ceremonial blood drenching. I handed my friend Joanna a sauce jar filled with corn syrup and red food coloring as I had heard the Carrie blood was made of, and instructed her to pour it over my head. All I remember is that the drenching felt neverending. Not a shocking splash but a steady stream as she slowly poured it over me. I changed into gym shorts and a t-shirt, but the red corn syrup remained on my skin. My friend Andrew, who I’d known my whole life, licked my arm and was surprised it was sweet. A week later, he died in a drunk driving accident. That night was the last time I saw him.
If this all seems extra personal, it feels important to talk about why I connected with Carrie so much as a teenager, and its influence. What King and Brian De Palma understand and convey so beautifully is that high school is hard. It’s filled with blood, and sex, and death, all while fumbling through the figuring out of yourself and others, and yourself in opposition to others, including your parents. Plus, everyone hates gym class. All of that is amplified in King’s book, written just a few years out of high school himself, and working as a teacher. It’s a story about a bullied, abused girl with supernatural powers that’s grounded in a recognizable and terrifying reality, because King knows how terrifying high school can be. De Palma, on screen, makes it erotic, operatic, funny, scary, and tragic, every emotion deeply felt and deeply real. The movie is camp, but sincere.
I’ve seen Carrie dozens of times on VHS and DVD, my copy traveling with me during the ten or so times I’ve moved around the country since college, but the first time I saw it on the big screen was last year, at the American Cinematheque, in a screening series of Argento/DePalma double features put on by Cinematic Void. Even though I knew I would love it, it had been several years since I’d watched it in earnest. I was hoping I wouldn’t see something that I’d recognize now as problematic or exploitative.
This time around, nearly 20 years removed from being a teenage girl, I found it profoundly moving. Margaret White isn’t just a crazy, homicidal religious nut, she’s a deeply traumatized woman who has turned to fanaticism as a coping mechanism to deal with her repressed sexual trauma. Chris is trapped in a psychosexual abusive relationship with Billy and lashing out at those around her. Miss Collins is an imperfect ally because she doesn’t trust anyone, and Carrie, well Carrie shows what happens when pathological shame, abuse, and psychological torture combust, but in small moments, she owns her own power, her own sexuality. “It’s me, mama,” she pleads with her mother, who declares her remarkable gift the work of Satan. Even the infamous line I giggled at in high school took on a new tenor. “Breasts, mama,” she says, “they’re called breasts, every woman has them,” gently asserting her right to her own sexuality. The locker room slo-mo shot isn’t just a brazen display of the male gaze, it’s a comment on the male gaze, a sly bait-and-switch from sensual to savage.
The tragedy of Carrie, which both King and De Palma treat with the gravity that it deserves, is the idea that in high school, the worst thing to happen to someone is shame, embarrassment and rejection. It taps into our most primal desire to be loved and accepted by the tribe, which translates into safety and nourishment. Carrie is denied that, again and again. She never receives the comfort that she’s craving, except in small doses, and conditionally, from Miss Collins, her gym teacher (played by the great Betty Buckley). In the opening shower sequence, she reaches out, vulnerable, for help. Blood is coming out of her body, she doesn’t know why, and she’s scared for her own safety. The girls turn to savagery in response to her off-putting plea, pelting her with sanitary napkins. When she pleads with her mother, “Why didn’t you tell me?” looking for some comfort, she’s hit with a book and lectured that her body is sinful. After the massacre at the prom, when Carrie returns home and seeks solace in the arms of her abusive mother, she says, “they laughed at me.” The trauma she experienced is not the blood or violence or fire she inflicted, but that they laughed at her, that they rejected her. Carrie is a heartbreaking and tragic victim who turns into a monster as her self-preservation instincts morph into total annihilation.
Watching the film now, I can see that what moved me when I was in high school, whether I knew it then or not (I didn’t), was that this was a film about the inner lives of women, who are allowed to be everything in this instance: the villains and the victims, the empowered and the disempowered, complex characters, with whom you can simultaneously empathize and condemn. Grappling with the film 20 years later, I realize that what Carrie articulated for me is that, yes, teenage girls, sometimes we are monsters–but we usually have a damn good reason to be.