Bright Lights Film Journal

Mind over Mother: Ecstasy and Cruelty in Brian De Palma’s <em>Carrie</em>

“One reason for [Carrie’s] success in both print and film, I think, lies in this: Carrie’s revenge is something that any student who ever had his gym shorts pulled down in Phys Ed or his glasses thumb-rubbed in study hall could approve of. In Carrie’s destruction of the gym . . . we see a dream revolution of the socially downtrodden.” ((Stephen King, Danse Macabre p 174 (New York: Everest House Publishers, 1981).))

Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s gothic melodrama Carrie — which concerns a downtrodden girl’s telekinetic revenge on her high school classmates after a few of them viciously have her elected prom queen so they can crown her with pig blood in front of everybody — is so entertainingly perverse, such a triumphant mixture of style and sleaze, comedy and terror, it’s become one of the great American horror classics pretty much behind the back of established critical reception. As iconic as Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, or Night of the Living Dead, Carrie has all the mythic fury of Medea thrown in — with the exception of Euripides and Hitchcock, Carrie outdoes the lot. Only no one seems to know it. While the Oscar-nominated performances of Sissy Spacek, blood-drenched in the title role of Carrie White, and Piper Laurie, crucified by her fanatical Christian beliefs as Carrie’s creepy mother, are still remembered with some fondness, the film’s official reputation has crumbled away to that of a cheap, exploitative, derivative teen-shlocker. Whenever it gets a critical airing at all, it’s usually because somebody wants to prove some point about the mechanics of cinematic misogyny1) or trends in mass culture2) or, as in a recent study, uses the movie as an academic springboard for aesthetic-epistemological ideas so gummed up and jargonate nearly all of its of twenty-four pages are spent discussing the film’s first two scenes every which way but how a viewer might actually experience them.3)

Of course, De Palma’s compact, ferocious little film works so directly on the audience it doesn’t really require minute analysis to be appreciated. Yet it certainly rewards careful viewing. By paying close attention to performance, narrative structure, dramatic use of montage, and mise en scène, subtle layered depths and complexities of perspective emerge. A perfect mix of pop parody, visceral disgust, and sizzling social satire, the movie plays the audience like a cheap fiddle, setting it up and knocking it down with tactical precision, working it over at such a deep level of sensation viewers may find themselves thoroughly immersed in the story’s emotional stakes despite the silliness of the subject; and the shock of that bloody hand coming out of the ground to grab Amy Irving at the end leaves the audience with something disturbing to mull over afterwards. De Palma throws the web and waft of his manipulative machinery into high relief throughout — building up a strong allegiance to Carrie’s character, he lets nagging ambivalences show out around the edges. The clear pleasure audiences have derived from watching Carrie’s humiliation by her classmates, followed promptly by her murder of them, innocent and guilty alike, has tied critics up in knots over the years trying to square everything into categories of good and bad/right and wrong, often bringing them to idiotic conclusions — namely that De Palma himself deemed female sexuality utterly corrupt and that viewers somehow didn’t actually identify with Carrie.4 Such critics were confused by the film’s constant manner of metamorphosing, the dynamism of its dramatic irony; and their approaches to the film have been so stiff, stodgy, and Freudian they seem to have had a hard time understanding how a viewer could walk and chew gum at the same time.

Carrie was De Palma’s tenth feature film. Shot in fifty-two days, it was a cheapie brought in on a budget of $1.8 million5) and went on to become his first mainstream hit. Combining all the narrative and visual themes he had been toying with over most of the previous decade in movies such as The Wedding Party, Greetings, Hi Mom!, Sisters, Phantom of The Paradise, and Obsession — a kind of critical Godardian jokiness, disturbed voyeurism, and a fan boy’s love of great cinematic moments — Carrie was also his first fully sustained exercise of theme as style. An allusive, postmodern parodic nightmare, this universal tale about growing up different continues to make “topical” and “relevant” contact with cultural issues even today in zingy and unexpected ways. Certainly Margaret White, Carrie’s Christian fundamentalist mother, would have smiled over recent evangelical attempts to institute abstinence-only sex education programs in the schools and ouster Evolution in favor of the so called “science” of Intelligent Design. Though these days Margaret White probably would have just home-schooled her daughter and avoided all the fuss. Therefore the movie can be seen both as a satirical scare-parable about the puritan, sex-hating hypocrisy underlying modern middle-class American values and as a dreamy, supernaturalized Columbine-like fantasy revenge-tale that, refreshingly, doesn’t expect us to pretend the killing is all some crazy inexcusable tragedy nobody could possibly understand.6

Carrie‘s main action takes place over the better part of one week in the spring of 1976: Monday May 21st through Friday May 25th.7 Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a pale loner, is the butt of everyone’s joke, the class loser. One day after gym she has her first period in the girl’s locker-room shower. Not knowing what’s happening to her — she thinks she’s bleeding to death — Carrie panics and reaches out to her classmates for help. Disgusted by her pathetic display, angry because she lost the volleyball game that opens the film, their hostility erupts; the girls gang up on her, pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins and chanting hysterically. The gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), puts a stop to this scene, thereafter becoming Carrie’s conflicted protector. Along with the onset of menstruation Carrie develops telekinesis — the ability to psychically move objects with her mind — apparently the clotted force of everything stifled and repressed in Carrie’s nature, represented by the strangely late onset of her menstrual flow, at the age of sixteen. This power lashes out whenever Carrie’s upset or threatened: lights burst, ashtrays fly off desks, windows automatically close, knives whirl through the air, etc; Carrie tosses a boy off his bicycle (Cameron De Palma, the director’s nephew) for shouting at her, “Creepy Carrie, creepy Carrie!” The girl’s mother, Margaret White (Piper Laurie), is such a hopped-up religious fanatic she actually blames Carrie for daring to menstruate, believing it to be a sign of sin — either Carrie has had sex or thought about it, she insists and locks Carrie in a broom closet to pray for forgiveness. The next day Carrie’s classmates are punished for their behavior toward the girl by the gym teacher. Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty for her part in the incident and tries to atone for it by having her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt), a popular athlete, take Carrie to the senior prom. Another girl, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), viciously blames Carrie for the whole thing and decides to get back at her by having Carrie voted Prom Queen and crowning her in front of everybody with a bucket of pig’s blood, which she and her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) have hidden over the stage and connected to it via a rope beneath the stage, where they hide and pull it. This final humiliation, an extreme parody of the locker room shower, unleashes all Carrie’s pent-up telekinetic rage and she destroys the whole class, her own mother, and finally herself. Sue Snell, Prom Night’s only survivor, is thus plagued by frightening dreams of Carrie’s vengeful return from the grave.

The film’s fun nifty premise, with a few big changes, more or less follows that of the Stephen King novel. Much of the dialogue and imagery come straight out of the book, though the focus and tone have been changed entirely. An amusing piece of junk, the novel is a puffed-up, cluttered, uncomfortable grab-bag of ideas. Part Lord of The Flies, part Evan Hunter’s Last Summer, part The Haunting of Hill House,8) it mixes sweaty juvenile pulp with a third-rate brand of southern gothic — Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner, take your pick — which King holds together on the tawdry shoestring promise of telekinetic destruction. While King isn’t a completely untalented author, he often writes as if he had somewhere along the line convinced himself he was, and Carrie comes off  as a clumsy turgid melodrama treating its kicky idea — an upending of The Ugly Duckling and Cinderella myths — as a solemn occasion for fatalistic tragedy. In order to make the novel longer, King resorted to the flimsy, if entertaining, expositional device of quoting willy-nilly from various fictionalized documentary sources purported to have been published in the wake of the Prom Night massacre: memoirs, magazine articles, excerpts from the published transcript of an official inquest cheekily entitled Black Prom: The White Commission Report, etc. In these touches, and along the outer wasteland reaches of Margaret White’s tackily knick-knacked religious fundamentalism, a kind of crazed absurdist humor does start to creep into the novel, but you’re never quite sure how intentional this is. When King has Margaret White kick Carrie in the rump and slam her head down against a table top,9) or wants to connect the Prom Night Commission to The Warren Commission, it’s hard to know whether all this is warped comic parody or King’s misguided attempt to imbue his thin book with dramatic intensity and cultural resonance.10 And despite King’s claims to the contrary, the novel really has no subtext.11Everything’s all laid out on the surface. King treats his readers like idiots, making obvious points and pushing them so far past credibility, even in the novel’s supernatural terms, the book tumbles into lurid bathos well before we’ve reached the poignant twists of its concluding pages when Sue, the character played by Amy Irving in the film, gets her period and realizes she won’t even get to save what little she has left of her boyfriend Tommy Ross — now that he’s dead in the wake of the telekinetic massacre — by having his baby, mirroring Carrie’s opening period.

Perhaps the most important difference between book and film concerns the nature of Carrie’s power, the source of the book’s plot. In the novel, we are told, she was telekinetic even in childhood (there’s a gobbledy-gook sci-fi explanation of the power being transferred through the White family matrilineally and intensifying with the hormonal explosion of adolescence). After an incident of abuse, Carrie caused stones to rain down on her house,12 after which the power went into remission and did not resurface until her first period at the age of sixteen. King provides several scenes of Carrie exercising her powers throughout the book, gaining clear conscious control of her abilities in order to protect herself from her mother and her classmates, which cuts us off slightly from the character. In the film, as far as we know, she only begins to manifest her abilities with the onset of menstruation, making it more clearly an expression of Carrie’s emotional repression and the ostracism she experiences socially.13 Though the power grows as Carrie researches what’s happening to her in the film, she never seems to have conscious control over her power until she’s humiliated at the prom and very crazily goes on the rampage. For the most part this psychic ability is like a poltergeist unconsciously acting on Carrie’s pent-up hostilities and frustrations, which in turn mirror the viewer’s carefully orchestrated ones.

Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and De Palma somehow retrieved the entertaining scenario from the mixed-up conceptions of the book, brushed off the clods of expositional bombast, and purified the story to its simplest terms. The film has been given a juiced up, knowing sense of humor that bounces viewers’ imaginations off the walls of other movies, notably Psycho, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, and Deliverance, giving it a textured sensibility rather than the glutted rip-off quality of the book. King’s own expressed opinions on the film suggest even he understood it was more of a success than the book. “He,” King said of De Palma, “handled the material deftly and artistically and got a fine performance out of Sissy Spacek. In many ways, the film is far more stylish than the book . . . ”14 “There’s no question he did a masterful job with Carrie. It’s a great film by almost any standards. And I can say that, because I didn’t have any part in making the film.”15) “De Palma’s approach to the material was lighter and more deft than my own — and a good deal more artistic . . .”16

De Palma always keeps one vaguely aware that the plot mechanics are little more than a pop contrivance. Why, one wonders, should we care if some pathetic squashed-out girl has a hard time fitting in with her bitchy classmates, or if she a has good time at her cheesy prom with the star athlete Tommy Ross? High school life as it’s presented in the movie — gym class, dates, the prom — is such a trivial, ephemeral affair it hardly seems worth all the hand wringing, yet De Palma’s paste-up horror and suburban teen comedy not only manages to send up the bubblegum dreams of American adolescence but simultaneously dupes viewers into sharing deeply in Carrie’s alienation. De Palma, once asked in an interview if he had intended Carrie as camp, responded that he most certainly did not. “[Carrie] keeps very seriously within the realm of its own world. It has a very adolescent reality and it’s very true to it.”17 The movie successfully bypasses the sophisticated defenses of maturity so that a viewer begins to buy into the story’s fatalistic pull. Because of which an oblique, unarticulated double bind starts to emerge. If you find yourself hoping Carrie actually will manage to fit in, that she really will look pretty at the prom and discover “Love among the Stars” (the prom’s glittery theme), i.e., become a “normal person,” you’re not just being sensitive to some poor waif-princess’s predicament of outsiderdom, you’ve also validated in a deeply unquestioning way the screwed-up social infrastructure of the movie’s adolescent caste system, which King considers to be one of the special features of teen life in general.18 There’s no easy out in this film. Which tells us two rather depressing things about ourselves: that we may in fact partially accept the corrupt bottom line of the Popularity Racket, and that no matter how long we live we may never quite escape the beehive inferno of high school life. Not too bad for a lurid little supernatural shocker.

Because the film is such a fine-tuned exercise in dramatic irony, the viewer experiences what happens to Carrie not only as tragic, but also as an entertaining spectacle, a well-played game moving with inexorable blitheness across a playing field toward Carrie’s humiliation and eventual blowup. De Palma divides everything — characters, tone, camera setups, even the screen — into starkly contrasted oppositions that collapse and blend together in a perfect conflagration of themes at the prom, making Carrie’s humiliation as voluptuously delightful to experience as it is degrading. Actually, that degradation is really why viewers watch a movie like this in the first place, what they pay to see. And by playfully evoking such contradictory impulses in the audience — i.e., wanting Carrie to elude her ill wishers and fall prey to them simultaneously — De Palma divides viewers against themselves, teases out an alignment running between them and Carrie’s tormentors, disturbing unarticulated anxieties about what it means to be the outsider. Hacking away at easy ideas about socially correct behavior, the contortions of the movie’s plot vomit up hidden hypocrisies that morally complicate even a simple situation like Carrie‘s. Meaning that while the viewer may strongly identify with Carrie’s character, an unacknowledged part of them may also be a little disgusted by how pathetic she is, perhaps even a bit frightened by it — as if getting too close might allow Carrie’s scapegoat cuddies to rub off on them. And a viewer like me, who may ultimately feel that Carrie shouldn’t have even wanted to fit into the idiotic world of Bates High School in the first place, still somehow sort of hoped she would; because of the luminously enchanting and strange performance of the incomparable Sissy Spacek, who like Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, has given us a nightmare expression of our worst fears about being alone and dangerously desperate. While I knew Carrie definitely should not have gone to that prom with Tommy, I still cheered when she stood up to her mother and insisted on it; I knew I shouldn’t have wanted to see someone like Carrie, who just wished to be liked, get degraded, part of me still secretly thrilled to the idea.

The satire and goosey parody, which provide an aesthetic sounding board not found in King’s novel, gives De Palma a fleet-footed comic way to separate out the artistic crudity of King’s narration from the crude juvenile subject matter (King really had a hold of something with his focus on childish gross-out as an early form of class consciousness), allowing De Palma to give the story an elegant, sensuous design without resorting to coyness about menstruation, playground cruelty, graffiti or child abuse, the kinds of rude primitive experience most filmmakers, and novelists for that matter, would have preferred to blunt with inference.

Exactly how intentional all this was isn’t certain. Since no great film is ever the end product of precise intention — be it by Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, or Michael Bay — the stars, so to speak, must come together in exactly the right way for a film to have lasting value. Considering how most movies get made, it’s amazing any of them ever seem worth rewatching. De Palma got lucky. He had the performers and Mario Tosi’s velvety, colorful cinematography; Paul Hirsh’s dynamic editing; Pino Donaggio’s evocative score; and Lawrence D. Cohen’s tight script holding it all together. Even so, due to the inherently collective nature of movie-making — as well as budgetary limitations, time constraints, and technical difficulties — there are interesting little mistakes. There are little plot gaps, logical missteps, continuity errors, and unintended ambiguities. Yet when a film like Carrie really works — synthesizing intelligent deliberation and the unhappy accidents of pragmatic necessity — even the flaws may add a strange nuance and texture to the movie’s apparent themes, open up one’s imaginative response to it, give its paranoia a kind of full-bodied voluptuousness.

Note: This essay appears in a different form in Joseph Aisenberg, Carrie: Studies in the Horror Film (Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2012).

  1. Kenneth McKinnon, Misogyny in the Movies: The De Palma Question pps. 121-138(Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990 []
  2. William Paul, Laughing Screaming: Modern American Horror and Comedy (New York: Columbia University Press 1995 []
  3. Eyal Peretz, Becoming Visionary: Brian De Palma’s Education of the senses (Cultural Memory in the Present) pps. 23-47 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008 []
  4. For an excellent summary of critical reactions to Carrie, read Kenneth McKinnon’s analysis in Misogyny in the Movies p. 121& pps. 128-130. See Michael Bliss, “The view of sexuality that Carrie adopts and propounds is not the ‘normal, well adjusted’ view of parents like Mrs. Snell and couples like Sue and Tommy, but that of Carrie’s mother, for whom sex is the gate to hell . . .” Brian De Palma p, 57 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1983). Or in Paul Williams’ Laughing Screaming: “In this way, the film seems to support the view of the most monstrous character in the film, Carrie’s mother.” p. 361. Also, see several articles that came out around the time the film was current at []
  5. Laurent Bouzereau, Double De Palma: The Films of America’s Most Controversial Director p. 43 (Fort Lee, NJ: Dembner Books 1988 []
  6. King himself has changed his views somewhat over time. In an ’80s collection of interviews, Bare Bones, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988), King described Carrie as essentially a sympathetic character who kills only because she’s been hurt by everyone around her, but by the time of his memoir On Writing (New York: Scribner’s, 2000), he explicitly makes the Columbine connection himself, and with distinct uneasiness (p. 83): “I never liked Carrie, that female version of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but through Sondra and Dodie [fictional names for the real-life models for Carrie] I came at last to understand her a little.” On p. 76: “I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready made victim.” These sentiments and concerns never came up in his previous collected statements. []
  7. I settled on this time-scheme due to internal hints — signs hanging all over walls during the first part of the film, bits of dialogue, and wardrobe continuity. The only date in the film that is specific is that of Prom night, May 25th (the signs). Neither the director nor the screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen ever had a clear grasp of what the film’s calendar was or thought it mattered, frankly. []
  8. King claims to have named his novel after Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and suggests Margaret White’s sexual repression in part derives from the character of Sue Brideshead in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, “What Stephen King does for Love” p. 356 (New York: Book of the Month Club 2000 []
  9. Stephen King, Carrie pps. 56-57 (New York: Pocket Books 1974, 1999 []
  10. “I think the first draft of Carrie was done when I was about twenty-two, and at the time it was very sober sided. I was maybe too close to the subject . . .” Bare Bones p. 20. []
  11. Danse Macabre pps. 171-172 []
  12. Carrie p. 27-38 []
  13. According to the Carrie, Special Edition DVD documentary Visualizing Carrie, they had planned to have the early childhood scene with the stones, but the effect didn’t look good on the screen and the scene fortunately was deleted. []
  14. Bare Bones p. 28 []
  15. Editors Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King p. 73 (New York: Carroll & Graf 1992 []
  16. Danse Macabre p. 171 []
  17. Brian De Palma Interviews p. 41 []
  18. Bare Bones pps. 16-17: “teenagers are the most conservative people in American society . . . In that light social castes form that are almost as firmly set as the castes of society in India . . . I think girls are always much more vicious about this, much more aware of it than boys are . . . “ []