In a particularly jarring 2004 episode of the Canadian high school drama Degrassi, a bullied student is publicly humiliated when his assailants dump paint and feathers on him onstage in front of his entire school. In response, he goes home to get his father’s gun, returns still soaked in paint, and proceeds to shoot up the school, leaving the one student who befriended him paralyzed—all of which eventually results in his own death.
This is how Carrie has seeped into pop culture: as an anti-bullying narrative, more than anything else. The story of Stephen King’s 1974 novel and Brian De Palma’s 1976 film has been reincarnated through a film sequel, a TV movie, two musicals, and, most recently, a remake directed by Kimberly Peirce. The novel, movies, and musicals depict the tragic tale of Carrie White, a high school outcast with an abusive, religious-zealot mother who discovers that she has psychic powers. When she is finally pushed too far, drenched in pig’s blood by her bullies, she goes on a rampage armed with her telekinetic powers rather than a gun.
The novel itself conveyed something of an anti-bullying sentiment, with Carrie’s teacher and principal regretting, in the aftermath of her rampage, not helping her earlier. However, recent adaptations tend to emphasize bullying as the story’s dominant theme. The new film highlights and modernizes bullying by having one of Carrie’s tormentors record a video of her being mocked when she has her period, upload the video online, and project it behind her after they dump pig’s blood on her in the novel’s and film’s most infamous scene. The musical’s 2012 revival casts Sue—the one popular student who tries to befriend Carrie—as the narrator and the lone survivor of the rampage, reflecting on the consequences of bullying. With the anti-bullying movement currently in full-swing, the story of Carrie seems more relevant than ever.
“Calling Carrie an anti-bullying movie would be anachronistic,” Rob King, an associate film professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts, says. When the film came out in 1976, the anti-bullying movement in schools had yet to truly materialize. But regardless of its intentions, Carrie often resonates with today’s viewers as an anti-bullying allegory. Barring the telekinetic powers and overall dramatization, Carrie’s experience is not too far from reality for many viewers, allowing them to project themselves—or any marginalized group—onto her. When Carrie’s religiously fanatical mother demands that she pray for forgiveness for the “lustful thoughts” that supposedly caused her period and renounce her purportedly Satanic powers, her rhetoric is eerily similar to that of “pray away the gay” movements. The humiliation surrounding Carrie’s first period—a kind of initiation into puberty and adolescence—at the hands of her peers evokes the anxieties experienced by most viewers at this phase of life. When Carrie’s telekinetic abilities empower her to stand up to her mother and eventually her bullies, the audience finds itself cheering her on as she sheds her passivity.
Because of this emphasis on the uglier side of adolescence and the high school experience, Carrie stands out as a dark horse among the pantheon of iconic high school movies. Carrie, despite its strangeness, seems to have jump-started—or at least marked the development of—a market for high school movies in American culture, ranging from romantic comedies to sex comedies to slashers. In all these genres, the audience is presented with an exaggerated vision of high school or adolescence, whether idyllic or vicious. Carrie, for its part, brings the extremes of teen comedy and teen horror together. While comedies present wacky teen antics and horror flicks revel in their violence and depravity, Carrie, by combining elements from both, can be highly uncomfortable for the viewer. Campy scenes of girls serving out detention by doing push-ups and boys picking out their tuxedos for prom stand in sharp contrast to scenes of humiliation, abuse, and violence. By juxtaposing these two ends of the spectrum of high school experiences, these scenes of humor and horror become less enjoyable and more uncomfortable, hitting closer to home for the viewer.
Carrie also represents one of the first horror movies aimed at teenagers produced by a large studio. “After Carrie, you have a boom of horror movies for teenagers like slashers,” Rob King says. “A form of horror that is catering to a teenage audience. That’s not new. But it’s a major studio, not a schlocky B-movie.” Earlier horror movies produced by big-budget studios, such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, were specifically based on the anxieties surrounding motherhood and parenthood, and therefore were geared toward adult audiences. Religious horror movies such as these tended to present the monster as Satanism or the devil himself. “There’s a conservatism in these horror movies before Carrie,” King says. Carrie, on the other hand, casts religion as a villain in the form of the mother. And the film is iconoclastic in its use of Christian iconography, depicting Carrie’s mother pinned to the wall with knives by her daughter—the same position as the figurine of the martyr St. Sebastian impaled with arrows that is shown earlier in the film.
If we project ourselves onto Carrie, however, and empathize with her suffering and her success, then her murderous rampage becomes a sort of revenge fantasy. As much as the audience knows that it should be horrified by what is happening on-screen, there is a kind of vindication in seeing those who ostracized Carrie get punished. The depictions of violence convey a sense of grim humor and hyperbole as people are blasted with water, flipped over tables, and electrocuted. “It is more about the spectacle of the whole thing … there’s a sadistic glee to it,” Columbia College junior Max Nelson says. Nelson is one of the co-founders and co-editors in chief of Double Exposure, Columbia’s undergraduate film journal, and he recently wrote a piece about the Carrie remake for Film Comment. This revenge fantasy allows viewers who identify with Carrie and her abuse a sort of catharsis, playing out desires that could never be acted on in real life.
Despite the focus in more recent Carrie adaptations on an anti-bullying message, the original 1976 film—the form in which most people were exposed to the story—did not seem particularly invested in the prevention of bullying. Instead, the film presents a much more fatalistic view of high school. Both in the novel and in later adaptations, Sue, the one person who is kind to Carrie, seeks her out in the wake of her destruction. Carrie prepares to kill Sue but, upon discovering Sue’s kindness through her telepathic powers, decides to spare and forgive her, allowing Carrie to die with some semblance of peace. In contrast, Sue does not speak to Carrie before she dies in the original film; she visits Carrie’s grave only to have Carrie’s bloody arm burst out from underground and grab her. This encounter turns out to be a recurring nightmare for Sue as part of the lingering trauma of seeing most of her high school class murdered. While the novel presents Sue’s small act of kindness as resonating with Carrie, the film refuses to give us any sort of resolution or consolation, suggesting that the trauma of high school and adolescence is inevitable.
De Palma’s film, in fact, seems much more interested in manipulation. Carrie’s mother initially controls her with her pseudo-Christianity and abuse. Once Carrie develops her psychic abilities and can no longer be forced into submission with physical violence and religious fear, her mother tries to prevent her from going to prom by beating herself, hoping to invoke sympathy, and by warning her, “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” At the same time, Carrie’s bullies rig the voting for prom queen to ensure she will be onstage and in position for them to drench her in pig’s blood. Even Sue and her boyfriend manipulate and goad Carrie into going to prom with him as his date, though their intentions are good.
As Carrie is manipulated on-screen, De Palma works to manipulate the audience. Scenes of abuse and torment from her mother and her peers eventually give way to Carrie’s transformation at prom. Even if we know that the whole house of cards is about to come crashing down, we allow ourselves, just for a moment, to be hopeful. As Carrie and her prom date slow-dance together, spinning colored lights flash and glimmer behind them, creating a dizzying sense of euphoria. The viewers forget what is in store for Carrie for a moment—when she wins the title of prom queen, the crowd parts to let her pass, cheering and clapping for her, the scene dripping with pathos. We are then reminded of Carrie’s bullies, lying in wait to humiliate her. The lead-up to the dumping of the blood plays out in slow motion, building the suspense. Sue notices the rigging set up with the bucket above Carrie and attempts to reveal the bullies’ plot, but she is torn away at the last second by a teacher thinking that Sue is the one trying to humiliate Carrie. The horror of this moment is not the act itself, but the inevitable fact that, despite both Sue’s and the teacher’s best efforts, Carrie is still destined to be humiliated, and the audience can only sit and watch the horror unfold.
If we choose to accept the anti-bullying message of the newer adaptations, the implications are not as clean-cut as they may seem. The main message offered by later adaptations of Carrie is that bullying ought to be avoided because of its destructive consequences. It teaches viewers to tread lightly around outcasts out of fear, rather than to empathize with them because of a common humanity. This message seems to be based on a perceived need for self-preservation rather than on an actual desire for social change. Regardless of what message is gleaned from Carrie and its adaptations, this story has the ability to entertain using violence and manipulation concealed under the guise of teaching a lesson, allowing it to remain in the public consciousness as a mainstay of pop culture.