Points of Light Halloween Edition: Carrie
Welcome back to the graveyard, as Points of Light continues our Halloween journey. As promised, this week focuses on the tale of a prom gone to hell, in both written and cinematic form. So, in honor of it being a classic horror tale and experiencing a movie remake, let ‘s open up this week’s entry, Stephen King’s Carrie (because we all knew I’d put a King story in here SOMEWHERE).
Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a teenage girl that suffers humiliation on a daily basis. Her mother is a dangerously devout Christian, which has caused Carrie to grow up as a social outcast. Carrie is mocked by the other girls for her appearance and lack of social cues and know-how. This eventually comes to a head one day in the girl’s locker room, where Carrie has her first period. Unaware of what is happening, Carrie panics, thinking she is bleeding to death. The other girls respond in a brutal hazing incident that is simply too disturbing to repeat here. However, this traumatic event reveals a long dormant talent in Carrie- she is telekinetic, able to move things with her mind, albeit with physical exhaustion. As a result of the incident, the girls involved are punished, with one feeling guilty enough to have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom. However, the one girl that refuses the punishment (and is subsequently banned from the prom) plans a final humiliation for Carrie, that shatters the girl’s already frail psyche and sets her off on a slaughter-filled spree against everyone that ever wronged her.
What Writers Can Learn: Real-Life Influence, Suspense, Emotion
What truly makes Carrie memorable isn’t just its climatic prom scene, but rather the stark reality behind it. High school is a dog-eat-dog world for everyone, with the weak always getting eaten alive. There is not a soul that never felt isolated or mocked during that time, usually for something they couldn’t control. Carrie White is the embodiment of that; even King describes her as a girl “you just wanted to yell at.” Because of that, we immediately feel sympathy for her, because we remember how it felt to be ridiculed ourselves, and how we fantasized, however briefly, that we could get back at our attackers. And the story ups the ante by not just making the high school girls the tormentors, but Carrie’s own mother. This is a woman so wrapped in her religious mania that she neglected to tell her own daughter about menstruation and locked in a closet for committing ‘the sin of blood’ afterwards. She treats Carrie as a living bomb, waiting for the day her daughter will give into her sin (use her power). Carrie as a character grabs us because while we may not live in her world, we have all been there in some way, and we remember how much it hurts.
Because of that connection, the novel is able to build a unique type of suspense. When Carrie is asked to the prom, it is a catalyst that begins to build Carrie’s confidence. Coupled with her increasing powers, Carrie starts to break away from her mother and become more independent. Because of the established connection, we want her to succeed. But at the same time, Chris, the antagonist, is plotting something horrible for Carrie at prom. In the book, King uses flash forwards to testimony that establishes Carrie’s rampage started at the prom, while the movie simply shows Chris planning. Either way, the reader is praying it fails, as we watch Carrie start to emerge from her shell and actually have fun. Even at her moment of glory, which is when Chris’s revenge happens, we’re still trying to ignore the signs, ignore the horrible fate that we know is coming because we’ve almost become Carrie at that point, seemingly over everything that tormented us. And when the horror finally does happen, and that fantasy is ripped away from Carrie and from us, it makes her into something unique- an angry, revenge filled monster that we are actually cheering for. I can recall even yelling, “YES CARRIE, BURN THEM ALL!” when I watched it. And to make a murderous rampage seem sympathetic and for an audience to cheer for it, shows a level of character and emotion that only a truly skilled writer can pull off.
Carrie is certainly a revenge fantasy, but one that is easily relatable to anyone. It is horror that works because it strikes us at home. Carrie’s experiences are horrible, but there is an element that we have all experienced. It is why readers cheer for her, and yet at the end , we question why we did. The truth is, this is a novel that frightens not only because of its reality, but also because we wonder, if one of us had that kind of frightening power, how would we use it? Would we go as far as Carrie, and would we be right to do so? And finally, just because someone commits an act such as this, is it entirely their fault? In today’s world of school shootings, and strident anti-bullying campaigns, it is a question worth asking.
Next week, we’ll be heading in more supernatural territory, as we unlock the door to a house in Lovecraft, MA. Until then, sleep with the lights on…