Last night, I saw Carrie (1976) at the cinema. I hadn’t seen it since I was 12 years old and I did not understand anything about it save the horror imagery. It’s pretty funny that my mom let me watch that film so young, but I guess she thought I could handle it.
Carrie is a grotesque imagining of what it is like to be a teenaged girl with the accompanying social pressures. Many people in the film try to aid Carrie. The gym teacher, Miss Collins, in particular. They want to bring Carrie into their circle, for her to embrace their social mores. Their desire for Carrie to join in is on their terms only, and offers only a complete denial of Carrie’s true self. They want to stifle Carrie, to make them like them, because they are frightened of the ‘wrongness’ she represents.
I feel that this film makes rather broad reference to the way female characters were treated in certain classical Hollywood films. In Now, Voyager (1942) Charlotte Vale (as played by Bette Davis) is a character much like Carrie. She is an outcast from the society she is meant to belong to. Much of that is expressed in the way Charlotte dresses: like a spinster aunt. As a result her mental wellness is expressed when she learns how to shop and dress like a ‘respectable woman’, when she buys into societal ideas of what women should be. This is parodied somewhat midway through the film after Tommy asks Carrie to the prom. Miss Collins approaches Carrie and brings her to a mirror where she shows her what a ‘pretty girl she is’ under all those frumpy clothes. The implication being, if Carrie simply dressed ‘properly’ she would be more socially successful.
It’s particularly significant that the film opens with a scene of Carrie getting her period and the accompanying reaction from all those present. Carrie loses her mind (having no idea what a period is) and the other girls (women who are menstruating) throw tampons and pads at her, screaming “PLUG IT UP.” They want her to stifle the flow of blood, the essential womanly power inside her. When Carrie begins to bleed, screams. This scene is mirrored in the final, famous, climactic end to the film which we’ll get to later.
All the key events in the film are orchestrated to occur after Carrie has, physically and metaphorically, become a woman. Her classmates desire to participate in her womanhood by inviting her to join them, while Carrie’s mother denies it and calls her womanhood sin. Carrie is torn between two conflicting ideas brought about by her mother and peers. Is she a virginal saint, or a sexualized teenaged girl? She is neither and that is why the final scenes are so explosive.
Carrie is denied her true self by everyone around her. She is constantly pushed and pulled to be one thing or another. We see her alone in the library trying to learn about herself via telekineses. She is researching, on the verge of perhaps controlling or understanding her telekinetic power when she is rudely interrupted by Tommy inviting her to the prom. We see it instantly in her body language: when Tommy approaches she is reading studiously. The moment she notices his presence she clasps the books she’s holding to her chest and looks at the ground, fearful and meek. No one who attempts to ‘help’ Carrie has any idea who she is.
In the final scenes Carrie appears to have bought into the teenaged ideal. The cinematography becomes colourful and dreamy, Carrie looks radiant and beautiful in her new dress. She smiles, she kisses Tommy, she is realizing the ideal and embracing it. When the blood falls on her, it is a reimagining of the first scene, but this time she is powerful. No longer is she crouched naked in a shower stall, but standing tall on a stage, drenched in the source of her power. In trying to deny her earthly power, her classmates unlock an unearthly power that engulfs them all. The pigs blood is also representational of her inability to truly thrive in the environment her classmates want her too. The ideal shattered, Carrie cloaked in blood, she destroys all that attempted to destroy her.
The real tragedy in this film is the denial of Carrie’s essential self. She is never allowed to be a whole person with her own wants and desires, she is never permitted her own opinions on her fate. The one time she stands up to her mother results in her mother trying to murder her. As a result she is forced to take her fate into her own hands, and by force.
I also wanted to talk bit about some elements of witchcraft and sacrifice. In order to procure the pigs blood, the teens perform what amounts to a blood sacrifice. They murder the pig, and use its blood to perform some ritualized humiliation. It backfires of course, their ill-intention leads to their deaths. They are, in essence, trying to harness a power which they know nothing about due to their ignorance.
The mother also performs elements of witchcraft through her religious zealotry. Invoking the gods, kneeling, praying, lighting candles. She tries to use her powers to destroy Carrie, much like the classmates, but it backfires on her the same way. Whereas people attempt to use rituals, spells, rhetoric, and social pressure to manipulate Carrie, Carrie uses her power only to protect herself.