Primal Screams: Carrie by Stephen King

After the blood comes the boys.

Primal themes abound in the annals of horror and trash lit, but nowhere as dramatically as in Carrie by Stephen King. Part One of the novel, Blood Sport, begins with the infamous shower scene where chubby, pimply, colorless-haired, white trash Carrie White gets her period for the first time, releasing her latent telekinetic powers. It’s quite a set-up. In King’s excellent On Writing, he describes the eureka moment:

…I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room…And this one girl starts to have her period. Only she doesn’t know what it is, and the other girls—grossed out, horrified, amused—start pelting her with sanitary napkins…The girls begin to scream. All that blood! She thinks she’s dying, that the other girls are making fun of her even while she’s bleeding to death…she reacts…fights back…but how? 

I’d read an article in Life magazine some years before, suggesting that a at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena…There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers…especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first—

Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea.

I’m sure King, a high school English teacher at the time, realized that he was tapping into a teenage primal fear more terrifying than buckets of pigs’ blood: being the bullied victim. We all knew a Carrie: the scapegoat, the loser, the fat dummy with the wrong clothes and bad skin, who lived in a poor, smelly house (or trailer). Whether we lead the slaughter, merely snickered along with everyone else, or just walked away glad it wasn’t us, we all participated on some level.

high school bitches

Symbolizing our collective guilt over our treatment of the Carrie archetype is smug, good girl Sue Snell, serving up dreamboat Tommy as a sacrifice on the high school prom altar. If he had lived, it is implied, he might have just dumped boring Sue’s ass and started dating quirky and mysterious Carrie. The tragic romance of what could have been is one of the novel’s quieter, yet poignant themes–Cinderella at the grand guignol ball!

An interesting sub plot not covered in either film adaptation is Sue’s late period/symbolic pregnancy. She fools around with Tommy and her maybe pregnancy holds her hostage as being a not-so-nice girl, a big a slut as Chris, and a hypocrite who enjoyed throwing Tampax at Carrie in the shower. At the end of Book Two, after Carrie dies in her arms, Sue’s period starts. The blood is released and Sue is assuaged of the guilt and she is now free to pursue her future as a suburban matron.

Another primal theme that King masterfully articulates throughout the novel is revenge–every kid wants special powers with which to wreak vengeance on the gym class bully or homeroom bitch. It’s a powerful archetype, and the prom scene offers a satisfying catharsis for every schoolyard slight that linger deep within our psyches.

As a framing device, King uses a spattering of imaginary texts throughout the novel that lend credibility to the outlandish story in the form of reports, interviews, articles, books, and legal documents. Reading the book for the first time, one learns from one of these reports that something really bad happens, a tragedy resulting in the loss of many lives, the destruction of an entire town no less, and it all has something to do with Carrie and her telekinetic powers. The suspense builds as we read on to find out what happens. Of course, most of us reading the book today know exactly what happens, but it’s still a compelling read, a testament to King’s talent for characterization. The epistolary structure in the tradition of classic Gothic horror tales like Frankenstein gives literary merit to the trashy subject matter, putting King in a class by himself (along with Peter Straub). Few writers have his chops, and yet his success as a genre writer (plus a few cheeseball movie adaptations), have kept him from being taken seriously as a literary author.

But the tide seems to be turning on that front. If you stick around long enough you could end up like Brian De Palma (director of the first—and best–Carrie film), King’s equally prolific and undervalued bedfellow. In the 70’s and 80’s De Palma was a director of schlocky horror, drive-in movie fare, albeit with a lot of flare like cool split screens, slow motion tracking shots, Hitchcock homages, and those “gotcha” twist endings, but he was never quite respected among the New Hollywood elite. Today, his trashiest (and best) work is being touted as art films in many circles, and they deserve to be. As does King’s.

I have read quite a few of Stephen King’s early books; he’s written so many it’s hard to keep up. I did read his recent noir thriller Mr. Mercedes. He is without a doubt a master of his craft, peerless in his rich imagination and unique descriptions.

I enjoyed Mr. Mercedes, but it sure wasn’t as fun (trashy) as Carrie, which has a freedom from restraint that is perhaps the mark of a first novel. Some of the content is outrageous to say the least. I read on the Carrie Wikipedia page that it is the most book most banned in schools. That’s crazy! Those kids are precisely who should be reading it (just as my friends and I did in high school). I believe I was introduced to it in the late 1970’s after watching the heavily edited film version on television. After that I sought out the book and read it voraciously. I didn’t see the full De Palma film until I rented the VHS version from a video store and fell in love with it. I re-watch it every few years, just for fun.

I did check out the new film adaptation and it was as bad as the trailer promised it would be. Lacking pathos and melodrama, the film comes off as bland as a Lifetime Movie. Trashy subject matter thrives in the realm of high camp, not realism peppered with silly special effect death scenes. Compare the saturated colors and dramatic angles of De Palma’s to the new one. In the original film (and book) queen bitch, Chris is portrayed as a dangerous psychopath, as she would be for a high school victim. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, although not the physical description in the book, looks alternately strange and pretty, and her super skinny frame in the blood soaked prom dress is classic monster movie!

Sissy Specek as Carrie

De Palma clearly loved the genre. Former lover Margot Kidder claimed that whenever De Palma was depressed he went to see a horror film and instantly cheered up. I think fans of horror (and I’m certainly one) can relate to that. And I just love his gotcha endings – Dressed to Kill being the one of the best, and scariest.

The over-the-top-ness of Carrie is perfect material for De Palma—subtly is not his strong suit. He really goes for broke in his directing style, using red color washes straight out of Italian horror cinema, split screens, extreme close-ups, kalaedoscopes, 360 degree turns, and of course a lot of slow motion. He takes his time to give each character a unique death—using the fire hose to make quick work of the annoying red baseball cap girl, electrocuting the school principal, and practically cutting the nice gym teacher in half with a chunk of the ceiling. Then there’s the exploding car where Chris and Billy get their due. And of course, there is the great Piper Laurie playing Carrie’s mom, religious zealot Margaret White, playing it right along the razor’s edge of comedy–and it’s genius. Yes, she looks exactly like Christ on the cross when she dies, which was a shocker in itself at the time. Again, hitting us right where it hurts in the spot where all our hang-ups lie. This is exactly what horror should do. I wish the two men had collaborated more.

Carrie, the book and first movie, were both enormous successes that changed King’s life forever. He wife sunk to the floor with joy at the news that the book she had retrieved from the trashcan would be published, meaning she could quit her job at Dunkin Donuts. Every writer dreams about that kind of success, but few work as hard as King does, and he generously shared his writing tips in On Writing.  One, that he knocks out 1500 words before breakfast, seven days a week, and another, that he clearly writes more from character development than plot and advises aspiring writers to do the same.

The prom theme may change, but the primal themes endures elevating the over-the-top blood fest that is Carrie to classic status, and the prolific wordsmith the crown King in the high court of horror trash lit.




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