Under the Skin: The Exalted Horror of Carrie by Emily Edwards

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I first heard the plot of Carrie whispered at a slumber party. I was terrified of horror movies — I covered my ears at what my friend deemed “the scary part.” It took years and years for me to watch it. I had myself convinced the atrocities would live in the recesses of my brain forever. Although I’ll admit I didn’t find it that “scary” when I finally pressed play, in a way it did stay with me forever. I couldn’t forget the bloodbath, I couldn’t forget the way Sissy Spacek said “mama,” I couldn't forget the soft hues and screaming score. It was perfect, and I absolutely loved it.

I still don’t have a great relationship with “scary movies”: I never wanted to see the world as any more horrific than it already is. So what was different about Carrie? To say it was the “girl power” of it all feels flat, and does a disservice to just how wild and perverse the film ends up being. Perhaps it was the over-dramatized horror that is the humiliation of high school, and Carrie’s ultimate revenge? It was likely important to me at the time to feel the possibility that I had power to enact. But really, if I had to put a label on it, I think it simply came down to the blood. 

The first time we see blood in Carrie, it’s an eroticized shower scene starring a girl’s gym locker room and a sudsy, blue bar of soap. Soft light, trilling score. Ah, to watch someone in a reverie of pleasure. The camera slides and we see blood begin to slip down her leg after that hard-working bar of soap hits the floor. Just for a moment, we, like Carrie, assume she’s hurt. She isn’t used to the blood, she isn’t used to the body horror yet. She collects the blood in her hands. She rushes forward, crying for help from any of her classmates, and they are shocked. She’s wiped blood all over their clothes (pristine, white gym shorts, of course), but none of them are horrified by the blood, they’re horrified by Carrie’s hysteria. From there unfolds the famous “plug it up!” scene that ends with a sobbing Carrie being consoled by the gym coach. After she’s cleaned up and hauled to the office, we see the gym teacher talking to the principal as he glances at her blood-stained gym shorts with a pale horror. She paces slowly behind him smoking a cigarette, hand akimbo, ranting about how something like this could happen. Even after being corrected, the principal can’t remember her name. Her humiliation continues.

After Chris, the school’s apparent Queen Bee, is banned from prom for pelting Carrie with tampons and pads, a plan is hatched and Carrie’s fate is sealed. The prom scene is a dazzling wonderland. Carrie is dressed in pale pink, her long strawberry-blonde hair falling around her face. The lights are soft and gauzy, and we’re left in rapture. Carrie is convinced to slow-dance with her date, Billy, and while we’re still wary that it’s simply another laugh at Carrie’s expense, this moment feels so tender. The camera spins around them as they dance, not stopping on either of their faces for even a moment. It’s disorienting, and almost dizzying. When Carrie’s name is announced for prom queen, we’re pulled from their tentative, trying kiss to hurtle her on stage. The bucket swings, the moment catches, and suddenly, there’s blood again. A thick wash of syrupy red dons Carrie in a new color. It drips from her hand in the same movement as the blood she lifted from her own body earlier. It settles on her formerly pink dress forcing it to cling to her frame. Her hair is matted and rigid, and her mouth is agape in shock. She hallucinates the room of students and teachers laughing and she loses all control. Finally, Carrie’s suppressed desire is front and center: she locks the doors, she crashes the lights, she sets the gymnasium ablaze. 

Humiliation lies at the core of high school’s humanity. What are we to do with girls who desire? Make them feel shame. At school, Carrie is tortured by a hierarchy of girls who find her demeanor and prudishness off putting, and at home she’s emotionally and physically abused by her religious zealot mother who believes sex is the ultimate sin. Her power (telekinetic & sexual) is feared and reviled by all. 

The lore goes that Stephen King detested the novel. He started it because his friend told him to write “a story about a female character” (how novel!). After he penned that opening shower scene, he threw the manuscript away and only revisited it once his wife, Tabitha, fished it from the garbage. Even when he did finish it, he deemed it a waste of time and was sure it wouldn't be marketable to any audience, within any genre… perhaps he too was afraid of the blood. 

So, we owe a great deal to Brian De Palma. The novel’s success boomed after the film adaptation came out. It became a New York Times Bestseller in December 1976 and stayed there for 14 weeks. As for the movie, it seemed to find a home as a horror classic. De Palma employs endless horror tropes: bloodbaths, flying knives, the sharp strings from Psycho. All things I never cared about. But in Carrie, it doesn’t feel rote…. It feels exalted. The blood isn’t just gore, it’s menstruation; it’s a sadistic prank born from the mind of a jilted popular girl. The flying knives are a power struggle between mother and daughter that ends in a crucified abuser. The strings that are used so sharply to incite fear are then slowed down and drawn out for a dreamy prom dance. The viewer feels each of these tensions, every shift in tone — just when we think we understand, we realize we don’t. What could better encapsulate the feeling of being a girl in high school?