Carrie (1976) Explores Timeless Themes

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think–is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Carrie is a special horror movie for me because it was my first horror movie ever.  I can’t remember exactly how old I was. For a while after, I would insist on watching the movie, even though I would hide when the pig blood scene came up. 

Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Carrie is about a socially awkward teenager who is bullied by her classmates and abused by her fanatically religious mother at home. There’s something else about Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) that is different—she was born with telekinetic abilities. Her mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie) believes that Carrie is evil. Her peers think she’s a weirdo because of how meek and plain she is. Carrie has trouble relating to other people.

Because of her religious beliefs, Margaret White never told Carrie about menstruation. So, when Carrie gets her first period in the shower after gym class, she freaks out. As Carrie cries and begs for help, her classmates mock her instead. They throw tampons at her while chanting “Plug it up!” The gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) finds Carrie on the shower floor. Unable to console Carrie, Miss Collins slaps her. The light bulb overhead bursts and we see the first evidence of Carrie’s abilities.

Carrie looks up information on telekinesis and learns more about her abilities. One of Carrie’s classmates, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), convinces her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt) to invite Carrie to the prom. At first, Carrie refuses. Tommy won’t give up on her so she accepts.

After she tells her mother about Tommy inviting her to the prom, she and her mother argue. Carrie ends the argument when she uses her abilities which Margaret says are from the devil. Carrie says it’s not from the devil and tells her that other people can do it.

As Carrie and Tommy have a good time dancing and talking at the prom. However, while Sue and Tommy want to help Carrie, other classmates want to humiliate her.

Carrie covered in blood at the prom.
Carrie (Sissy Spacek) unleashed her rage.

The girls involved in the tampon incident were given detention. However, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) decides to rebel which results in her losing her prom tickets. So, Chris gets her boyfriend, Billy Nolan (John Travolta) and some of his friends together. They break into a pig farm, slaughter a pig, and collect its blood…for prom night.

Their classmates mess with the ballots to make sure that Carrie and Tommy are crowned prom king and queen. As Carrie and Tommy take center stage, Chris is under the stage ready to pull the rope attached to the bucket of blood. However, when Sue goes to check on how things are going at the prom, she notices the rope and the bucket. She sees the rope leading beneath the stage. Just as she’s about to foil Chris’s plot, Miss Collins sees Sue and thinks she’s there to ruin Carrie’s night. As she pulls Sue away from the stage, Chris pulls the rope. 

Pig’s blood rains down on Carrie and the metal bucket knocks Tommy out cold. Everyone starts to laugh. Carrie unleashes her rage, and all hell breaks loose.

Carrie is an important film for me for several reasons. I was bullied by my classmates throughout most of my 12 years in the public school system. So, I admit I was cheering for Carrie as she got her revenge on her tormentors at the prom. Fine, I have a dark side. Shouldn’t be a big surprise. I am a horror fan and horror writer. However, Carrie is a classic horror film for many reasons.

Carrie is the outsider in many of us.

Often, it’s said that horror appeals to outsiders. As someone who never fit in and someone who has a dreamy nature, stories about people with supernatural abilities appealed to me. I was drawn to stories of revenge and people with supernatural abilities who took control of their destinies. Horror is an escape. It was also food for thought for a budding writer’s mind. What if someone could have these abilities? If I did, what would I do?

Carrie explores the possibility of having the power within to take revenge on those who wronged you. However, would it solve all of your problems? For Carrie White, it became her undoing. It caused nothing but destruction. 

Sissy Spacek and Betty Buckley in a scene from Carrie (1976)
Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) has a talk with Carrie.

Carrie’s themes are unfortunately timeless. 

Bullying has always been an issue among children and teenagers. Unfortunately, it’s a also behavior adults engage in. Like many other issues, bullying is addressed more openly now than when I was in elementary and high school. I recall adults shrugged off bullying and saying, “They’re just kids. Kids will be kids. Kids are cruel.” Sometimes, the victim was blamed for the abuse. I grit my teeth as I recall people excusing bullies by saying things such as “Well, what do you expect? You are weird. It’s your own fault people pick on you,” or, “Why don’t you just try to be like the other kids?” Sure, it’s so simple, isn’t it? Instead of teaching acceptance, just force the otherwise harmless misfits to conform. 

Remakes of Carrie translate to current times since its themes are just as relevant now as they were during the ’70s. With the Internet, bullying has taken on new forms on social media. Unfortunately, there are incidents of cyberbullying that have ended with the victim’s suicide. 

Because its themes are still relevant, Carrie has had two reimaginings. Besides Brian DePalma’s 1976 adaptation, there was a made-for-TV mini-series starring Angela Bettis as the titular character. The 2013 remake, which stars Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as Carrie’s mother, Margaret White, is updated to include cyberbullying. Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) films the tampon incident on her phone and uploads it to YouTube.

Speaking about how Carrie’s story translates to current times, when looking into the story of Carrie more deeply I found that Stephen King’s novel is considered a “challenged” book. While not banned outright the book’s availability is limited. Some schools refused to have the book in their libraries.  According to the video, “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Carrie” by Minty Comedic Arts on YouTube, Carrie was written before the current era when school shootings were unheard of. After Columbine and subsequent school shootings, some schools are hesitant to allow students to read Carrie because Carrie commits a mass killing of her classmates at the prom.

Betty Buckley, William Katt, and Amy Irving in a scene from Carrie.
Miss Collins demands to know what Tommy Ross (William Katt) and Sue Snell (Amy Irving) are up to after she hears that Tommy asked Carrie to the prom.

Carrie has left an indelible mark on the horror genre.

Carrie established a trope of the teen girl who develops supernatural powers or abilities. Many horror films, such as Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body have since used supernatural powers as a metaphor for adolescence. In Ginger Snaps, Ginger Fitzgerald transforms into a werewolf after the onset of her first period. In Jennifer’s Body, the titular character’s body is inhabited by a flesh-eating demon who targets boys.

Carrie getting her first period is the catalyst that sets off the events of the story. Her power continues to grow as she beings to assert her independence at home. She’s no longer helpless, using her powers to cause all of the windows to slam shut as she argues with her mother about going to the prom. As she is moving towards physical adulthood, she’s asserting herself more and using her powers to do so. She uses her powers to push her mother back onto the bed in her room after her mother begs her to burn the dress and not go to the prom. As the final prank is pulled, she unleashes the full force of her abilities in a room full of her tormentors.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) wields a kitchen knife with a serene smile.
Margaret White (Piper Laurie) wears a serene smile as she lifts a knife to kill Carrie.

As dated as it is, nothing tops the original. 

Sissy Spacek was the perfect Carrie. Her performance is both sympathetic and tragic as well as frightening. She evokes sympathy even after she unleashes her rage on her classmates. Spacek is convincing as the socially awkward teenager who just wants to be herself and be loved.

Before Spacek, other actresses considered for the role were Linda Blair, Jodie Foster, and Melanie Griffith. Director Brian DiPalma didn’t want Spacek for the role at first. According to a 2020 Screen Rant article, “10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Making of Carrie (1976),”  DiPalma originally cast Amy Irving as Carrie. Spacek’s husband, Jack Fisk, who was working as a production designer on the film, suggested that his wife audition for the role. For her audition, Spacek put Vaseline in her hair and wore an old blue sailor dress that her mother made for her (that she did wear in the film). After Spacek auditioned, DiPalma shifted the cast around. Amy Irving was cast as Sue Snell and Nancy Allen, originally cast as Sue Snell, was cast as Chris Hargensen.  

Spacek threw herself into the role and reportedly stayed in character during the entire time the movie was shot. She even isolated herself from her cast members. On the set, Spacek kept to herself in her trailer, surrounded by religious imagery and items, including Gustave Dore’s illustrated Bible.

Piper Laurie was convincingly insane and genuinely disturbing as Margaret White. As she rages, demanding Carrie repeat biblical passages and phrases such as “Eve was weak,” I want to cringe and hide in my own closet. The expression on Laurie’s face as she comes down the stairs with a kitchen knife for the final confrontation still gives me chills. It’s an expression of serenity and peaceful happiness that contrasts with the threat of violence posed by the knife in her hand. According to “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Carrie,” Laurie reportedly thought that the film was a comedy, a spoof, or a satire. She initially played Margaret White in a comedic role until DiPalma took her aside and told her that she needed to be scary. 

Carrie uses supernatural abilities to explore the timeless and relatable themes of adolescence, bullying, and being an outcast. Carrie’s telekinetic powers can be a metaphor for the anger and psychological trauma caused by abuse. The film had an influence seen in later films that explore supernatural powers featuring a teen girl as the main character. Let’s not forget memorable performances by both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. All of these points make Carrie the perfect revenge horror film.

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Written by MD Bastek

Just a person who loves horror and writes about unusual things

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