Essays · Movies

‘Carrie’ and the Potential for Horror in Realism

‘Carrie’ doesn’t need much to be terrifying. All it needs is reality.
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By  · Published on April 8th, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we look at how Carrie mines horror from real life.

When there’s an author as prolific as Stephen King, constantly creating new nightmares for the page, it makes sense that his work is often being adapted for the screen. And what a slate of adaptations we’ve gotten over the decades: commercial hits, classics, Oscar contenders, TV series, sequels, remakes — the works! They won’t be slowing down any time soon, either. But there’ll always be just one movie that started it all: Carrie.

Based on King’s debut novel of the same name from 1974, the 1976 film tells the story of high schooler Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a bona fide misfit who we meet on the unfortunate day of her first period. She is so shocked by the sight of her blood that she yells for help in the girls’ locker room, only to be met with taunting faces led by it girl Chris (Nancy Allen). This emotion-filled event leads Carrie to discover that she has telekinetic powers, which naturally results in a prom littered with blood and fire and corpses.

But fire and death aren’t the scariest parts of this horror story. Rather, it’s the intense realism that rests at the film’s horrifying core. Carrie immediately garners the audience’s sympathy as someone who just doesn’t fit in. We meet her in high school (a notoriously terrifying place) trying to fit in with a group that rejects her completely. She’s bullied, but she’s not a bummer of a character. Spacek never lets Carrie feel like a bitter teen, instead capitalizing on her doe-eyes to make Carrie feel like someone who is one friend and a little self-esteem away from being an optimistic ray of sunshine. Save for the telekinesis, she’s the last person you’d expect a horror story to revolve around.

Further subverting our expectations for horror, we see Carrie facing blood as a sign of her growing up before it becomes a sign of death. Who could blame her for her reaction? Growing up is a scary thing, especially when it makes your body alien to you. Her telekinetic powers manifest as the result of understandable anger (seriously Principal Morton? She definitely said her name wasn’t Cassie), not rampant fury. The poor girl’s mother (Piper Laurie) throws her in a prayer closet for having her period. These aren’t horror beats creating a monster; they feel more like the emotional beats used to set up a misunderstood superhero manifesting their powers. We sympathize with Carrie because her feelings stem from relatable, real-world obstacles. Clearly, this girl just deserves to catch a break.

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The film seems to think this, too. Apart from Carrie’s library research on telekinesis, much of the film’s second act is dedicated to giving her the break she deserves. It plays out like the last act of a coming-of-age film: with her gym teacher (Betty Buckley) and a popular girl, Sue (Amy Irving), looking out for her, Carrie gets a date to the prom, stands up to her mother, and is crowned prom queen.

Sure, Chris is developing a pigs-blood related prank on the side of all of this, but knowing what Carrie goes through on a daily basis, the good in her life far outweighs the bad, and the film makes sure we’re happy for her by focusing almost exclusively on the good. We’re not watching the horror film Carrie; we’re watching the rare film where good people help the misfit fit in.

So she gets the guy, puts some curls in her hair, and gets the coveted prom queen crown. Her happiness swells as she dances with her date and walks to the stage in slow motion, a genuine smile plastered on her face. For anyone who was that misfit, it feels good to see this story play out the way we always knew it should. High school’s tough, both in the moment and in our memories, but Carrie is presenting us with a way to avoid experiencing that struggle. It’s presenting a happy ending.

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Until it isn’t. The pigs’ blood is dumped on Carrie moments after she accepts her crown and the bucket falls on her prince charming’s head, killing him. Doused in blood, a symbol of an alien body in a different way, Carrie loses it. Blood. Fire. Corpses. Spacek’s doe eyes are eerily blank, her gaze turning toward anything that Carrie’s telekinesis can weaponize — closed doors here, a fire hose let loose there. People run around in chaos as Carrie stands perfectly still, observing the wreckage. Spacek, before exuding sympathy, is now a woman possessed.

The sequence thrives because it’s horrifying in concept. Just when Carrie gets her deserved happy ending, she is forced to realize that she is different. She doesn’t fit in. She’s othered. It’s almost cruel for the film to rip a happy ending from the audience like that, but it sure is effective. The film that seemed to forget it was a horror story suddenly overflows with it, using the audience’s hopes against them to mix sympathy with shock and terror, creating a witch’s brew of horror.

The filmmakers know not to get in the way of that conceptual horror. The scene isn’t the most outrageous thing you’ve ever seen. There are no beams in the sky or CGI transformations. Some doors close, a fire hose moves, there’s a pile of bodies— just enough to visually complement the conceptual horror the film has so masterfully set up. A lesser film might have felt the need to give Carrie more of a physical transformation, capitalizing on the power of effects, but Carrie knows that Spacek doesn’t need it. She has a far more layered portrayal in mind, transforming Carrie into a still somehow sympathetic character who was pushed one step too far.

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As she locks the door on the burning gym, Carrie unleashes her torment on Chris and, later, on her mother. They’re awful characters, possibly deserving of their ends, but Carrie is straight-up scary, both in her murderous actions and as a concept. She’s a walking coming-of-age story gone horribly wrong. She’s the opposite of the optimistic story you’re supposed to believe is possible, and the worst part is how close she came to being a success story.

King is no stranger to realism. Like Carrie, some of his biggest hits are real terrors that he’s put a twist on: addiction and isolation in The Shining, reverting to childhood in It, and evading death in Pet Sematary. Maybe it’s this grain of realism in these horror stories that keep us coming back for more King adaptations. Maybe we just like blood, fire, and corpses. Whatever it is, keep ‘em coming!

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Studies film and its relation to society at NYU Gallatin. Still hurt that 'The Florida Project' got snubbed.