The Post-Columbine ‘Carrie’

By  · Published on October 22nd, 2013

In contrast to Stephen King’s famous tomes The Stand, The Shining, and It, the author’s breakthrough novel ‐ 1974’s “Carrie” ‐ is relatively fit for adaptation as a feature-length film due to its various publications rarely running over two hundred pages. That said, beyond the usual acts of restructuring typical of Hollywood treatments, the movie versions of Carrie White’s story have stopped short of recreating the third section of King’s novel, “Aftermath.” Thus, they forego the subsequent history of a town that must physically and psychologically rebuild itself after an unfathomable tragedy.

This section of King’s novel surveys the systemic long-term reactions to the Carrie incident: the development of scientific research and social programs for telekinetics, the slow rebuilding of a small town, and, naturally, a nation’s serious look in the mirror on the subject of high school bullying.

While such a vast third act rarely takes shape in Carrie films, it’s the act that we’re collectively most familiar with when it comes to national news stories about young people, violence, and the ever-persistent phantom of bullying (still a term that resists a stable definition in school administrations), whether these real-life tragedies take the form of suicides or mass shootings.

The story of Carrie no doubt resonated with American audiences; the book solidified King’s literary name. The first adaptation was not only a smash hit, but was at the time the most well-received of Brian De Palma’s 1970s work. The image of Sissy Spacek covered in blood has since become an icon of popular culture and of horror cinema’s American canon.

Carrie’s legacy has thus been imbued with an aura of timelessness. Though the book has still regularly courted controversy, images associated with the film’s famous disaster-climax have been in regular rotation on basic cable every October without fail. The film has continued to widely circulate relatively untouched, even despite the final sequence’s potential to echo each new school shooting (another one happened just yesterday in Nevada), and even after many a teen suicide has taken place allegedly as a result of humiliations similar to those that Carrie suffers through.

Rage and American Life

Two productive contrasts illustrate how surprisingly un-controversial the Carrie narrative has become.

“Rage” ‐ King’s first book under the pseudonym Richard Bachman ‐ covers remarkably similar territory to Carrie, and was released just short of a year after the first film adaptation. “Rage” finds an armed high school student killing a teacher and taking his fellow students hostage, later psychologically manipulating them into a sort of Stockholm collective in which he becomes their leader. As with Carrie’s relationship to her abusive fundamentalist mother, memories of parent-child dysfunction undergird the male protagonist’s sociopathy.

Several real-life events subsequently took place that resemble the plot of “Rage,” culminating in a 1997 shooting in Kentucky in which the assailant kept the book in his locker. King then allowed “Rage” to go out of print, and had the following to say about the incident when he gave the keynote address at the Vermont Library Conference in May 1999, just one month after the Columbine shooting:

“There are factors in the [1997] case which make it doubtful that “Rage” was the defining factor, but I fully recognize that it is in my own self-interest to feel just that way; that I am prejudiced in my own behalf. I also recognize the fact that a novel such as “Rage” may act as an accelerant on a troubled mind; one cannot divorce the presence of my book in that kid’s locker from what he did any more than one can divorce the gruesome sex-murders committed by Ted Bundy from his extensive collection of bondage-oriented porno magazines. To argue free speech in the face of such an obvious linkage (or to suggest that others may obtain a catharsis from such material which allows them to be atrocious only in their fantasies) seems to me immoral.

That such stories, video games ([Columbine shooter Eric] Harris was fond of a violent computer-shootout game called “Doom”), or photographic scenarios will exist no matter what ‐ that they will be obtainable under the counter if not over it ‐ begs the question. The point is that I don’t want to be a part of it. Once I knew what had happened, I pulled the ejection-seat lever on that particular piece of work. I withdrew “Rage,” and I did it with relief rather than regret.

If, on the other hand, you were to ask me if the presence of potentially unstable or homicidal persons makes it immoral to write a novel or make a movie in which violence plays a part, I would say absolutely not. In most cases, I have no patience with such reasoning. I reject it as both bad thinking and bad morals. Like it or not, violence is a part of life and a unique part of American life. If accused of being part of the problem, my response is the time-honored reporter’s answer: ‘Hey, many, I don’t make the news, I just report it.’”

King also made mention of his books Apt Pupil and Carrie during this speech, both of which had been recently adapted into films at this time. In March 1999, slightly over a month before the Columbine shootings, MGM released the curiously titled The Rage: Carrie 2, an unremarkable and unmemorable remake-as-sequel about a high school senior named Rachael who shares with Carrie a biological father, telekinetic powers, and regular subjugation in the tormenting hallways of a clique-filled school. The film was not altogether unseen: it made its debut at #2 and went on to gross $17M (roughly $28M in 2013 dollars).

Though Carrie 2 depicted a high school student committing a violent massacre against her peers, politicians’ and lobbyists’ post-Columbine scapegoat du jour was The Matrix and its nu-metal soundtrack (it’s worth noting here that Carrie 2 released an absolutely awful soundtrack featuring lesser-knowns from the exact same genre).

Parents and institutions blamed The Matrix for the tragedy because the shooters had an affinity for trench coats. They blamed Marilyn Manson because one shooter was allegedly a fan. That a recently released Carrie film didn’t even make it onto the radar much less into the growing pile of convenient entertainment targets, most likely speaks to the short term memory of any media circus. However, it also contributes to the fact that the Carrie narrative has been relatively normalized and accepted (if not treated all that seriously) in contemporary culture.

The Bucket Over Our Heads

Several critics have remarked that Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie is a remake in the strictest, simplest sense ‐ it not only maintains the original film’s narrative skeleton, but recreates detailed sequences and particular lines of dialogue. Critics have argued that this aspect makes the adaptation all the more unnecessary. I won’t disagree (also: what’s a necessary remake?), but I will add that perhaps Carrie seems more approximate to us than 1976 (or other horror adaptations) specifically because the film and its iconography continue to circle through American culture; the original Carrie adaptation still feels recent because we are still so familiar with every beat that the remake imitates.

But even while the lives of American youth seem to be threatened by more violence than in 1976, why does Carrie not only continue to resonate, but do so while passing as multiplex-ready entertainment?

As Carol J. Clover points out in the introduction (direct link) of her canonical book “Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender and the Modern Horror Film,” 1976’s Carrie decidedly posited a particularly feminine form of peer subjugation at the center of a largely male-defined genre.

For Clover, Carrie is the prototypical “female victim-hero” of 1970s American horror cinema, simultaneously occupying the position of standing affected by the monstrosity of others (her mother, her schoolmates, her principal) while later becoming a monster herself in response to that victimhood. Carrie defeats the monstrous forces that tortured her, but she does so excessively, painting a violently liberated yet profoundly ambivalent character rooted in considerable audience identification. Her weapon is not a phallic gun like the male protagonist of “Rage,” but a powerful projection outward of the overwhelming, undeterred distress she was forced to experience inward. She does so, after all, while covered in blood ‐ her first source of ridicule as a young woman.

Carrie is, in short, a deeply cathartic revenge fantasy whose emotional draw is articulated rather clearly through gender dynamics. While these gender dynamics are so deeply rooted in the seemingly unerring social structures and identity-formation-processes of high school (after all, Carrie enters her rage when being barred from participating in a specifically feminine high school ritual), Carrie is not necessarily a timeless text. It struck me watching Peirce’s remake that Carrie’s mother’s house was basically stuck in 1976, devoid of any 21st century object and exhaustively devoted to a form of fundamentalist Christianity unrecognizable in the context of the Moral Majority that has been ever-present in American life since Reaganism (Margaret White’s birthing politics, for example).

But the new Carrie does include some fitting updates, with a brief mention of Carrie’s former homeschooling and a sequence where Carrie discovers the Internet (which may have been a source for friends had things turned out differently). More importantly, though, Peirce’s Carrie is updated for the era of Cyberbullying, and Carrie’s tampon torture is attended with the threat of wider public shaming through a viral video.

The bullying that Carrie endures may be an unjustifiably “universal” experience (which is why the story resonates so strongly), but it has only very recently become a uniquely public phenomenon that we continue to struggle navigating. So while the Carrie remake may be unnecessary, it need not be unwarranted. Because of deplorable real-life events like the recent suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, we’re well aware of the “Aftermath” act of high school tragedies. Maybe then, there’s a poignant reason that we need to continually revisit other parts of this iconic fiction.