Horror

The Women of Carrie – Revisiting Stephen King’s Landmark Horror Novel Fifty Years Later

For decades, Stephen King has been known as the Master of Horror. By now the prolific Maine author is a household name, known to genre fans and normies alike. He’s a central pillar of American folk horror and a major contributor to the modernization of genre fiction. But fifty years ago, Stephen King was a struggling writer hoping to sell his latest story to pay grocery bills and keep the lights on. In fact, notification that Doubleday would be publishing his first novel came via telegram because the Kings had recently disconnected the phone. That novel was Carrie, a shocking story of teenage power and adolescent cruelty. Like a cannonball tearing through the status quo, King would follow this impressive debut with the horror classics Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), and The Stand (1978) followed by more than seventy (and counting) novels, short story collections, and nonfiction works, dominating horror fiction for the next fifty years. But before it all came Carrie. At just shy of 250 pages, this semi-epistolary book sparked a literary fire that has been raging for half a century. 

By now Carrie White’s story has become an integral part of modern American folklore. The titular teen is an outcast, picked on by just about everyone at Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School. Her ultra-religious mother has hidden the concept of menstruation from her daughter and Carrie believes she is bleeding to death when she gets her first period after gym class. Horrified by this breach of unspoken protocol, her classmates hurl sanitary products and demeaning chants while Carrie lies screaming and bleeding on the shower room floor. To atone for her participation, soon-to-be prom queen Sue Snell gives Carrie the chance to attend the spring ball in her place. Unfortunately the vindictive Chris Hargensen refuses to allow her a moment of peace. She organizes a plot to drop pig’s blood on Carrie’s head the moment she’s crowned queen of the dance, completing her ruination for all to see. Humiliated for the last time, Carrie unleashes her righteous fury on the laughing students and causes an electrical fire that demolishes the school. She then destroys half the town on her journey home to reckon with her abusive mother. 

When most people think of Carrie, they see Sissy Spacek covered in blood with wide, terrifying eyes darting towards her victims. Others may remember Piper Laurie dying in a doorway, a variety of kitchen cutlery protruding from her chest. However iconic these moments may be, reading King’s novel is an experience both intimate and immersive. This nuanced story not only details Carrie’s destructive power, but the horrors of conformity, repression, and religious abuse. King demonstrates his trademark characterization right out of the gate with complicated heroes and villains alike. Roving narration bounces from character to character broken up by epistolary writing like news briefs, excerpts from faux scholarly accounts, and interviews with the prom’s few survivors. This format adds emotional impact and intensity, showing the world’s reaction to Carrie’s awesome power while unpacking the hidden sparks that ignite her rage. 

Set in 1979, the novel has a distinctly retro feel. Characters indulge in complexion-busting dime root beers and “worry about the bomb,” references teens of today would likely not understand. But at the time of publication, Carrie felt impossibly fresh. Describing King’s impact on the literary world, author Jeff VanderMeer writes, “Carrie changed the paradigm by announcing a very American form of horror that broke with the past. That process might’ve been ongoing anyway, but a lot of horror and weird fiction was still in a kind of post-MR James/Lovecraft mode of parchment and shadowy alleys and half-seen horrors, and here was King dropping buckets of blood over everything and making characterisation both more relaxed and more contemporary.” Carrie is a gruesome and violent story that digs into the heart of the American teen, placing life or death stakes on a phase of life usually dismissed as insignificant or frivolous. The students of Ewen High use crude slang, have sex in cars, and torment each other, exposing a slice of American life that feels unpretentious and real. 

This influential novel would precede a boom in teen horror as the slasher craze gathered steam. The year of Carrie’s publication would also see the release of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre followed in 1978 by John Carpenter’s Halloween – films which also center teenage girls. While neither of these genre titans can be directly traced back to Carrie, King’s novel helped to kick off a new era that would center women and expose the horrors of feminine life. The opening scene of King’s literary career begins with a girl getting her first period and awakening a feral rage in her female classmates. Despite his insecurities about telling this story (King’s wife Tabitha famously offered to help him with the details), the author’s willingness to write about the secret lives of women in such frank and unapologetic terms laid the groundwork for generations of female-centered horror. 

Carrie follows not one, but five complex female characters all vying for the spotlight. King treats each as a fully realized character, expanding our collective understanding of who and what women can be. Margaret White is a religious zealot, the first of many to appear in King’s novels. She tortures Carrie with her distorted brand of Christianity and routinely locks her daughter in a closet to pray for hours and sometimes days at a time. Margaret White abhors femininity and believes sexuality to be the root of all evil. While her treatment of Carrie is horrific, she carries intense guilt for her own sexual past and refuses to tell Carrie about menstruation because she believes it to be a marker of sin. Margaret is a cruel and violent woman, arguably the novel’s true villain. But her extreme fundamentalist beliefs echo modern evangelical teachings about a woman’s limited place in the world. 

Also battling for villain status is Chris Hargensen, possibly the first literary mean girl. Rich, beautiful, and cruel, she lives a charmed life and has grown accustomed to getting whatever she wants. Finally held accountable for her actions, Chris hatches a violent plan to dehumanize Carrie in front of the whole school. We’ve become so accustomed to this iconic moment and the extent of its aftermath that we often miss the severity of the “prank.” Not only does Chris cause the deaths of two hogs, one of the buckets bludgeons Carrie’s date, arguably killing him before the distraught teen remembers she has powers. Chris Hargensen is the story’s most viscous character with no mental illness or history of trauma to explain her actions. Like horror’s many male villains, she is simply a monster, allowed to be bad because that’s just who she is. 

Her boyfriend Billy is equally vile. This shop class greaser comes from a volatile home and cares for nothing but his car and a comb given to him by his long-departed father. King gives us several upsetting scenes with this violent couple, writing about sexual assault, manipulation, degredation, and hate. Billy is the first in a long line of bullies including fan favorites Buddy Repperton (Christine), Henry Bowers (It), and Ace Merrill (The Body, Needful Things). While King’s first masculine monster may be fascinating, this is Chris’s story. Billy is an immovable force that Chris crashes against as she uses all the tools in her female arsenal to prove her dominance. 

This soulless mean girl stands in sharp contrast to the introspective Sue Snell, the story’s most relatable character. Destined to be prom queen, this college-bound beauty participates in the shower room prank, but her intense guilt ignites the destructive conclusion. As high school winds to a close, Sue contemplates her place in the world along with the weight and privilege of her popularity. She finds herself loathsome and dreads a pro-conceived future in which she follows breadcrumbs of conformity to achieve someone else’s definition of success. It’s in these sections where the novel soars well beyond prom night horrors. Sue doesn’t know if she’s a hero or villain and struggles for identity on her own terms. She’s a cautionary tale for young girls trying to find their own paths in life and a challenge to the cultural norms of feminine ambition. 

Serving as a counterpoint to Margaret White is Miss Desjardin, a gym teacher who attempts to help Carrie twelve years too late. She breaks up the shower room incident and becomes the first woman on earth to earnestly help Carrie heal. As a teacher, she has a responsibility to this frightened girl and steps into the role of surrogate mother. However, she remains blind to the breadth of Carrie’s situation and struggles with the same repulsion Sue and Chris feel when confronted by the girl’s helplessness. Miss Desjardin rages at her students on Carrie’s behalf, but where was this passion earlier in the year? Perhaps the young teacher is trying to atone for actions in her own past or alleviate her guilt at not having stepped in sooner. Regardless of motive, the well-meaning gym teacher is one piece of a system that has failed Carrie at every turn. By letting one child slip through the cracks, Miss Desjardin has played an unwitting role in the school’s total destruction. 

Carrie

The novel may be named for Margaret White’s only daughter, but we meet this shy loner through the eyes of others. We’re introduced to Carrie as an outcast, a freak, and a telekinetic murderer before we get to know the girl inside this downtrodden shell. Despite repeated attempts to fit in, Carrie has been so mercilessly teased and abused that she barely sees herself as a person at all. Remembering the moment of her doomed coronation, a surviving classmate recalls, “It was as if we were watching a person rejoin the human race.” But this outward redemption is immediately stripped away, awakening a bottomless pit of rage that cannot be contained. 

King describes the horror of Carrie’s destruction before allowing us into the mind of this tortured teen. So used to cowering at the hands of her classmates, Carrie first stumbles out of the gym and collapses on the lawn. In a chilling moment, she remembers her recently discovered powers and turns back to make her tormentors pay. It’s a powerful example of a victimized girl taking a stand. Before her mind can catch up, Carrie’s body finds a way to fight back and overrides a deeply entrenched belief that she exists to pay for others’ sins. She reverses a lifetime of abuse and lays waste to a system built on pushing her down. It’s an intensely satisfying sequence and possibly the birth of Good For Her horror. 

King centers these five women in the story, adding occasional moments with male characters. Billy takes center stage for a brief moment, becoming monstrously beautiful in his calculated violence. Sue’s boyfriend Tommy is a loveable martyr always willing to lend a helping hand. Principal Grayle also gets a moment to shine when he goes toe to toe with Chris’s litigious father. Along with Miss Desjardin, he’s one of the only people we see fight for Carrie. This confrontation is simultaneously heartwarming and bittersweet, reminding us that hundreds of lives could have been saved if just one person had stepped in sooner. 

But the heart of King’s story lies with its complex women. While certainly not the first horror novel to take the experience of girlhood seriously, reading Carrie feels like the birth of a revolution. By centering menstruation, female sexuality, patriarchal expectations, and religious gender norms, King is writing about matriarchal horror and the price of feminine power. There are no winners in this story of bloody revenge. Nearly everyone loses their lives in Carrie’s righteous fire. But a cautionary tale is born in the flames. King implies that a world designed to repress and control will eventually fail. At some point, women like Carrie will take a stand and unleash the power of our feminine rage. We may cause untold death and destruction in the process, but perhaps Carrie’s right. Maybe a world built on the repression of girls deserves to burn.  

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