On November 3, 1976, “Carrie” opened in theaters. The supernatural horror film went on to garner two Academy Award nominations, including one for Sissy Spacek in the title role and another for Piper Laurie, as Carrie’s abusive mother, Margaret White. Directed by Brian De Palma, “Carrie” was the first of over 100 television programs and films to be made that are based on Stephen King’s writing. Although King intended the story to be a celebration of feminism, some critics view the film as one that opened up the floodgates for the misogynistic “slasher film” genre.
In the film, both the protagonist and antagonist is Carrie White. Her unhinged and religious fanatic mother, Margaret, emotionally and physically abuses her, as do her high school peers. Using her supernatural, telekinetic powers (activated when she gets her period for the first time), Carrie ultimately seeks a very bloody revenge on all of her tormentors at prom, and then her mother back home. The film is terrifying from the starting sequence in the girls locker room until the film’s shocking conclusion.
Aside from becoming the vehicle that launched Spacek to Hollywood stardom, the larger message of the film has been interpreted a number of different ways. Within the context of the 1970s, one can argue that “Carrie” reflected a growing fear from both men and women of the increasing power of women, thanks to the efforts of the feminist movement that began in the 1960s. However, King claimed he wrote the book, on which the film is based, to celebrate the power of women. Following that interpretation, one can argue that unlike other horror films where the women often run away from “crazed” men, Carrie is the character with agency, wreaking havoc on everyone else.
Despite these points, one can also view “Carrie” as yet another horror flick that brutalizes and exploits women, portraying them as witches and “menstrual monsters.” In the end, Carrie (and everyone around her), is punished when she becomes a “woman.” As the original movie poster phrased it, “If you’ve got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom.”
Another important theme in “Carrie” – the mother’s evangelism – reflected a growing trend in the United States. In 1976, the same year that “Carrie” was released, Gallup, Time and Newsweek all called it “The Year of the Evangelical.” In many ways, the conservative values of the Bible Belt were threatening the feminist movement that sought to liberate women from traditional roles in society. The conflict between Carrie and her mother can be interpreted as a physical manifestation of this cultural clash happening in America at the time.
Lofty film criticism aside, “Carrie” has earned an important place in American pop culture. For the past 40 years since its premiere, there have been unavoidable references to “Carrie” in other books, movies and TV shows. You probably know all about the film, even if you were always too scared to watch it yourself. There was a 2013 remake of the film by director Kimberly Peirce who set out to create a more feminist portrayal of the original story… and horror films continue to captivate audiences, making them the most popular box office genre in 2017.