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Stephen King's 'Carrie': Victim, Villain, or Hero?

A feminist reclamation of the homicidal teenage girl


The fate of teenage girls in horror seems to be written in blood. Mostly, they are victims. They die half-naked, after a good amount of screaming, and after some futile attempt to run away or fight back. The girls who are lucky enough to escape this fate become ‘final girls’, a term coined by Carol J Clover, which refers to the sole survivor of whatever killing spree took place. The final girl does not survive due to her problem-solving abilities or self-defence skills, but remains alive by a stroke of luck or last-minute rescue. Within this context of tropes, the 1974 novel Carrie by Stephen King is singular in its depiction of the teenage girl. How often does the teenage girl get to be the enactor of violence, instead of the sufferer of it? On this line of thinking, is there any way that we can reclaim Carrie as — and I shudder to use such cliché phrasing a feminist icon?


In both the 1976 and 2013 film adaptations, Carrie is characterised as a victim. The first on-screen act of cruelty happens against her, in the girls’ locker room; horrified to discover her period with no foreknowledge of menstruation, the other girls hurl tampons at her. Not only does this moment of sexual maturation become a terrifying event, it is one that is met without compassion. Alongside her awkward disposition and abusive mother, a viewer is led to sympathise with her until the story’s climax. When bullies dump blood on her at prom, in both films she seems to experience something of a psychological break, and so deliberately massacres her classmates. Victimhood transforms into villainhood as she vengefully responds to violence with violence. This legacy of monstrosity is cemented in both films’ endings, which show her gravestone reading, “Carrie White burns in Hell”. We, the viewers, are aligned with the grief and rage of the surviving townsfolk.


These adaptations, however, fail to stay true to the novel. The book doesn’t follow a single perspective, as is depicted in the films. It is epistolary fiction: an amalgamation of reports, articles, and interviews written long after the events of that infamous Prom Night, and Carrie’s death. Her intentions and feelings are thus fundamentally unknowable. Sue, the sole surviving classmate, seems to sympathise with her, claiming that her murder of their classmates was unintentional. Other parties, however, quite literally demonise her. The ambiguity surrounding the story and Carrie’s actions would be impossible to depict on-screen, at least in a single linear narrative. Therefore, these films that have popularised her character have contributed to a fundamentally misunderstood reading of her as a victim-turned-villain.


My question thus becomes: is it possible to read heroism in Carrie? Not for a second am I suggesting that murder is an appropriate way to deal with bullies. Yet, as a teenage girl within the horror genre, she subverts expectations. She is an underdog who stands up to abusers: gender-based violence typically wins out in horror narratives, but here Carrie becomes her own avenger. Sue, as a final girl, is spared due to her kindness towards Carrie, subverting the usual diametric opposition of killer and survivor. Perhaps the true face of evil is not in the teenage girl at breaking point, but in the classmates who verbally and physically tormented her, her mother who maltreated her, and the rest of the townsfolk who stood by and ignored her suffering.


Her ambiguities come from the complex politics behind the character’s construction. Published during the Women’s Liberation Movement, King has since reflected on his novel as “an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality”. Her telekinetic powers are invisible, growing in tandem with her maturation. Carrie possesses an unknowable and unstoppable power that allows her to refuse repression and exact retribution. King’s comment speaks to impressive self-awareness; this indefinable, violent figure may have been conceived as a nervous response to female empowerment. In the 21st century, however, it is perhaps time to reclaim her cultural legacy: no longer “crazy Carrie”, but the feminist solution to the powerless roles women have had to fill in the genre previously. Let us put a strikethrough “Carrie White burns in Hell”. On her gravestone, I write, with slight tongue-in-cheek, “Carrie White is the future of female equality”. In the horror genre, anyway!


Illustration by Hannah Beggerow

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