By Samantha Vargas | May 10, 2021
Coming-of-age films often adorn rose-colored glasses onto our memories; romanticizing the 6 a.m. commute, early-morning swim period in gym class, and the trauma of trigonometry. Sure, most coming-of-age films may delve into the ideas of bullying, isolation, and the insecurities of puberty, but rarely do they go beyond the precipice of teenage angst. These films need to introduce conflict that can be overcome by regular teenagers, through regular means. Anything beyond the realm of an after-school special crosses the line of achievable conflict resolution without adult interference. All teenagers want to feel empowered; they don’t want to watch their parent’s solve their problems. But when conflict surpasses what teenager’s can control, the result can be deadly.
There’s an unspoken tonal dissonance felt while watching Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the titular teenage anti-hero of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), reapply mascara in the broken mirror of her dimly lit bedroom before leaving for prom. The audience watches as she allows herself to be overcome with confidence — if just for a fleeting second — as the camera zooms out to reveal her domineering, abusive mother lingering just out of sight. As quickly as we’ve been eased by the prospect of a classic coming-of-age film makeover, Margret White (Piper Laurie) violently pulls us from our teenage fantasies.
As an audience, we experience the realities of Carrie’s torment alongside her. We know better than to find relief in her childlike excitement. When Margret White proclaims, “They’re all gonna laugh at you,” we know that Carrie is about to experience one of the worst realities of adolescence: finding out your mother was right.
Carrie exists as a horror film, allowing the apex of violence to overtake the entirety of the plot. While everyone may remember the prom scene for its visceral lighting and soundtrack, in this film, there are complex emotional layers stemming from years of abuse that all culminate into Carrie’s sudden, violent outburst. Our glimpse into Carrie’s high school experience acts as a microcosm of all the anxieties teenagers face. Not only was she blindsided by the emotional turmoil of puberty, but she’s also subjected to blatant hatred and isolation from everyone in her life. Unlike horror icons like Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street) or Jason Voorhees (Halloween), Carrie wasn’t initially framed as a monster.
Still, there’s something to be said about the film’s ability to evoke a sense of unyielding cynicism in regards to its characters. Carrie sets out to explore far more than a complicated mother-daughter relationship. It’s not often that coming-of-age films intersect with the horror genre, but Carrie has maintained its place on the throne of cultural relevance for the last five decades. The film presents a unique take on the story of girlhood, centered around a social lightning rod that’s slowly building in power. Carrie, a social outcast with telekinetic abilities, has been transformed into a symbol of the horror genre, condemned to be seen as a monster. But the actual framing of the film presents Carrie as a victim of a cruel, cynical world.
Our introduction to Carrie begins as a zoom-in shot of a volleyball game during gym class. At first, there aren’t any visual indicators that single out Carrie from the rest of her peers. But when she misses the ball we witness the relentless bullying she faces from all the girls in her class. She’s subjected to physical violence, comments berating her abilities, blatant insults, and of course, the memorable request to “eat s–t.” Then, De Palma intentionally creates tension by sandwiching frames of violence with scenes of idealization, as the scene cuts to the notoriously sensual locker room scene, accompanied by hazy pink lights and a flute solo. The scene plays out like the textbook definition of the male gaze as it pans through rows of naked teenage girls. The camera moves slowly enough for the young women’s bodies to fully envelope the scene, yet quickly enough to prevent the audience from associating the bodies with the actual characters. As the girl’s are objectified by the camera, captured in their most vulnerable, disembodied state, there’s a contentious undertone to the pornographic imagery on screen. We watch as the girls laugh and joke around with each other, fully disconnected from the realities of insecurity and the perception of their own cruel actions. Then suddenly, we’re ripped away from our brief moments of ease when confronted by Carrie’s first period.
Carrie’s first period is the catalyst for the massacre that overtakes the cultural identity of the film. Her period, a long-standing symbol for womanhood and female sexuality, is the breaking point for Carrie’s sense of control and stability. The arrival of her period cuts through the softness of the locker room scene, turning the softcore 70s exploitation into an anxiety-ridden nightmare scenario. The camera slowly pans around Carrie’s nude body as she washes herself in the shower until it reaches her hips. When Carrie finally notices the blood, she reacts as if she earnestly believes she is in danger. When she runs to the other girls for help, she is in her rawest, most vulnerable state. Yet, the other girls choose to respond with overwhelming violence and abuse. This scene parallels the violent prom scene, but the tables turn on the perpetrators of Carrie’s initial torment.
De Palma chose to use a definitive narrative technique through sandwiching scenes with opposite tones to visually and audibly distinguish the conflict between a romanticized teenage fantasy and a grim, cynical reality. Whether it’s the sexualized softness of the girls’ locker room scene or the lighthearted shopping montage, the audience knows to be wary of anything bathed in soft light and accompanied by an upbeat soundtrack. From the very beginning of the film, De Palma blatantly juxtaposes the idealization that audiences expect to see from a coming-of-age film and capitalizes on developing distrust in response to every positive, cinematic moment. These scenes are often paired directly in conversation with each other; seen when Carrie accepts Tommy’s invite to the prom, followed directly by the scene of Chris and Billy slaughtering a pig. The romanticization of positive adolescent experiences create a further divide from the painful, grim realities of high school girlhood.
Carrie acts as a commentary on the representation of teenagers through a male gaze, working under the same general visual cues as American Beauty sans Kevin Spacey. Teenage mean girls like Regina George or Blair Waldorf might lay into someone’s insecurities or even enact cruel pranks around a doe-eyed protagonist’s love-life, but rarely do these mean-spirited acts lead to actual violence. But Carrie sets out to create the kind of reality that most high school students can’t even fathom. Characters like Chris Hargensen, who gleefully smiles while watching her boyfriend beat a pig to death in order to carry out her cruel prank, don’t exist on the same level as girls that run cliques. Even Sue Snell, the kindest of the mean girls, still joined in the ruthless locker room torment.
Still, Carrie’s characterization doesn’t follow the typical, relatable teen-girl mold that audiences have come to expect. She isn’t written to be the shy, quirky girl who fills her free time making art or studying extra hard to get into her dream college. In fact, her interests, aspirations, and long-term goals are never actually explored at all. We know Carrie wants to fit in, but other than gain social acceptance, she doesn’t exist outside of the confines of her high school torment. In the realm of this film, Carrie simply exists to suffer, react, and then eventually burn out.
Carrie is a lesson in empathy in the fight against high school cynicism. As an audience, we watched as the world labeled Carrie as a monster. Yet, while watching the film, we don’t fear her until it’s too late. We want to believe that she’s in control of her powers, but that means we sacrifice remembering that she’s still a teenage girl. Carrie isn’t the ruthless, bloodthirsty monster that she inevitably becomes, but the rest of the world is.