Carrie is an iconic horror story that just about everybody knows the ending to. I think even before I saw the movie as a teenager, I knew what happened - that image of a blood-drenched Sissy Spacek framed against a wall of fire is so pervasive in pop culture it's hard to escape that knowledge. So it's to Stephen King's credit that, even for a reader armed with an awareness of exactly what's going to go down, Carrie remains a compelling, engaging and suspenseful page-turner.
A large part of this, I think, is due to the figure of Carrie herself. Although she is responsible (spoiler warning if you've been living under a rock) for the death of hundreds of people, she is no monster. She's not even a Frankenstein's monster - sympathetic, but a monster nonetheless. She's actually incredibly human; a real (albeit strangely gifted) person who has been pushed and pulled and ground down and hurt for her entire life. Abused at home and abused at school, Carrie has no escape, until Sue and Tommy offer her a lifeline. It's no wonder then that when that lifeline appears to her to actually be a trap, she snaps. It's a very human reaction. We've all known someone like Carrie - or felt like her at some point. Without, you know, the whole telekinesis thing.
Indeed, for me, one of the most horrific parts of the book was at the very beginning, in the infamous shower scene. Carrie is the victim here, and the screaming, screeching girls around her are terrifying - but not because they are monsters. They are human too, having a very visceral reaction to Carrie's menarche. While sympathising with Carrie, the reader - like the teacher in the scene - is also disturbed by her. We recognise that the girls are being horrible, but again, like the teacher, we can understand their reaction. And that is what makes it so frightening - it reflects the monsters that are within us all, providing a critique of our discomfort with female sexuality as a society.
It's significant that it's Carrie's period that unlocks her telekinectic abilities. It gives her power and the ability to finally stand up for herself. King is careful to maintain sympathy with Carrie through to the very end. Even in the midst of her rampage, we have Sue, who has more right than anyone to be horrified by Carrie, reminding us that she was just a girl - an innocent girl, even, who was mistreated by the whole community in some way or another. There is a definite sense that prom night is a fateful evening - that the people of the town signed their own death warrants by their nasty actions. Even while you recoil in horror at the gruesome events on the page, there's an undercurrent of vindication. After a lifetime of being forgotten at best and attacked at worst, Carrie's name is literally on everyone's minds. She will no longer be ignored. It's the ultimate revenge against a society that seeks to control and repress female power.
Spoilery Talking Points
- There's one part of Carrie that still kinda has me puzzled. Sue, worried that she may be pregnant, connects with Carrie in her final moments. Immediately after, she starts bleeding. It was unclear to me whether she had a miscarriage or just finally got her period. Was Carrie enacting a final attempt at destruction, or salvation? Was she hurting Sue or helping her? I started thinking about the connection between Carrie's period at the beginning and Sue's bleeding at the end. I thought perhaps it was significant that Sue has finally experienced how Carrie felt the whole time - she sees into her mind, and then she bleeds. Sue is left, the sole survivor, to carry on. Was Carrie passing her the "torch"? I guess it's open to interpretation. I still haven't decided myself.
- The one death I was really sad about was Tommy's. I thought he was a great character, and really likable. Interestingly, he died not at Carrie's hands but at Chris and Billy's. Poor Tommy. Poor Carrie!